Athletics News

New Nutrition Initiative Helps GW Student-Athletes Excel

GW Sports Medicine graduate assistant Kelley Vargo has been teaching Colonials student-athletes the benefits of heightened nutrition to aid athletic performance.

Oct. 20, 2011

By Julia Parmley

An athlete is like a car. Pick the right fuel and the car will run smoothly.

Pick the wrong fuel, and the ride won't be as smooth.

That's the point that Kelley Vargo, a graduate assistant in nutrition and wellness, is stressing to George Washington's varsity student-athletes this semester as part of a new nutrition initiative in GW Athletics' Sports Medicine and Athletic Training department under Director of Athletics and Recreation Patrick Nero.

Since July, Vargo has met with teams and individual athletes to talk about healthy eating on- and off-campus and the kinds of food that can help optimize their athletic performance.

"Athletes will perform better if they pick the right fuel to run on," said Vargo. "I think a lot of universities lack emphasis on the importance of food as fuel and in optimizing gains in the weight room and practices, so this new initiative is a great opportunity to build GW athletics."

In her presentations to teams, Vargo emphasizes the importance of keeping dietary goals small and attainable. She also works with students to develop healthy grocery lists - she recently created a "team grocery shopping" initiative with Whole Foods Foggy Bottom - and teaches students which foods are best to eat before and after workouts, as well as for breakfast and snacks. Vargo said she wants healthy eating to become "part of practice" instead of an afterthought.

"I'm a big believer in setting goals; I feel that it sets direction," she said. "You wouldn't get in a car without a GPS or map and start driving to California would you? It's the same principle with fueling the body."

"It's really important to pick something you can do every day - like carrying a water bottle or eating two pieces of fruit - and to stick with it," she added.

Vargo also advises athletes to think about the benefits of choosing certain foods over others. Complex carbohydrates like oats, brown rice, and potatoes are great sources of energy, while bananas, a simple carbohydrate, are great immediately before or after practice to help provide fast energy. Proteins in lean meats and fish are important to rebuild and repair muscles, and healthy fats found in nut butters, nuts and avocados help boost overall health and protect the body against certain diseases.

Vargo said what an athlete eats after a strenuous workout is especially important. Studies have shown that the human body is prone to using nutrients right after a workout, so Vargo said consuming the right foods - like chocolate milk - in the time window post workout is essential for optimal strength and muscle gains.

"If athletes can properly refuel after the weight room and competition, then it's going to show in their performance," she said.

Vargo also works alongside George Washington's sports medicine and strength and conditioning staff, as well as registered dietitians, to make sure the message is consistent.

"I think the more opportunity we have to give our athletes information, the more it will sink in," said Vargo. "I'm also working with Dining Services to increase options and a few local companies to provide meals when athletes are on the road so they aren't just grabbing whatever is quick and easy, but foods that provide fuel and help them perform."

And athletes are taking Vargo's advice to heart. A few weeks ago she walked into Ivory Tower and saw a few athletes eating healthy lunches.

"A lot of people have given me feedback on how they've followed their goals," she said. "It's been pretty rewarding so far, and it's just the beginning."

Thanks to Vargo's presentations, GW women's gymnastics captain Brittany Burnham said the team is now equipped with the information they need to reach their "optimal performance."

"As a team we have committed ourselves to lead healthy lives which will affect our gymnastics in every aspect," she said.

GW coaching and athletics staff is also on board. Vargo said it's important everyone "embraces" healthy eating so they can lead by example and "motivate our athletes to do the same thing."

GW women's gymnastics head coach Margie Foster-Cunningham echoed Burnham's praise of the initiative, calling Vargo a "great resource" to the team.

"The nutrition presentations are extremely educational yet practical for the student-athlete," she said. "My athletes are able to apply the knowledge to better prepare for both practice and competition. This is the edge we need!"

Although athletes are burning a lot of calories every day, Vargo said they often face the same dietary issues as their classmates.

"Everyone faces the same challenges coming to college: how do I eat and what do I chose from," she said. "But I like to say to students that college is a stepping stone, because once they leave they won't have a cafeteria to go to every day. If they can leave here knowing how to make good decisions with what they have in front of them, then they're going be that much better off down the line."

When she's not in the Charles E. Smith Center, Vargo can be found in Lerner Health and Wellness Center, where she counsels students every week.

"I work with people one-on-one to set up personal health and wellness goals, healthy eating habits and advise them on how to embrace a healthy lifestyle," she said.

Vargo's passion for health and wellness began long before she came to Foggy Bottom. She studied health and exercise science as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University and earned a certificate as an American Council of Exercise Science lifestyle and weight management consultant.

"I was an athlete growing up, and I compete in figure and body building, so I know how important sound nutrition and exercise is to be both physically functional and fit," she said.

As a fitness model and figure competitor, Vargo travels to conferences and competitions around the country. While "show shape" is 9 to 10 percent body fat, she said being a fitness model is about "more than my body fat percentage."

"Competing in figure competitions has been a way for me to be competitive since I'm no longer involved in a team sport, and it still comes with the mental challenges," said Vargo. "The workouts are the fun part!"

Although she is committed to living a healthy lifestyle, Vargo admits she sometimes falls victim to unhealthy foods. But trying is the most important step.

"We're all human," she said. "But if I can make good choices 90 percent of the time, I can enjoy life."

Contact Kelley at 202-994-5779 or