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The student-athlete training table

By Leah Moore Thomas, MS, RD/LD, CSSD, Georgia Institute of Technology

Historically, the training table referred to the one meal per day for scholarship student-athletes outside of their institutional meal plan and on days when campus dining facilities are under normal operation.1 With the recent Division I deregulation of meals legislation that went into effect on August 1, 2014 there is a little more freedom in feeding student-athletes. The ability to provide meals and snacks to student-athletes as the institution deems appropriate allows for the freedom to support the ongoing message that sports registered dietitians provide: “food as fuel” and “smaller more frequent meals.”

Student-athletes have an additional incentive to make good food choices and to pay particular attention to the food they fill their plates with – athletic performance. Many things go into helping a student-athlete successfully perform at a high level: sport-specific training, recovery, rehabilitation, talent, strength and conditioning and nutrition (among others). The training table is the perfect opportunity to provide the fuel student-athletes need while also providing the opportunity to educate them on the importance of proper nutrition.  

Currently, there are three common ways NCAA institutions are providing a training table: 1) using a foodservice company to operate the dining facility; 2) hiring a private culinary expert to purchase and prepare high quality, fresh and even local foods; and 3) catering a meal from local restaurants or other caterers. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these operations. For example, the quality and freshness of food could be compromised with a large-scale foodservice company, while a culinary expert using fresh and local foods could prove to be very costly. Having a sports registered dietician involved in any of these three scenarios is an important key to ensuring the best possible outcome for student-athletes.

Regardless of the setup, it is important to provide a variety of complex carbohydrates, such as whole wheat bread or pasta options, lean proteins, such as grilled chicken breasts, pork loin or lean cuts of red meat, a variety of rich-in-color fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy options.

One key to remember when designing the menu options – a perfect menu is not perfect if the student-athlete won’t eat it. Encouraging moderation and occasional enjoyment of those foods that you love is both positive and productive, and following that advice when designing a training table menu is equally as positive.2 Equipping student-athletes with the knowledge of how their food choices affect their day-to-day performance is one of the most important roles of a sports registered dietician.

Using the training table as a “learning lab” is another beneficial advantage. Teaching about nutrition can be most effective when doing so at meal time, especially when there are multiple food options available. Providing the basic nutrition facts (total calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, sugar, etc.) for the foods offered is a great first step. Taking that education one step further and relating the nutrient make-up to athletic performance is equipping student-athletes to make good decisions when they are eating somewhere else, or even preparing their own food. In cases where training tables do not exist, creating a learning lab experience, where education is taking place during meal time with various food options available, by a sports registered dietician, can still be very beneficial. Some learning lab ideas include:

  • Signage describing the role each macronutrient plays in their athletic performance can provide real-time motivation for building the perfect plate for their sport. For example:
    • Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for working muscles.
    • Protein is necessary for maintaining and building muscle mass.  
    • Low-fat dairy products are a great source of both carbohydrates and protein, which makes them an excellent recovery nutrition product.3
  • Posters on the role of antioxidants in the (anti) inflammation process that are located near colorful fruits and vegetables. For example:
    • Colorful fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that help you fight the inflammation that occurs with your day to day training!4
    • Nutrients in these foods help keep your immune system strong. Fewer colds means more time in the game!
  • Labeling the menu items with barcodes that can be uploaded to mobile nutrition apps that automatically populate into a student-athletes’ food record keeping system.

In scenarios where there is no training table, and perhaps no option for displaying educational signs or posters:

  • Having a sports registered dietitian walk through the food line, or food stations, talking about the pros and cons of what’s available, healthier options versus less healthy options, and pointing out how different micronutrients (by using specific menu items available that day) affect athletic performance in a similar fashion that is outlined in the above bullet points, can be very effective. 
  • Walking through the line, with plates in hand, and showing first-hand how to build a balanced plate that provides the variety and micronutrient make-up that the particular student-athlete(s) should be aiming for can also be very impactful.
  • Talking through points of building a healthy and balanced plate, and then sending the student-athletes through the line alone or in pairs to accomplish the “perfect plate,” and then re-grouping to talk through what they came up with is another great way to educate student-athletes.
  • Perhaps, building a plate that is less than ideal, but likely more commonly seen in college dining halls, and then having the student-athletes critique it and identify better alternatives could be a good learning tool.

The training table can play a very important role in the fueling and educating of student-athletes. Under the direction of a qualified professional, such as a sports registered dietician, the training table provides another piece to the overall care of the student-athlete.

1 NCAA Academic and Membership Affairs Staff. NCAA 2013-2014 Division I Manual.Indianapolis: National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2013. Print.

2 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Total Diet Approach to Healthy Eating. Web. June 18, 2014.

3 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Web. June 18, 2014.

4 Dekkers CJ, van Doornen LJP, and Kemper HCG. “The Role of Antioxidant Vitamins and Enzymes in the Prevention of Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage.”Sports Med 21.3 (1996): 213-238. Print.

Written by SCAN/CPSDA Registered Dietitians (RDs). For advice on customizing a nutrition plan, consult a RD who specializes in sports, particularly a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). Find a qualified RD at, or