Life became strange on March 12 for Kayla Martin, as it did for the rest of the nation.
Martin, a former track athlete at Penn State and currently the assistant athletic director of performance nutrition science, received word that all athletic competitions would be postponed immediately. As the days went by, more events were canceled and eventually, college campuses closed around the nation, including Penn State.
In a world before COVID-19, Martin and her team would’ve spent a spring Saturday last month at Beaver Stadium, making sure the football players had pregame snacks, proper hydration and a hearty recovery meal after the Blue-White Game. Instead, virtual tailgates and video chats to connect the Penn State community, family, friends, players and coaches replaced the game.
“Our nutrition staff has been having their Zoom meetings, just like our coaching staff, and coming up with the best plan,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “It’s certainly something that’s not being forgotten about.”
Athletes have to get creative with their workouts. They’re carrying book bags with sand. They’re lifting water bottles for resistance training. But as much as creativity matters in exercises, none of it happens without proper fuel.
“I’m checking in with the athletes,” Martin said. “I’m looking at their situations. Then I ask a set of questions. OK, are you in a good eating environment? And are you able to get your meals in, and how does that relate to what your body composition or bodyweight goals are?”
The Post-Gazette caught up with Martin to find out more about the task of remotely providing specific meal plans during a pandemic. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
Q: How do you assess an athlete’s dietary needs in this situation?
A: Nutrition is a part of a larger group called the Sports Performance Team. Our purpose is to support the needs of the student-athlete. We are service providers. We communicate daily to synchronize care to the player. Members include myself (dietitian), athletic trainer, strength coach, a sports psychologist, sports scientist and our operations specialist. We complement one another service and share similar messaging. So, when we have the opportunity to “meet” with the team or speak with coaches or individual athletes, we cover more ground because we are all on the same page. In these times we use Zoom, FaceTime, phone calls, emails and social media to reach the players. Having a variety of platforms helps us find a method that can reach everyone when you can’t just stop by the fuel station.
Q: How do you keep the kids on track with their diet without it becoming overwhelming?
A: Gentle reminders. During this time food needs to be a part of the conversation; food is fuel. Good food will provide nutrients that support our immune system. A strong immune system and baseline health are the most important right now. So we focus our efforts on wellness and making sure there aren’t any major changes (with bodyweight, etc). Our sports scientist sends the players a daily wellness survey that includes nutrition questions. We take what we learn from it, assess the trend and address it as an overhead during team meetings. If one-off conversations need to be had, we do so and make sure he has the resources to succeed. We want to make sure we are supporting the athlete and not causing additional stress.
Q: How much harder is it to get the protein requirements for a 300-pound offensive lineman vs. a 200-pound cornerback?
A: Well first, eating 6,000 calories is harder than eating 4,000 calories, which is generally the difference between a 300-pound vs. 200-pound player. With that being said, achieving optimal protein intakes are also harder. If I’m working with a 300-pound lineman, he requires an average of 270 grams of protein, but the 200-pound DB needs 180 grams, nearly 100 grams less. That 100 grams looks like three more eggs for breakfast, one more 4-ounce piece of chicken for lunch, an extra glass of milk post-workout and another 6-ounce steak for dinner. So that can be a lot to plan for and digest.
Q: What are some substitutes that a kid could use if they’re having a hard time getting their protein or other nutrients?
A: Keep it simple. Eating doesn’t have to be elaborate. Carbohydrates should be the staple of every meal. You can do a lot with a box of oatmeal, a bag of rice and box of pasta. Protein, however, is generally the most challenging to obtain, especially with some of the recent meat shortages. Aim to have one meat-containing meal a day and complement it with eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, beans or packets of tuna to stack your protein. Add a little color and boost antioxidants with fruits or veggies; they can be frozen or canned if you don’t have access to fresh. And I always encourage meals to be topped off with some sort of enhancement that adds flavor, nutrients or calories. In this case, throw a jar of peanut butter or olive oil in the shopping cart to help boost calories. In this unique time, meal consistency trumps macronutrient “perfection.” Just do your best.