‘Food is fuel’: an athlete’s relationship with food

By and Imogen Higgins

With pre-season having just finished, many students are embarking or continuing on their DU sport careers. We wanted to investigate how relationships with food change when performing high intensity sport and exercise.

Sam Hawes, a third year, has recently joined the DU rowing squad after years of school and college rowing. He spoke to us about the importance of food when training, including how he budgets and stays mentally and physically in-check.

Sam discussed how his attitude towards food has shifted since beginning his twice-a-day, six times a week rowing schedule. The overwhelming message from the very beginning was that ‘food is fuel’, a catchphrase he coined from the rowing vlogger Cam Buchan. Sam emphasised that, having moved up to university level rowing, the need to ‘prepare to perform’ is stronger, and food plays a key role in this. Not only the amount of food, but also his meal organisation around training.

The qualified nutritionist for his team stresses that the rowers need to eat the energy that they burn in order to perform well. For Sam, this ranges from 3.5 to 4.5 thousand calories a day which he explained is how his ‘body recovers and rebuilds itself.’ He treats each meal as if he is eating for two.

After a 6am breakfast of 4 Weetabix, Sam has his first session but refuels afterwards with a snack, such as bagels or flapjacks. During lectures, Sam always has a snack by his side, normally a cheeky packet of biscuits! After his first lunch, normally pasta or rice-based, he has his next set of lectures and then another snack before his second afternoon session. His dinner, normally chilli, curry, lasagne or chicken pesto pasta, is necessary to rebuild his muscles. He added that he does not have to follow a ‘strict diet’, which many people assume of those who play high level sport.

It is ‘just about eating loads’ and is ‘difficult to fill 4000 calories when sticking to a certain guideline.’ His emphasis was continually on the amount of food he needs to eat, not on what he is eating. However, he always tries to take in as much protein as possible. His top tip was buying vegetarian or vegan meals, designed to provide high-protein, and adding meat in to get double.

Budgeting is important regardless of how much sport you play, but the amount of food Sam eats left us wondering how he manages his money. He has found budgeting much harder with the shift in his training and food habits. It’s clear that Sam is highly dedicated to his sport and squad, adding that ‘food has become more of a priority’ and he is willing to spend what he needs to perform well.

However, he explained that he saves money elsewhere, for example by not Kluting as much, which compensates for the extra food he buys. Although there are rowing socials almost every Saturday, which often involve drinking, Sam’s free social time with friends who do not row for DU has decreased.

During fresher’s week, he felt ‘isolated’ because his housemates, all college rowers, were able to go out together more often. With his 6am starts, this is not realistic for Sam. However, he expressed how he always makes time to go out for meals with the boys. His training finishes by 6:30 so he can eat dinner at normal times with his friends. It seems that when training so much, adapting your social life is necessary but you can still gain, and maintain, friendships within and outside of DU sport.

Our main impression was that Sam’s connection to food has changed in terms of the way he sees it as a fuel source. We agreed that this is a helpful and healthy message to everyone, whether it is fueling for exams or DU sport.

There is a ‘food culture in rowing’ but this revolves around a love for food, rather than viewing food as a chore. Sam joked that you’ll never see a rower without a box in their bag full of pasta. Rowers, and DU athletes, need to plan and manage their food more, but this does not mean that their social life or bank account has to collapse.

Illustration by Navya Lobo

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