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March 31, 2022

What Cornellians Eat When They Workout: Student Athlete Edition

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About a month ago, I was curious about what supplements Cornell students take when they workout. I investigated, finding that the average Cornellian may use pre-workout supplements now and then, but generally does not have a strict diet or supplemental regiment when working out.

This time, I wanted to dive a bit deeper into this topic. An intramural soccer champion may be a hell of an athlete, but there is a stark difference between the average intramural Cornell athlete and a Cornell D1 student athlete. I wanted to find out what goes on behind the scenes of D1 athletes. I was curious to see if there is a large difference between what workout supplements and diets student athletes have, and if it varies between sports. 

I first interviewed Alyssa Harrington, the head Cornell Athletic nutritionist. Harrington made it clear that “supplements vary widely by sports…the most common supplements that Cornell athletes use are protein powders, creatine and electrolytes.”

Electrolytes are a bodily substance that is lost during exercise, and consuming electrolytes can hydrate your body after vigorous exercise. Electrolytes can be found in pre-workout, Gatorade or gels and easily consumable packs.

Harrington revealed that there is no secret substance that athletes are taking: they consume many of the same supplements that non-athlete Cornellians take (pre-workout, creatine).“Prior to taking any supplements, a sports dietitian will review the athlete’s sport, athletic goals and nutritionist status. From there, we can make recommendations on which type of supplement would be best, if any, and how much the athlete should be taking.”

Harrington emphasized the importance of context to an athlete’s supplemental use. The nutrition team at Cornell intensively manages every athlete’s goals and current health. An equestrian team member won’t be eating the same meal as the offensive lineman on the football team, and they certainly won’t be taking the same substances. 

I wanted to look further, so I interviewed two current student athletes at Cornell.

Amanda Petersen ’25 is on the Women’s Swim and Dive team at Cornell. “I prefer energy drinks like Celsius for performance at meets. I normally drink one 30 minutes before a meet,” she said.

The one time I had a Celsius energy drink was to keep me awake during a six hour drive after waking up at 3 a.m., so I could only imagine the energy boost effects it has for an athlete.

“We’re also supposed to eat a lot more than other people [non-athletes] such as a lot of carbs the night before and extra protein after a meet or practice,” Petersen noted.

Considering that I can swim for probably around 10 minutes before getting gassed, I can only imagine how strenuous two hour practices are. It is no surprise that they have to have a ridiculously high caloric intake to maintain their muscle mass. I also inquired about creatine, as I have heard a lot about athletes utilizing this supplement.

“I don’t think anyone is on creatine. Creatine is used if you want to get big, but the objective in swimming isn’t that — it’s to be fast.”

This lack of usage was a surprise to me. I was under the impression after seeing Michael Phelps’ wingspan that being bigger was very helpful to swimming, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. This emphasized that professionals who manage these athletes’ routines use extreme precision when determining supplemental use.

“There is a sports nutritionist that you can choose to go to, but after being a swimmer for so long you really know what you need to put in your body to perform well,” said Petersen.

I was taken aback by this. Although it’s clear that athletes know their bodies very well, I would have thought that there would be extremely strict enforcement in terms of protein amounts and diets. 

Petersen remarked, “After lifts, we get [the] Big Red Refuel, which is a special chocolate milk with extra protein and fat. It tastes very good and helps the recovery.”

As a non-athlete, I felt robbed of a special type of chocolate milk, but the trend seemed clear here. Caffeine is essential right before the race, but generally swimmers have to focus on keeping their caloric intake high and loading up on carbs and protein. 

I wanted to get a different perspective, so I interviewed Michael O’Keefe ’25, a player on the Cornell Football team. “Before a workout I try to take a pre-workout and eat carbs. After a workout you want a big meal and a good amount of protein.”

So far this seems consistent with the swim team: all athletes will try to maintain at least a stable caloric intake so that they don’t lose weight. They also know to eat carbs before working out and protein after. I asked O’Keefe to describe the creatine usage on the team.

“I do take creatine as well. I take five grams of creatine a day. The trainers suggest the brand of creatine to take. Not everyone on the team takes creatine but it’s suggested and a lot of kids do it.”

Creatine, as noted previously, is a very efficient way to gain mass. It makes sense that in a sport like football, the entire team would be taking this substance, as virtually every position would like to be as big as possible. 

O’Keefe expanded, saying “At practice they have stations where you can go to fill up on protein with your shaker. You can get a scoop or two of protein and if you say you want to gain weight they can give you the high calorie protein. If you want to maintain weight and keep your muscle mass you can get the normal protein.” 

This was very interesting. The athletes themselves are dictating the amount and type of protein they are receiving based on their personal goals. Obviously, there is a mentor giving general diet advice, but it appears that the athletes have a good amount of freedom. I questioned O’Keefe if the football team had access to the special milk as well.

“We also get milk after practice. It’s higher in fat or protein and it tastes like a chocolate milkshake.”

Athletes at Cornell live busy lives. With balancing school and sports, it must feel like a nuisance to constantly worry about supplements and planning meals. Although they have some supervision, these students are athletes for a reason. They know what they need to take to perform well, and they know what they have to eat to get to that maximum performance. 

Nevertheless, besides the coveted chocolate milk, they are still taking many of the same substances that other Cornellians take. Unless this chocolate milk has miraculous benefits (which may be very likely), there is no special secret or supplement athletes take to get to where they are. This proves, with extremely hard work and knowing what your body needs, anyone has the ability to be like a student athlete. 

   Jimmy Cawley is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].