Jan 29, 2015
Small Changes, Big Gains

Using simple nutritional strategies to boost energy levels is one way University of Florida athletes stay ahead of the field.

By Michelle Rockwell

Michelle Rockwell, MS, RD, is the Coordinator of Sports Nutrition for the University of Florida Athletics Association. She also serves as a consultant for various athletes and teams nationwide. She can be reached at: [email protected].

Athletes show up in my office every day seeking strategies for increasing their energy levels. They tell me they feel sluggish on the field, yawn through their classes, and nap every chance they get. It’s no wonder that energy is at such a premium—student-athletes not only have rigorous training and competition schedules, but also squeeze in classes, work, rehab, study hall, volunteer activities, and fun as well. Days start early, end late, and include very little down time.

So what do I tell them? After a nutritional evaluation to rule out any significant nutrition or hydration problems, and with the team physician’s okay that no major medical or psychological needs exist, I go straight to work on the little stuff.

Why not make big changes right away? Two reasons. First of all, asking an athlete to make a major diet overhaul creates resistance. Individuals are very attached to the foods they like and are used to eating. Working within athletes’ preferences and typical eating habits makes them more like to comply with the changes I suggest. Second, athletes commonly tell me they don’t have time to eat well, making big changes unrealistic. When athletes see that the changes I’m asking for are quick and easy, they are much more willing to give them a try.

Below are eight simple energy-enhancing strategies that can easily be incorporated into almost any athlete’s diet. Time and time again, athletes who have consistently followed these strategies report back to me delighted that they truly have more energy for training, performance, and life.


When I ask a group of young athletes to raise their hands if they ate breakfast that day, usually less than half of the hands go up. For some reason, consistently fitting breakfast into their morning routine is a real challenge for athletes. Since eating breakfast is known to jump start metabolism, fuel morning workouts, and enhance energy levels throughout the day, we need to find realistic and attractive ways to get that toast toasting.

Athletes say they can’t eat breakfast because they don’t want to wake up any earlier, but a healthy breakfast doesn’t have to take a long time to prepare. Elaborate breakfasts like pancakes, omelets, and fresh-squeezed orange juice are unnecessary. (Save them for weekends!) In fact, breakfast doesn’t even need to be “breakfast” foods at all. Trail mix and 100 percent fruit juice, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread with low-fat milk, or even leftover spaghetti and meatballs can be excellent options, and these take less than five minutes to prepare. I’ve had teams compete in peanut butter and jelly-making relay races to show just how quickly a good breakfast can be prepared.

Cereal can be another quick, energizing breakfast. However, it’s easy to make poor choices in the cereal aisle. Sugary, low fiber cereals are extremely popular, but they are the nutritional equivalent of a king size candy bar in terms of sugar and fat content (and have little likelihood of being energizing). Fortunately, whole grain, fortified, high-fiber cereals are becoming tastier and more available all the time.

Whatever foods the athlete chooses, the most important guidelines are to eat breakfast within an hour of waking up, include a little protein such as lean meats, eggs, nuts, or low-fat dairy, and include some healthful carbohydrates.

Athletes who work out first thing in the morning face the added challenge of not wanting to exercise on a full stomach, but it’s still important for them to eat breakfast. They should aim for a minimum of 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate. For ease of digestion, plain, non-acidic foods like bagels, oatmeal, and graham crackers often work well. An alternative is to “drink your breakfast,” using fruit juice or a sports drink to get the recommended 30 to 60 grams of carbs.

Simple strategies for athletes:

  • Pre-pour bowls of whole grain cereal into a sealed container in the evenings and leave on the kitchen table for the next morning.
  • Stock your backpack, car, or coat pocket with trail mix, energy bars, and/or dry cereal for breakfast on the run.
  • Make breakfasts on the weekends to eat during the week. For example, make large meat/cheese/veggie subs and eat a portion each morning, boil several eggs and keep them in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or keep pre-mixed pancake batter in a pitcher in the fridge and toss a serving into a skillet each morning.


Many athletes eat insufficient amounts of food during the daytime due to time constraints, which leaves them making up for lost calories in the evenings. In terms of energy provision, this is not ideal because most athletes train in the morning or afternoon. I tell my athletes that this strategy is like leaving home for an eight-hour road trip in the morning and then finally getting around to gassing up the car at 9 p.m.—it doesn’t work!

In addition, eating small to moderate-sized meals and snacks throughout the day (rather than two or three large meals) improves energy levels, particularly for active individuals. I tell athletes that they need to fuel their bodies when they need it the most throughout the day and forget the adage to eat “three square meals.”

Simple strategies for athletes:

  • Set the count down function on your watch to beep every three hours during the day. This can be your reminder to fuel up!
  • Use your daily planner or palm pilot to plot eating times into your daily routine. Pre-planning helps make regular eating a priority and a habit.
  • Keep “emergency” snacks in your backpack, purse, or locker. These should be nutritional choices that appeal to you enough to eat them when you don’t have time for something else, but nothing so tempting that you’ll munch on it just because it’s there. For a basketball player I recently worked with, apples, fig newtons, and beef jerky fit this description perfectly.


Improving the nutritional quality of the carbohydrates athletes eat can lead to a more consistent level of energy and increase the consumption of vitamins and minerals associated with energy production. The USDA 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that individuals consume three or more servings of whole grain foods each day, and it could be argued that athletes require even more since their overall carbohydrate needs are typically higher. To add whole grains to their diets, I advise my athletes to make simple switches in the foods they consume regularly.

Simple strategies for athletes:

  • Snack on whole grain cereals or popcorn instead of pretzels, chips, and candy.
  • Switch from grits or cream of wheat to instant oatmeal packets (which are whole grain). Even better than the pre-sweetened packets would be plain oatmeal with fresh fruit, raisins, or fruit yogurt.
  • Routinely purchase whole wheat bread, English muffins, bagels, and pasta instead of traditional varieties.
  • Select brown rice or wild rice (instant is fine) over white rice.
  • Add popcorn to your diet. Of course, leaving the butter in the movie theater is recommended. Air-popping or microwaveable varieties are fantastic options.


Eating foods high in fat sometimes is not problematic for the energy-seeking athlete. In fact, occasional consumption should be encouraged, since high levels of fat in foods are often associated with high levels of taste. Foods that are consumed habitually, however, can often be replaced with lower-fat versions.

Small changes in fat content can go a long way in improving the energy potential of the athlete’s diet. This is because fatty foods are digested slowly and can cause a feeling of sluggishness. Also, athletes who are eating too much fat are rarely eating adequate carbohydrates, which are the primary source of energy.

Getting athletes to try reduced-fat and low-fat versions of their favorite foods is a good starting point. I enjoy hosting taste tests where athletes try the same foods with varying fat content (examples include yogurt, milk, cheese, ground beef, cream cheese, salad dressing, and mayonnaise). They are often shocked that they either can’t tell the difference between regular and fat-modified products, or that they actually prefer the lower-fat versions! Remember, though, it is important to verify that a reduced-fat product is actually nutritionally superior to the regular version. Sometimes food manufacturers replace fat with sugar or artificial sweeteners that are in fact less nutritious.

It’s also beneficial to offer athletes lower-fat alternatives to high-fat foods they routinely eat. For example, a runner I worked with whose typical breakfast included a sausage, egg, and cheese croissant sandwich, hashbrowns, and whole chocolate milk was consuming 72 grams of fat daily before 8 a.m.! Her energy level throughout the morning and during her early-afternoon run was improved by switching to a bagel, egg, and cheese sandwich, cantaloupe, and skim milk (20 grams of fat).

Simple strategies for athletes:

  • Think low fat when it comes to condiments. Purchase reduced-fat salad dressings, sour cream, cream cheese, and mayonnaise.
  • If you use butter or margarine regularly, switch to whipped butter over regular butter (for less fat) or lower-fat/trans fat-free margarine.
  • Cut fried foods out of your daily routine. Anything deep-fried contains a lot of fat.


Many athletes benefit from replacing water with a sports drink during training. Research has repeatedly shown that carbohydrate ingestion during intense exercise in addition to good hydration status enhances performance. Sports drinks can help delay energy deficits or “hitting the wall” during exercise.

Many athletes tell me they can’t tolerate any fluids at all during training, let alone sports drinks. My best tip is to teach them to “train their tummies.” I have them start by drinking a very small amount of sports drink (even just a sip) every 15 minutes during exercise and gradually increase over time to gulps and then to at least eight ounces every 15 minutes.

Simple strategies for athletes:

  • Make sure cold sports drinks are readily accessible at regular intervals during training.
  • Keep individual servings of powdered sports drink and an empty bottle in your sports bag to mix with cold water provided at practice.
  • Freeze a bottle of sports drink overnight and take it with you to hot outside workouts. By the time you’re ready for it, it should be thawed out.


Athletes have an important window of opportunity to replenish energy stores in the post-exercise period that they need to take advantage of. Research has shown that muscles are especially good at taking up carbohydrates during this time. Stocking up on energy levels after today’s workout can be a great way of preparing for tomorrow’s workouts. And when athletes have multiple practices or competitive events in the same day, refueling after the first session is beneficial for promoting optimal energy for subsequent workouts.

The three key ingredients of a good post-exercise refueling snack are fluid, carbohydrates, and a little protein. Good examples include a bagel sandwich and fruit juice, yogurt and a banana, or some trail mix and a sports drink. Many athletes find sports recovery beverages and bars convenient and useful after workouts.

Simple strategies for athletes:

  • Keep a week’s worth of refueling snacks in your locker or sports bag for after practice.
  • Borrow a shelf in the training room refrigerator for the sole purpose of recovery nutrition. Stock with chocolate milk, string cheese, fruit, and bagels.
  • Divide and conquer recovery nutrition with teammates. Assign each day to a different athlete. On that day, the athlete is responsible for providing teammates with nutritious refueling foods and beverages.


Iron is a mineral involved in the formation of hemoglobin and myoglobin, two proteins that help supply oxygen to cells. Iron deficiency is common among some types of athletes, primarily due to rigorous workouts and dietary iron deficiency. Iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia are associated with low energy levels, decreased exercise tolerance, and an increased risk of infection.

We screen our athletes’ blood iron levels here at the University of Florida. In 2004, over 40 percent of our freshman female athletes had serum ferritin (iron store) levels lower than our goal, and about 15 percent had iron-deficiency anemia. I have observed dramatic increases in athletes’ energy when they utilize dietary strategies for enhancing iron stores.

Good dietary sources of iron include beef, poultry, fish, beans, whole grains or fortified cereals, nuts, and green leafy veggies. Athletes should routinely incorporate at least three or four servings of high iron foods into their diets each day. A multi-vitamin containing the Recommended Daily Allowance for iron can be good insurance that needs are met. However, athletes should not supplement with iron tablets unless specifically screened for iron deficiency.

Simple strategies for athletes:

  • Eat beef three times each week. Beef is one of the best sources of iron since it is well absorbed by the body.
  • Purchase cereals fortified with iron at a level of at least 40 percent of the Daily Value (check the nutrition label). Eat this for breakfasts and snacks.
  • Routinely drink orange juice with breakfast. The vitamin C in the juice will help you absorb iron from whole grains and cereals.


Many supplements that contain caffeine or herbal stimulants promote their ability to enhance energy levels. These range from tablets to bars to shakes to sweetened beverages. It’s important to realize these supplements do not actually increase energy—they increase perceived energy and stimulation. Athletes should strive for optimal energy levels by eating appropriate carbohydrates at appropriate times.

What’s the harm in supplemental stimulation? Some dietary supplements contain unsafe levels of stimulants. Even though permitted by the FDA, these stimulants can cause significant side effects, including gastrointestinal problems and cardiovascular issues. Supplements containing lower levels of caffeine may not be nearly as harmful, but depending on them on a regular basis is strongly discouraged.

Simple strategies for athletes:

  • Give yourself a curfew. Go to bed by that time every night and aim for seven or more hours of sleep. This will decrease the likelihood that you feel the need for energy supplements.
  • Be sure you are taking in carbohydrates routinely every three hours throughout the day. This is the true source of energy for exercising muscles.
  • Reserve caffeinated energy drinks for very special and extenuating situations when you really need them.

Taking baby steps to make little nutritional changes one day at a time can add up to a huge impact on energy, performance, and health. When athletes eat energizing food on a regular basis, special eating occasions and well-deserved nutritional breaks are negligible. Advise your athletes to slowly make small changes, and those changes will translate into that extra burst of energy so many of them crave.

FEEDBACK: Great nutrition article. However don’t you think one of the biggest reasons for less energy and improper nutrition is the high amount of processed foods in athletes’ diets? One of the strategies I like to use to get more natural foods while saving time is blending.

A quick trip to the grocery store on a weekend can stock me up with old fashioned oats, extra virgin olive oil, fruit (bananas are cheap and great in smoothies), spinach (which you can’t taste in smoothies and adds lots of Vit K and a no renal acid load), natural yogurt, natural peanut butter, etc.

These combinations can be used for homemade smoothies sipped throughout the day, and with the healthy fats (which are really lacking in today’s diets), such as EVOO, lots of calories can be packed into these shakes, compensating for all the training and long, draining days. Along those lines, I also did not like the suggestion that high fat diets are a problem. Wrong fat diets are the problem.

Healthy fats would be a far superior choice than carbohydrates from processed cereals (even “fortified, high fiber” cereals, although I’m glad you mentioned avoid sugary cereals), pancakes (suggested for breakfast, which are bleached flour and little nutritional value), and some other suggestions. Unless a carbohydrate source is a natural food, like vegetables or minimally processed whole grains such oats, rice, etc., blood sugar levels will be like a roller coaster, which is not imperative for “energy.”

Thanks for the article! -Travis Owen

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