Growing up in Lithuania, Rasa Troup had the advantage of being born to active parents (her mother was a discus thrower and coach, her father a runner and PE teacher), and so it was no surprise that she played basketball and soccer growing up, or that she eventually followed them into track and field events. Yet during her first decade of competition, Rasa wasn’t able to take advantage of the advances in performance that were being made outside of the Communist bloc.
So, when she left her homeland for a scholarship at the University of Minnesota, Rasa was determined to make the most of her newfound intellectual freedom and the advantages that studying in the West afforded. She soon discovered that while she had run at a high level in Lithuania, her lack of knowledge about nutrition had been a limiting factor. So she began taking what she was learning in an undergraduate physiology program to her exploits for the Golden Gophers’ track team and, after earning a master’s in nutrition, to her career as a pro runner and registered dietician. In 2008, her discovery and hard work paid off when she represented her home nation at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
In this interview, Rasa, the newest addition to the Momentous Performance Engineers team, talks about her nutritional self-experimentation, lessons learned while advising the Minnesota Vikings and Twins, and how she helps her athletes find the right balance between mindful and prescriptive eating.
How is working with big, powerful football players at the Vikings and baseball players at the Twins different from coaching endurance athletes?
The specificity of these sports and timing of the nutrients the players need before and after practice are both important factors. And even players who are a similar size and play the same position can have very different energy needs. There are calculations you can make that provide basic guidelines, but then you need to look at the individual and how they process macro and micronutrients. Another consideration is culture. With the Twins, 30 to 40 percent of the players come from Latin America and so their protein choices and eating habits aren’t the same as the Americans on the team. Another surprise is that baseball players traditionally don’t consider nutrition in the dugout. They’d bring Gatorade, water, and pumpkin seeds, and that’s about it. So I had to educate them on the significance of pre-game nutrition and how it can help them with brain function and muscle activity levels. Baseball is getting more into evidence-based nutrition, but there’s still a long way to go.
What is the most important message that you convey to Twins players?
When athletes get to the pro level, they’ve worked very hard and also have extreme giftedness. Sometimes they think, “I don’t need to change anything because what I’m doing has worked so far.” But they don’t realize the positive impact that nutrition can have. So I have to get them curious about what their body might be able to do if they make some modifications to their eating. As careers are often short, they have a limited window to explore their full physical and mental capabilities, so if I can make them realize that optimal nutrition can improve their performance by one to five percent, that gets them interested in what I have to say next. At this level that can be the difference between catching a ball or not, or making it to home plate or getting out. I make it clear that while training is important, the five or six times a day that they eat gives them an even bigger opportunity to improve, because everything they put into their body makes change in one way or another. The same goes for sleep.
How do you help your track athletes be their best on the day of a race?
First, I need to understand what their everyday nutrition habits look like and make sure they’ve got the basics down. Then we can look at what they do on race day. While it looks different for everyone, having a small meal one to two hours before they compete is often what’s needed. My goal is to help them generate the power, speed, and energy they need depending on their event, so we need to look at whether they’re running 100, 200, 800, or 1,500 meters because the breakdown and timing of their nutrients will vary. One of my 400-meter runners had an iron deficiency and while we didn’t have time to completely replenish her iron stores (because this takes months), we were able to introduce beet juice and some resistant starches. At the start of the indoor season her best time was just over 53 seconds, and in the last meet she ran 51.99. A second is a huge improvement and changing her nutrition helped. Initially, she said she felt like she was flying for the first 300 and then walking the last 100 because of that iron deficiency. But when we made the changes, she was able to push through the line.
How do you get your athletes to balance prescriptive and mindful eating?
We often see that endurance athletes aren’t getting sufficient protein, in which case they’re usually not getting enough calories, either. This adversely affects recovery, bone health, mood, the endocrine system, and more. The issue is often that physical activity acts as an appetite suppressant and as your core temperature rises, your desire to eat drops. So for athletes whose output is making hunger and satiety impulses inaccurate, only eating when they’re hungry isn’t going to work because they won’t get the nutrients they need and their performances will suffer. For example, I’ve seen runners go for 10 to 20 miles on a Sunday and not feel hungry afterwards. Then they go and binge eat on Monday, which isn’t the right thing to be doing on either day. This is why I encourage my athletes to combine both mindful and prescriptive eating. We know that consistent protein intake throughout the day leads to better synthesis in the muscles, so there are times you have to eat even when you might not feel like it.
Why did you partner with Momentous?
I appreciate the quality of Momentous products, the amount of thought that went into choosing each ingredient, and how they’re combined. Being NSF Certified for Sport is also important because I have to make sure my athletes not only perform well, but are also safe and don’t fail drug tests. I’ve enjoyed working with the Momentous team, too.
Where do you find the balance point between evidence and experience?
Even extensive studies only apply to a maximum of 80 to 90 percent of people. The rest are going to be outliers and if my athlete is in this category, the study’s finding won’t apply to them. The Australian Institute of Sport does a lot of good research that’s highly applicable, and there are others also doing fine work. But we need to acknowledge that science cannot answer every question. It’s also hard to gather data during a competitive season because in baseball, for example, you have 162 games, so a lot of the studies don’t apply to the kind of athletes I work with. Sometimes I look at the evidence and try something. Then if someone is a non-responder, we have to try something else. The science often follows what we see in practice.
There are also situations where what works best is counter-intuitive and wouldn’t be backed up by any study. For example, I worked with an athlete who was getting ready to swim the English Channel. We found that the best snack for him was chocolate milk balls. I wouldn’t normally advise that someone eats candy, but it gave him the energy he needed to complete the task at hand. Sometimes distance runners snack on potato chips, which gives them some carbs and helps replenish sodium lost through perspiration. That’s the art of what I do – translating science into something practical that’s simple enough to work for people in the real world. To do this, I need to take into account each person’s background, habits, history, and preferences. We have to pay attention to how people feel, too. Just because something works for one person, doesn’t mean it will be effective for the next.
Written by Phil White