The link between healthy eating and performance is no secret. Proper nutrition is critical, not only for optimal athletic performance in competition, but also for enhancing recovery efforts. Since 2014 when the NCAA lifted restrictions on how much and how often Division I schools can feed student-athletes, collegiate athletic programs across the country have begun to reevaluate their approach to nutrition and make significant investments in the fueling of student-athletes. Wake Forest Athletics recognized the need to do the same, and thanks to the establishment of the Nutrition Fund and fundraising efforts led by the Deacon Club’s Parents’ Athletic Council, the department has made great strides in its efforts to ensure that student-athletes are fueling themselves in a manner that prepares them to perform at their best.
The driving force behind the nutritional efforts is Kate Ruley, Director of Sports Nutrition, who joined the athletic department staff full-time in January. Ruley was no stranger to working with Wake Forest student-athletes, having worked closely with many of them over the past 14 years in her role as a sports dietician for the University, yet her impact was felt immediately. Working in collaboration with the Sports Medicine and Sports Performance staff, Ruley’s vision for Performance Nutrition at Wake Forest is starting to take shape.
“We are striving to be a progressive, strategic program utilizing the latest evidence-based protocols, tools and information to develop world-class athletes,” said Ruley. “Our approach will be a food-first (whole foods) model focused on eliciting the most out of our available resources to guide and support student athletes. The Performance Nutrition team works closely with athletes and coaches to promote nutrition as an essential component in performance, as well as overall wellbeing.”
Since January, Ruley has not only been evaluating each team’s current nutrition programs – looking for ways to enhance their efforts while also streamlining and finding cost efficiencies – but she also spends much of her time counseling and educating individuals and teams on nutrition strategies, reviewing and recommending nutritional supplements, working with vendors to create menus for team meals, assisting coaches with meal planning when teams are on the road, creating and overseeing fueling stations in several athletic facilities, and developing plans for the future nutrition center which will be located in the Sutton Sports Performance Center. Ruley is also working hard to develop a small team of interns and volunteers who assist her with day-to-day tasks such as preparing sandwiches and snacks on game day and restocking the fueling stations.
“It’s exciting to see the emphasis being placed on Performance Nutrition within the athletic department,” Ruley explained. “There is a lot to accomplish, but we are making great progress, and this is definitely an area in which there is so much opportunity to provide countless benefits to our athletes and teams.”
“We are thrilled to have Kate on our staff full-time,” said Director of Athletics Ron Wellman. “Proper nourishment of our student-athletes is a high priority and is crucial to the successful pursuit of our mission of ‘Developing Champions,’ and we are already beginning to see the fruits of Kate’s efforts. Her expertise and ability to equip our teams with healthy nutritional strategies are undoubtedly having a positive impact on our program both competitively, and from a recruiting standpoint as well.”
The Wake Forest baseball team has been one of the beneficiaries of the department’s focus on Performance Nutrition this season. When the new Baseball Player Development Center at David F. Couch Ballpark opened in February, the nutrition area was an immediate hit. With Ruley’s guidance and expertise, the kitchen is stocked with a variety of foods ranging from healthy grab-and-go items that athletes can turn to for a pre- or post-workout energy boost, to ingredients for smoothies, to a chocolate milk machine that can aid in recovery. Ruley and her team of interns and volunteers can also often be found in the nutrition area on game day making peanut butter & banana sandwiches and turkey roll-ups and preparing snacks for the dugout to help keep the team fueled and performing at their best during games that often last more than three hours.
“With the addition of the nutrition area, our team’s ability to be properly equipped to make the necessary gains in strength and conditioning has improved dramatically, and it has also helped us on game days,” explained senior captain Parker Dunshee. “The schedule of a college athlete sometimes means guys are coming straight from class to the field or straight to tutoring after practice, so the nutrition area allows us to be properly fueled before and after practice and eliminates missing meals. Thanks to availability of quality and sufficient nutrition, we are able to maximize our efforts in practice and workouts and keep our energy up during games.”
Head baseball coach, Tom Walter, recognizes the significant impact the nutrition area and Ruley’s efforts have on his team.
“The ACC is the number one baseball conference in the nation, and the difference in talent from one program to the next can be negligible. The teams that win are the teams that find a competitive advantage off the field. Kate Ruley and the Performance Nutrition program provide a significant competitive advantage that sets us apart from the rest,” Walter explained.
In time, that competitive advantage will be evident throughout every Wake Forest athletic program. When construction of the Sutton Sports Performance Center is complete in late-2018, it will feature a nutrition area that will serve as the central hub for fueling and educating student-athletes. It will ensure that all Wake Forest student-athletes have convenient access to nutritious snacks and the resources necessary to develop sound nutritional strategies and make healthy choices.
“Performance Nutrition at Wake Forest will be an integral component of the Sports Performance Team, which was established in January within WFU Athletics,” explained Ruley. “Working collaboratively with Sports Medicine, Strength and Conditioning, coaching staffs, and administration, the Performance Nutrition team will ensure our athletes have the foundational nutrition elements to prepare for and recover from training and competition. We will bring the best of science and nutrition practice together to optimize the performance of our athletic teams, as well as care for overall student athlete wellbeing.”
“I want to express my gratitude to the members of the Parents’ Athletic Council who acknowledged the need for investment in this area and were instrumental in bringing our vision for Performance Nutrition to life,” said Ruley. “Their commitment to ‘Developing Champions’ and the generosity of those who continue to support the Nutrition Fund is overwhelming, and I, along with the entire Performance Nutrition team, am committed to making sure that that their support continues to have a tremendous positive impact on the success of our student-athletes and athletic programs.”
If you are interested in learning more about how you can support the Nutrition Fund, please contact the Deacon Club at (336) 758-5626.
(Note: This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Gold Rush.)