Jul 21, 2017At Their Fingertips
This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
When it comes to sports nutrition here at UCLA, we are constantly experimenting with strategies to get through to athletes. Some approaches work better than others, and we are always on the lookout for new ideas.
A glance across campus set the gears in motion for one of our most recent endeavors. Walk across any quad at UCLA, and you will find most of the students listening to music, texting, or checking their social media accounts on their smartphones. Since college students are the most web-savvy, app-friendly generation yet, one of the most effective ways to get information to them is through their phones. This led us to wonder: “What if we could harness that power for sports nutrition?”
Turns out, we could! We first heard about the benefits of a nutrition education mobile app from colleagues at other schools. And after collecting content and working with a development company, we were able to launch our very own “Fueling Bruins” app in March 2016.
Despite some initial technological trepidation, the process was easier than I expected and could be replicated at other schools with the right resources. So far, the app has been a big hit with our student-athletes, and we are excited to expand its content and reach.
I got the original idea for the Fueling Bruins app after hearing about two similar sports nutrition apps that were developed at Auburn University and the University of Kansas. I reached out to the sports nutrition directors at those schools to start gathering tips on how to build such a useful tool. Both were extremely helpful and willing to share some insight into their work.
With the launch of the app, we wanted to provide athletes with the most information possible for when they were making food choices on their own… For this reason, we developed two main features of the app: the “Dining In” and “Dining Out” sections.
After I got the ball rolling with the idea, I had to get my administration’s approval before I could proceed further. This wasn’t difficult at all. I simply showed them Kansas’ app and shared my thoughts on how we could tailor it to UCLA, and they were immediately on board. We agreed to fund the app through our Performance Nutrition budget.
Next came building the app. Through the recommendations of my colleagues at Kansas, I was eventually connected with a company called eCongruity to handle the technological aspects of getting the app together.
In the beginning, my eCongruity rep and I had several conference calls to brainstorm how the app should function, and we set up mock designs to experiment with what it should look like. Once I had pooled all of the content for the app on my end, I submitted it to eCongruity via a Microsoft Word document. From there, we had a handful of additional conference calls and e-mail exchanges to hammer out any remaining details, and the first demo for the app was created about two months later.
I was able to access the demo on my personal phone and iPad. This allowed my staff and me to play around with its features to ensure they worked properly, portrayed the message we intended, and were ready for the athletes to use. At this stage, the only changes we made involved fixing grammatical errors and shuffling around some of the buttons in the menu tab.
After a second demo, the content was ready to go. It was officially launched for our student-athletes as a free download in the Apple and Android app stores in March 2016. All in all, the development process was very smooth and went much faster than I had anticipated.
Our base fee to build and launch the app with eCongruity was $7,500. However, after a few months of the app running live, we signed a yearlong contract that allows us to launch four updates on a quarterly rotation from December 2016 through December 2017. This cost $3,000 and was also funded through our Performance Nutrition budget.
With the launch of the app, we wanted to provide athletes with the most information possible for when they were making food choices on their own — when cooking a meal for themselves or eating at a restaurant in Westwood (the area of Los Angeles in which our campus is located). For this reason, we developed two main features of the app: the “Dining In” and “Dining Out” sections. Both options are easily accessed directly from the home screen of the app.
The Dining In section includes a collection of healthy breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks/sides recipes. Each was chosen due to its nutritional value, appeal to the college population, and ease of preparation, as most of our athletes cook in small apartment kitchens with limited appliances and resources. The recipes are tagged into various categories so athletes can decide what to make depending on their needs. Recipe tags include: Pre-workout, Energy Booster, Post-workout, Recovery Aide, Anti-inflammatory, Immunity, and Fiber Rich. (See “Fueling Favorite” below to see one of the most popular recipes in the Dining In section.)
Content in the Dining Out section is intended to decrease confusion during restaurant ordering and direct athletes to the best options for fueling their performance and health. This section features a list of healthy “Winning Options” from the menus of 22 popular restaurants near campus. I personally collected this information by visiting restaurants or researching their menus online.
In addition to specific menu items, there is a list of “Menu Tips” for each restaurant. These include information on how to choose a side, what condiments to ask for on the side, and how to build combination meals. Most of the tips are tailored to the menu offerings of each restaurant. Athletes can even access GPS walking directions and restaurant contact information in this portion of the app.
Aside from the main Dining In and Dining Out sections, the Fueling Bruins app is loaded with other useful features. On the home screen, users will find direct links to the UCLA Performance Nutrition Department’s Twitter and Instagram pages. Continuing to capitalize on the fact that college student-athletes are a technologically savvy group, our social media accounts have been extremely useful in getting nutrition education and department updates out to them.
Furthermore, student-athletes can find these six additional sections under the menu tab in the app:
Bruins Sports Nutrition: This area provides an overview of the nutrition department for UCLA athletics and a summary of the services we offer.
Dining Locations: This tab gives a link to the campus dining webpage so athletes can read about the wide variety of options available.
Weekly Menus: This is a direct link to all dining hall menus and includes the nutritional information for each item.
Staff Directory: This contains bios for Assistant Sports Dietitian Lauren Papanos, MS, RD, and me. It also provides a direct link to our e-mails, making it easy for athletes to contact us when needed.
Important Resources: Housed in this section are a variety of NCAA links and nutrition resources, such as the “Bruin Performance Nutrition Game Plan.” This is a comprehensive sports nutrition booklet that forms the base for many of my education talks. In the past, athletes received paper versions of the Game Plan. It has been extremely useful to switch to an electronic format, as I no longer need to worry about printing it or athletes misplacing their copy.
Favorite Recipes: If an athlete finds a particular recipe or restaurant they like and would like to revisit it, they can tap a “heart” button, and the recipe and/or restaurant will appear on their favorites page for easy access.
As great as our main features are, the beauty of a mobile app is that the possibilities for growth are endless. Since our contract with eCongruity is set up to include updates, we are continually brainstorming ways to improve and expand the app.
Our eCongruity representative and I coordinate any updates directly. My staff and I collect new content and send it over in a Microsoft Word document, and then eCongruity inputs it into the app. A majority of the updates are added instantly. However, some require a system restart, so users are prompted to update the app in their Apple or Android store.
We completed our first big update in December 2016, making changes mostly to the Dining In and Dining Out sections. As a result, users now have an even larger database of recipes in the Dining In section. Our goal is to add a variety of recipes with each update so athletes continue to stay interested in cooking their own meals. Each recipe also has a new subsection that provides tips on how athletes can alter the dish to help them gain, maintain, or lose weight.
Following the December update to the Dining Out section, we now include menus from at least five restaurants in every Pac-12 Conference city. My wonderful colleagues in the Pac-12 were a huge help in achieving this, as several of them provided me with information on their “go-to” restaurants near their campuses. I continue to gather feedback from our teams on where they like to eat when traveling, so we can keep expanding the list of restaurants in the future.
Moving forward for the 2017-18 school year, we are going to switch to a different eCongruity platform to allow my staff and me to make “real-time” updates on our own. So instead of waiting to update minor changes every three months, we will make changes whenever we see fit, no matter if they are big or small. I am looking forward to this new platform, as the ability to improve and refine the app will only continue to increase. Plus, the new platform will come at a very reasonable cost of $50 per month. Our app may be disabled this spring for a short period of time during the transformation, but it will be up and running in an even more efficient way once the changes are made.
Using the new platform, we envision further growth with the app. The next feature we hope to work on is a calendar that lists all Sports Nutrition Department events and activities, such as cooking classes, grocery tours, food demos, and more. We would like the calendar to have direct links where athletes can sign up for events and then receive reminders as they draw near.
Additionally, I would like to see a personalized section of the app, with a specific login for each athlete. I envision this being something I could use with them during individual counseling sessions. It could contain notes, education materials, a place to set and track goals, and an area to set nutrition-related reminders.
Within the first six months of the app’s initial release, more than half of our student-athletes had downloaded it, and that number continues to climb. As of February 2017, we had close to 550 downloads.
The feedback we’ve received thus far from our student-athletes and athletic department staff has been fantastic. The app has made cooking fun and convenient for athletes. They often give me reviews of recipes they have tried, and I have enjoyed getting pictures of their final products. I have also been pleased to hear that the Dining Out section has encouraged athletes to try new menu items at their favorite restaurants. To keep this feedback coming, I intend to conduct a user survey in the future so we can determine any further wants and needs for our population.
Despite its many benefits, building and maintaining a mobile app does not come without its challenges. The first was gathering all of the content for the app. This was a very time-consuming process, as it required extensive research of restaurants and recipes. Then once we found the information, we needed to narrow it down and write educational content to go along with it. As you can imagine, the daily schedule of a collegiate sports dietitian does not allow much free time for these extra tasks. So to get it all done, I relied heavily on some extremely motivated and knowledgeable student interns and my Assistant Sports Dietitian.
Of course, the content-building process did not end after the initial launch, either. Expanding and improving the features of the app with regular updates required further time and research. Unfortunately, due to this fact, some of our updates were delayed. For instance, we had hoped to add restaurant options for Pac-12 cities by the start of fall quarter 2016, but they went live for winter quarter 2017 instead.
Another challenge is continually getting the word out about the app. We had an initial push when it was first launched, yet the popularity has ebbed and flowed over time. I try to get all of the athletes to download the app during my preseason meetings with teams, and we have advertising campaigns to spread the word about each update, but it can still be a struggle.
Taking into account all the pros and cons, if you are thinking of building an app for your sports nutrition department, start by deciding whether to create it in-house or outsource the production. Auburn designed their sports nutrition app in-house using their information technology department, so it can be done. For us at UCLA, however, outsourcing was the best option, as our IT staff was already busy building a different app for our fueling station.
If you do go with an outside company, seek out a professional mobile app developer. Make sure to do smart shopping with companies, as this project is not cheap. Working with a team that is passionate about their work like eCongruity has made this process so easy. I definitely feel that the content we paid for was worth more than the cost.
My next piece of advice is to do your research. Do not be afraid to reach out to others within your field who have already created a sports nutrition app. Our contact with the dietitians from Auburn and Kansas enabled us to get the Fueling Bruins app up and running as fast as we did.
Finally, I recommend collaborating with your most knowledgeable students or staff members to help with the content-building process. Having multiple people divide and conquer makes it go much more smoothly, and you will be able to gather a lot more information than you could by yourself. Additionally, having multiple sets of eyes checking your work is never a bad thing.
If you have the resources to develop an app, I highly suggest you do so. We have had great traction with the tech-savvy student-athlete population, and I feel like we are reaching athletes better than ever before.
I have received great feedback on the Individual Baked Oatmeal Cups recipe in the “Dining In” section of the UCLA Fueling Bruins app. The cups provide a delicious on-the-go breakfast or snack for athletes who live in apartments. They are easy to prepare and store well. Here’s how to make them:
Individual Baked Oatmeal Cups
• 1 ½ cups old fashioned oats
• ½ teaspoon cinnamon
• A pinch of salt
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 2 tablespoons chia seeds
• ¼ cup pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, or chopped nuts
• 1 cup raisins or other dried fruits
• 1 large egg
• 2 tablespoons of nut butter
• ¾ cup milk
• Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease six muffin cups with cooking spray or line with paper muffin liners.
• Combine the oats, cinnamon, salt, baking powder, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and raisins in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and nut butter until smooth, and then slowly mix in the milk. Pour the liquids into the bowl of dry ingredients and stir well.
• Divide the oatmeal mixture among the muffin cups, filling each one up to the top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until slightly risen and dry on top. Run a knife around each muffin and turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
• Muffins can be kept in an airtight container on the counter for up to five days. Any extra muffins can be frozen. To defrost, leave muffins out overnight at room temperature.