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  • Writer's pictureChloe Davis Giraldi, MS, RD, LDN

Filling the Void: From Athlete to Unknown

How to bridge the gap between athlete and active. Managing nutrition, mindfulness and movement in times of transition.

If you can think back to elementary school when a teacher assigned you to use words that described yourself, what words did you pick?

Fast forward to college, ice-breaker sessions during your freshman orientation with similar instructions; “fill out the diagram to show your goals and aspirations, tell you are and who you want to become in 4 years”.

What did you put down then?

For me, the word “athlete” was the only similarity between my elementary descriptive assignment and my first college ice breaker.

But after those fast four years go by, all of the meets have been swum, every race has been run, and I passed the finish line one last time. Now what do I describe myself as?

The time period after ending a college, and even lifelong, journey as an “athlete” comes to an end is a strange one to navigate. Now these are the days you may have dreamt of as you peeled your eyes open to hit “snooze” for every 5:00am wake up call. Every time you sacrificed parts of a “normal” social life in order to take part in the sport you loved, you yearned for this moment.

I don’t think I will ever forget my last race as a competitive swimmer.

I was surrounded by teammates I loved, and who understood the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices that came with the sport. They were people who pushed me each day to move beyond the comfortable boundaries we so often become accustomed to.

I couldn’t wait to not be sore everyday, to sleep in, to have time to do homework, you know-the basics. I swam as fast as I could that day, and touched the wall one last time. That was it.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the start of the most challenging transitional period of my life.

This time period is not often discussed to the extent that it should be.

Educators, athletic trainers, coaches, counselors and registered dietitians should be in place to advise the “athlete” during the first weeks and months following their final competition or at the start of their working life. Quite frankly, it is much like mourning a loss. The grief that comes along with the new void is difficult to handle on one’s own.

The mental health component is just one side, nutrition is the next huge piece of the puzzle.

Since I was studying dietetics during my time as a student athlete, I understood the concept of food as fuel in order to perform. I was able to get everything I needed from the dining halls on campus, (occasionally ran down my meal plan) and would have to fend off of other friends in order to get at least three meals a day, (college meal plans do not always account for fueling athletes or even active individuals) occasionally have to run to the grocery store but that was not a big deal.

What was a big deal? Learning to understand this new relationship with food.

Not only is the transition from a large calorie need to a small one a lifestyle change, but once you move onto the working world even fitting in time for exercise and food takes another turn.

Can I eat whatever I want now?

I can’t afford a gym membership, how do I stay in shape?

How do I save money on food?

What do I do without my sport??

Now as a dietitian, I advise athletes and those that are physically active on entering the working world and how to maintain a relationship with physical activity that is a healthy one, as well as how to approach food in a new light.

The biggest tips I have for the college athlete in this transition state: Try new things, and keep exercising fresh and fun.

It is challenging to consider trying new activities that you will have to learn from the start, when at one point you seemed to master your own, but this is a great way to begin to rethink how you fit fitness into your life. Find groups to become involved in, whether they be running, or fitness. Balance the amount of food you eat with the amount of physical activity you do. Do not skip meals. Remember that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so pick a protein and turn that into your focal point!

On the nutrition end of things, it’s OK to have questions. You are not alone. Dietitians can help you navigate these changes so that you won’t be on your own.

Be open to trial and error.

Taking a week in the new work-life-balance world will help you see where you can problem solve, how much precious time do you have on your hands? Meal prep can be a great time saver but it is not for everyone. I personally don’t meal prep because I like to shop for my staples and then decide day to day what I feel like having, fresh. I will prep some quinoa, another protein, overnight chia pudding, and have yogurts set aside for the week so that I have something to grab and go.

Try and see what works, how many meals per day, times of days you do best, to prep or not to prep, or will you be a quasi-prepper? What is it like to make all of your own foods, it’s a lot easier to just go to the dining halls (we so often complained about) and be served a full meal, in and out in 30–45min, it takes just that long to cook a basic meal. But now, even baking sweet potatoes seem to take a lifetime. Your box of rice says 30 min, but you are hungry right at that moments? Now what? Try finding methods to make this easy for yourself, if it’s the timing factor, maybe you could bake these foods over the weekend to have to put your plate together quick during the week. At the same time, you may feel the opposite, freed from the dining hall and allowed to independently control what your body needs.

Use what you know. Don’t reinvent your nutrition wheel.

I always ensure clients that they never need to re-invent the wheel prior to a competition or workout. It’s better for your mental and digestive state to keep things familiar before competing and develop your routine. You can use many things you already have at home, What are foods you enjoy? Do you want to make most of your foods yourself, or would you rather dine out more often, or is this a combination?

I know you may say in your mind when in the grocery store: “I just saw this new food/product, and it seems to do everything I need right now”, mhmm I bet that their marketing department is really successful too. There is so much noise in the media and food marketing that blurs this line. Stick to what you know, whole foods first. There’s many benefits to be explored in what already may be in your fridge. Stay hydrated to keep stress away with at least eight, eight-ounce glasses of water a day to keep your body hydrated.

Give mindfulness a try.

The change from eating as an athlete or active person to maintaining your relationship with food in this new world, takes time, and tuning into your body. Mindful eating gives us a sense of hunger cues, when we feel full, when we have food cravings and how we acknowledge them. Saying “ok” to cravings. Let your body decide what it needs for you to feel satisfied and go from there. Eat a variety of foods and pay attention to portion sizes, balance a plate by keeping them low in saturated fats, and focused on fats from fish, plant-oils, low-fat dairy. Increase fiber in your diet by eating more whole grains (whole wheat breads, pastas, brown rice, and grain based cereals). Include a variety of vegetables and fruits (especially dark red, orange and leafy green varieties to get more antioxidant nutrients). Choose whole > juice for more fiber and nutrients.

In the end of it all this new adventure is much like starting a new full time job. It requires time, effort, support, and it is naturally overwhelming! You don’t need to tackle this alone, so reach out to a friend, grab them for a walk and ask them how they have dealt with it. Coaches, family, friends, all support the new journey.

Talk to a dietitian to help guide you through making adjustments that will work for you, I promise you will feel like you just crossed the finish line of another exciting race to be won.

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