Six Reasons You May Be A “Recovering College Athlete” And What To Do About It

Guest post written by: Carolyn Dolan
bball team
What is it to recover from being a college athlete you ask? And no, it doesn’t mean that you played Division I football, but it doesn’t mean that you didn’t. I played Division II Women’s Basketball, and only for 3 years, plus 1 redshirt year. Why did I stop? Because I wanted to graduate and I knew professional sports were not in my future. Where did the experience leave me, and many other past athletes?
As a physical therapist, let me just drum up a few diagnosis that may or may not be associated with people who have past college athletic experience (or any team sport experience starting in grade school):
Osteoarthritis of [insert body part(s) here]
Pain in [insert body part(s) here]
Stiffness in [insert body part(s) here]
Beyond physical therapy conditions, you may also have experience with these:
Obesity (due to excessive calories, or drug-induced)
Metabolic Syndrome
There are likely many more. You may have none, you may have some, or you may have all of them. It is not unlike a majority of Americans who didn’t play college athletics, yet they simply suffer from eating the Standard American Diet. But let’s just imagine a bell curve of the SAD diet, where athletes (some even starting at the young ages of 5 years old nowadays, I only started in 8th grade) fall in the upper extreme of SAD. Like SAD-PLUS. Meaning they ate the SAD, but even more calories, even more processed and refined carbohydrates, and even more sugar from hydration drinks than the average American. On top of it all, you took endless amounts of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) and if you were female, probably birth control because unexpected periods were difficult to manage depending on your sport.
Beyond diet though, we have a set of standards for athletes that does them a disservice for when they are no longer athletes any more. Coaches tell them what to do, when to do it and make decisions for them related to not only food, but also medication. The stakes are even higher at the professional level of course.
For sure the physical activity overall probably had more benefits than not. Especially if you didn’t play a high impact sport like football and you didn’t over train. Yet, you probably tipped the balance of too much.
I had great coaches with big hearts, and most college athletes do. It’s not the coach’s fault and I am not trying to place any blame here. Maybe simply acknowledge the problem in order to work towards resolution.
Here are six reasons I have that identify me as a “Recovering College Athlete” and maybe you are too.

  1. You are addicted to sugar – I was addicted to sugar in all forms. My addiction started during college athletics. Carb loading before games, regular carb loading after games. It really didn’t matter. I had teammates who would eat a snickers bar even before game time. I never had weight problems with athletics, but I developed a hankering to refined carbs, refined sugars and anything with sugar. But I didn’t know it. True, most Americans have this problem, but it seems my addiction to sugar drove all of my food choices during athletics and well beyond into my parenthood. This addiction drove me into depression, anxiety, and obesity (albeit mild). It can also lead to a whole host of metabolic disorders.
  2. You have blind trust in authority figures – I was rewarded all those years for performance. Meaning, I did what I was told and received praise. I trusted my coaches, my trainers, my doctors, my teachers and everyone that had authority over me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they told me to do anything inherently wrong, but because of the reward system in place, I didn’t really have to think for myself. Until one day, I was on my own. I didn’t know what to do. So I simply did what everyone else was doing. I am not blaming anyone, but suddenly thinking for myself was a challenge I wasn’t prepared for. Until now, finally, as a parent I was forced into making decisions on my own. And I had to learn how to respect authority figures, but make my own informed decisions in all aspects of my life.
  3. You miss team effort –For sure you loved sports because everyone was working towards a common goal. You were on a team with likeminded individuals, and then it was over. If you were lucky, you found another career where you got to work on teams or work with people that enjoyed their work like you do. I have been lucky in that regard. All of the physical therapy jobs I have had were with like-minded people working towards the goal of improving someone’s life. But that isn’t everyone’s story. Maybe you ended in a desk job working on the computer. Today I run a business on my own, and I miss my team. I hope to build it again, but for now I miss it. So maybe you join a city league or maybe it is only fantasy football, but you find a team. It isn’t the same, but it certainly helps.
  4. You struggle when things aren’t black and white – If you are out of bounds, you are out of bounds. The score is 10-0, you lose. But what about real life when the rules themselves don’t make sense? Like why is sugar not a controlled substance? It just doesn’t make any sense. You want to trust authority figures to help you with this, but that isn’t always right either. So you invest energy in hoping for the best and being at least ok with uncertainty and vagueness.
  5. You ignore pain – Not only do you have pain, you even expect it after playing college sports. You even likely played through pain in college with the help of NSAIDs or injections. Depending on your sport and level of talent, you probably didn’t want to acknowledge the pain because it meant you would lose your position. Although you don’t play sports now, you expect that back pain when you bend over. But you are tough. Push through and keep moving. You probably still use the NSAIDs and injections now, because it worked back then, why not now?
  6. You have leaky gut – If you follow Robb Wolf, you already know about this. But in case you don’t, it is when the cells that line the small intestines become opened and remain open, which allows larger particles of ingested food into the body. It is also associated with a disruption of the bacteria in your gut which help you break down food and release many important vitamins and minerals for you to absorb. Leaky gut is associated with depression, anxiety and autoimmune diseases. What causes leaky gut? Well, everything standard to the college athlete: excessive exercise, stress, refined carbohydrates especially those with gluten, sugar, NSAIDs, and birth control just to name a few.

Now what?
The game is not over. The game is not lost. In fact, consider it half-time and here is the coach’s pep talk. There is time to win if not barely, but maybe even dominate the game from this point forward. Maybe it is only the beginning of the season and you may have lost one fight, but there are many more coming. You actually have many skills from your experience as a college athlete that can be used to your benefit. You know how to work hard and deal with challenges. You know how to read the defense and how to play good offense. You know how to train in the off-season.
Treat the problem like you are training for the biggest game of your life. Develop a plan. Eating strict Paleo is a great start to cut the sugar addiction, improve your painful status, and even initiate repair of leaky gut. Start listening to your body. Pain is a great teacher and actually requires movement. Don’t medicate it away. Maybe seek help to understand and improve it…I am biased but a good physical therapist can help.
Prepare for your health like you did for preparation for the big game reviewing videos of competitors. Except this time read books about how nutrition can help your body heal. Develop your team of supporters, which may include family, friends, and even professionals. Become educated about your body so you can respect the authorities, but truly make an informed decision because you are an expert on your body, nobody else is.
Although the rules for society are not black and white, find your own set of rules to live your life by. Don’t break the law, but certainly you can live life like the game that it is. Don’t fall for the pump fake in life I call the booby trap (like when they put all the candy bars in the checkout line because they want to play into your addictive tendencies all in the name of profit and detriment to your health). Do one better on them and actually just make your purchase. Better yet, play the game and fake them out. Pick up the bar and read the ingredients and then put it back and smile. They can’t trick you. Bam! Slam dunk!
Play the game with a new set of rules. You may end up better than your were back in college. My only regret is that I didn’t know it then….maybe I could have made it to the Final Four championship instead of losing in the semi-finals.
Times are changing for the athletes at the college level. Some programs are trying to go gluten-free or eating whole foods. I have heard even Vitamix blenders are present at some campuses for anti-inflammatory smoothies. Some even include super foods like Bone Broth.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) has an official stand on energy drinks like Gatorade. They outline 9 different points that mention that the ingredients in energy shots and energy drinks are not proven beneficial, and even recommend further study to demonstrate their safety. They further state that athletes should consider the potential impact of these high glycemic drinks on metabolic health and that caffeine may negatively impact motor skill performance. The ISSN recommends athletes with pre-existing health conditions should avoid these drinks altogether. 1
This is all great news. Because these positive changes will help restore the health of an athlete so they can focus on living in the real word where the rules often don’t make sense.
And remember, you have switched sports now and need endurance to last you a lifetime. Go for sustainability.
Remove. Replace. Restore.
Remove carb loading and chronic use of medications for pain management before, during and after athletic competition.
Replace with whole nutrient rich foods that provide the body with the healthiest means of energy. Pay attention to pain so you can move safely during healing for a full return to sport. Find your new sport in life off the field or court. Teach athletes some fundamentals of taking care of themselves just before they leave the comforts of college athletics.
Restore with health and vibrancy throughout life, not just during competition.
Eat well. Move well. Sleep well. Thrive on.

  1. Campbell B, Wilborn C, La Bounty P, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: Energy drinks. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(1):1-2783-10-1.

Carolyn Dolan, PT, DPT, Cert MDT is a “recovered” college athlete living in Reno, NV. She runs an integrative physical therapy practice. Their business motto is “We empower you to SOAR on your own.” She is new to writing but finds that sharing is the best way to empower someone else. You can find her at and her blog under the “How to SOAR” tab. When she isn’t studying for her Masters of Science in Holistic Nutrition, she chases her kids and vermin away from her garden just for the “sport” of it. Eat well. Move well. Sleep well. Thrive on.

Cover Image Wikimedia
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