Performance-Enhancing ‘Food’ Finally Finds Traction
Commentary/Op-Ed from the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Assn. (SportsRD.org)
28-Aug-2013 9:00 AM EDT
Newswise — Strength training surged during the 1980s, as did sports medicine, when major college and professional sports coaches realized that X’s and O’s alone could not compete with teams that fortified game plans with more muscle, greater endurance and faster recovery after injury.
Sports nutrition announced its coming-out party at about the same time, but precious few showed up in the dining hall. With so many new dollars going to weight rooms and training rooms, one might argue, little funding remained to prioritize healthy foods and teach athletes how to capitalize on one basic premise: food is fuel, and nutrient-rich food is high-octane fuel. That’s been changing since about 2005, when athletic directors and head football coaches at the major colleges—agenda setters for some of the most noteworthy advances in sports—discovered the secret of sports nutrition: it’s less about fueling up before exercise and more about refueling immediately after exercise to rebuild muscle tissue and restore expended nutrients.
Revelations this summer that outed a dozen (if not 13) Major League Baseball players using performance-enhancing drugs turned the heretofore silent majority of clean players against PED cheaters for the first time, at least publicly. If this level of vilification holds up—branding PED cheats as “selfish” and “unfair” for gaining a competitive advantage—the logical path forward is that more coaches will urge players to fully embrace nutrition to get the most out of their athleticism. And the timing could not be better.
Four years ago, 20 Sports Registered Dietitians (Sports RDs), most of whom were employed full-time by major colleges fielding the most successful football teams in the country, banded together to form the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA). This small group and a few dozen more were distinguished from the other 87,000 RDs in the U.S. by working “full-time” with athletes alongside strength coaches and athletic trainers. They branded their specialized method of feeding athletes “performance nutrition” and set about the business of building their ranks to answer the call when sports nutrition would finally be recognized for the contributions it makes to athletics.
Of the nearly 800 members in the CPSDA today, 156 are Sports RDs working full-time with athletes, which doesn’t sound like many. But Sports RDs were on staff working both sidelines of the past three NCAA football championship games, and can be found on 13 of Sports Illustrated’s top 15-ranked college football programs kicking off this weekend. Six NFL teams now have a full-time Sports RD on staff, with the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins adding their performance nutrition specialist earlier this year. And Special Forces within the U.S. military have heard the call, hiring eight of the CPSDA’s most experienced Sports RDs to feed athletes who work not under stadium lights but in shadows, wearing very different types of uniforms.
CPSDA’s nine-member Board of Directors, now led by President Randy Bird from the University of Virginia, studied the 1980s surge of strength coaches and athletic trainers and found that most athletic departments hiring Registered Dietitians for the first time would need to squeeze tight budgets to create the new position. So the CPSDA ambitiously recruited college students of dietetics.
“Young Sports RDs can afford to fill newly-created positions as experienced veterans move up to major colleges, professional sports and the military, where salaries have been rising steadily,” said the CPSDA’s Bird. “We’re dedicating more resources every year to continuing education workshops and seminars for younger RDs to help them hit the ground running.”
CPSDA recruited corporate sponsors just as aggressively to underwrite scholarships, internships, knowledge-sharing software programs, and the three tiers of continuing education being offered by the volunteer-driven organization in 2014: an entry-level Sports RD boot camp; an advanced practice workshop; and the CPSDA’s annual conference, which drew more than 300 attendees in May.
We can only hope that the Major League Baseball Players Association signaled the death knell of PEDs in sports when players finally turned their backs on substance abusers this summer in favor of a level playing field. The National Football League Players Association seems poised to strengthen those anti-doping efforts, “tentatively agreeing” this month to allow blood samples to be taken randomly from 40 players per week during the upcoming season to test for Human Growth Hormone (HGH).
Few are happier than Sports RDs to see the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs in decline. Every last one of them has been fighting a quiet war against PEDs. Performance nutrition is now in a glide path that should land healthy “high-octane” fueling stations in the dining halls of every college athletic program and professional sports team that wants to give its athletes the best chance to succeed.
Sports RDs will remain vigilant in their quest to keep PEDs out of athletics. Meanwhile, veterans of the profession will dedicate more of their time preparing young brethren to fill the anticipated surge of new career opportunities that seem more certain now.
It’s about time.