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Fueling the Redbirds at home

Sports nutrition at Illinois State

The success of a collegiate student-athlete hinges on a lot of factors during their four to five years on campus. Hard work on the field during practices and games, dedicated effort in the weight room, self-motivation and discipline in the classroom, and a focus on mental health all factor into whether a student-athlete or team can win a championship in any given season.

Illinois State Athletics has dedicated groups of professionals in each of the areas above that work tirelessly to make sure student-athletes have the resources they need to be winners. However, there is another group of professionals in the Sports Performance team that have a direct impact on each of the areas listed above. The ISU Sports Nutrition staff, led by Chris Carter, is tasked with making sure that the food Redbirds are putting into their bodies help them have more energy on the field, make gains in the weight room, increase concentration in their studies, and keep their minds in a good place.

For Carter, nutrition has always been an important part of who he is. At one time, he was an amateur bodybuilder and was meticulous about what he was putting into his body so he could look the best he could at competitions. He’s carried over that knowledge into his day job as a strength coach for Redbird student-athletes. After working several years as a full-time strength coach and a part-time nutritionist, Carter felt like a change was needed.

“The first three or four years, I was trying to do too much. I was there to offer advice and answer questions about nutrition, but I was never able to give it my full attention and couldn’t offer as many services as I wanted to,” Carter said. “But, when we decided to make nutrition more of a focus the last four years or so, I’ve added to the sports nutrition staff and upgraded our facilities to include fueling stations for the student-athletes. That’s allowed us to improve our services each year for our student-athletes to the point where I think we can be one of the best nutrition programs around.”

The Sports Nutrition staff is housed in the Richard and Fran Owen Strength and Conditioning Center at Redbird Arena and is there to assist the student-athletes with any of their nutritional needs. They work closely with the strength staff to put together plans for teams and student-athletes to help them make progress in the weight room specifically but also assist in situations where they can help aid in recovery with plans laid out by athletic trainers.

Their services include everything from providing post-workout shakes and smoothies, to helping figure out what food to eat in the dining centers that will aid in their nutritional gains. For student-athletes that live off-campus and may not have access to the dining halls easily, the Sports Nutrition staff helps with making grocery lists and providing them with resources and recipes to make meals at their apartments that are healthy and delicious.

They not only sit in on meetings and offer advice and answer questions for entire teams, but they also are available to meet athletes individually, whether with a quick conversation after a workout is complete or with more in-depth help. At times, this includes speaking one-on-one with a student-athlete that may have specific nutritional needs or allergies to come up with a plan that will help them. Mostly, they are there to keep student-athletes motivated to make good choices when it comes to what foods and supplements they are putting into their bodies.

Even though the facility is now closed due to restrictions related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Sports Nutrition staff is still there to help Redbird athletes make good choices when they are at home. In fact, its been a bit easier for Carter and staff to get some time with each of the teams, now that everyone’s schedules have become a bit more open.

“It takes a lot of coordination for us to get in front of every team, either pre or post-practice or before or after a lift, to give some pointers or do a Q &A with them. However, with schedules being more open it’s been easier for us to jump on those Zoom meetings and offer some advice,” Carter stated. “That’s been a welcome change because my day is usually consumed with organizing our food service schedules to make sure our fueling stations are stocked appropriately. That usually takes up several hours of my day, so with that not happening at the various facilities right now it allows me to focus more on content and education, which is great.”

When brainstorming about how to continue to reach student-athletes at home, Carter and his staff decided they needed to meet them where they are at the most: on social media. That’s why each day members of the staff take to the official ISU Sports Nutrition accounts (@Redbird_Fuel) and provide informational pieces, motivational sayings, and even recipes to the student-athletes.

“Our graduate assistant Milaena (Ferrarese) and full-time intern Gabby (Glesner) have been coordinating all of our social media content. They’ve been updating the different channels with nutrition educational content, motivational posts about their health and easy recipes for student-athletes to make at home,” Carter said. “I think they all understand the importance of nutrition, but we’re challenging our student-athletes to make the best of this downtime and improve on some necessary life skills like simple cooking techniques and meal preparation. The best way to get them more involved is to make it a competition. So, if they make a great meal for themselves or for the family, take a picture and send it to us they can get some positive feedback. With nutrition, it can be a lot of negativity with food rules or you can only eat food A, B, and C, but we choose to maintain that positive outlook and this is the perfect time to better themselves when it comes to their personal nutritional choices.”

The Sports Nutrition program at Illinois State has come a long way over the past several years, and plans were underway to give it a big boost prior to things shutting down. In early February, Illinois State Athletics set a goal of $50,000 to help raise funds for investments into student-athlete nutrition and performance as part of Birds Give Back: 1 Day for Change.

Gifts made would be used to renovate the fueling stations in Redbird Arena and the Karin L. Bone Athletics Study Center, purchase more efficient equipment, add fridges to each team locker room, and to increase the budget for food and supplements for student-athletes. The investment in the health of student-athletes and in sports nutrition would not only benefit today’s Redbirds, but also give coaches another instrumental piece to recruit future Redbirds.

Thanks to the generous support of fans, alumni, family, and former student-athletes, Redbird Athletics surpassed its goal by over $7,000. Over 260 donors from 27 states gave back to their University and the athletics department with gifts ranging in size from $5-$10,000.

“We were overwhelmed at the amount of support we received as part of Birds Give Back this year. We are still a program within the athletic department that is fairly new and one that not a lot of people on the outside know about, but we have a huge impact on student-athletes,” Carter stated. “So, we were grateful that they understood the importance of what we are wanting to accomplish with this money, and they certainly helped us in achieving those goals.”

Since that time, several meetings held within the department and proposals were put together about how to allocate those funds. The biggest priorities were the weight room and the study center, as those facilities typically see the most foot traffic daily from our student-athletes. New equipment, including commercial dishwashers and blenders, was set to be purchased and upgrades in preparation space and storage solutions were also identified. The plan was for work on all these areas to begin after Spring Break ended, but for now, that’s in a holding pattern.

All these new financial resources will help Carter and his staff work more efficiently to help better serve Redbird student-athletes. Their busy schedules often do not allow them to have a lot of free time to sit down and have a good meal between classes, workouts, or practice. That’s why the fuel that Carter and his staff can provide them is vital to their success daily.

“We want to be more efficient in both spots, so they can move on with their busy schedules and be fueled and ready to go,” Carter said. “The food at the study center tends to be gone quickly. The product availability is limited right now due to storage space and refrigeration, so the goal with this new upgrade at their fueling station is to make sure that if a student-athlete comes in at 8 a.m. or 8 p.m., they will have an equal choice of fruit and snacks. In the weight room, added blenders will help us make more shakes at a time so they aren’t waiting on us as long before they jet off to class. Overall, when these improvements are made, it will make their lives easier and provide them more nutritional options than they are getting now.”

When student-athletes do eventually return to campus and hopefully begin classes again in the fall, new nutritional resources will be waiting for them. The goal for Carter and his staff is to continue to improve on what they are doing every year, whether that is by finding new ways to communicate with student-athletes or buying new equipment to better serve them. Either way, Redbird student-athletes have a dedicated group of professionals that are looking out for their nutritional needs on a daily basis and that can only lead to more success in the future on the playing field and in the classroom.