Nutritionist Gives OU Competitive Edge
Let it be known that Tiffany Byrd is not the food police at the University of Oklahoma.
Instead, Byrd is on a daily mission to take her job far beyond its title in her work with OU student-athletes. As Director of Sports Nutrition, Byrd recognizes that food is very personal to individuals. Her goal is to have a positive impact and influence on the lives of student-athletes across all sports.
Byrd doesn’t achieve her goals by policing the hectic lives of the Sooners. Instead, she builds relationships based on common experiences and a keen understanding of what is required of an NCAA Division I student-athlete.
All student-athletes have an entire host of demands placed on them. On any given day, a Sooner might be juggling homework assignments, class time, a rigorous training regimen and a social life. With so much going on around them, it can often be difficult to find time to consider proper nutrition.
Fortunately for OU student-athletes, Byrd understands their situation. A former NCAA gymnast, Byrd won a national title at Alabama before finishing her collegiate career at Nebraska two years later. During that time, she was also a top-notch performer in the classroom who earned multiple Scholastic All-America and Academic All-Big 12 awards.
“I have walked in the shoes of these athletes,” Byrd said. “I’ve had to undergo injuries and deal with the hard times associated with competition. I think being a former student-athlete continues to be a huge advantage for me.”
As a competitor in an appearance-based sport such as gymnastics, Byrd was aware of the importance of good nutrition long before she arrived at Oklahoma. Her struggle as an undergraduate came in the multiple (and often conflicting) messages from different sources about what good nutrition looked like.
“I knew what I ate mattered, but I also heard so many different things from coaches, society and even the media,” Byrd said. “Because of the wealth of knowledge around nutrition these days, everyone is a nutritionist. You can get a lot of contradictory information.”
When Byrd arrived at Nebraska prior to her junior season, she was greeted by a support staff that included NU’s former Director of Sports Nutrition, James Harris. In Harris, Byrd immediately found a mentor who was guiding the eating habits of hundreds of student-athletes. By the time Byrd finished at Nebraska, Harris inspired a career path that would combine an interest in nutrition with a love of collegiate athletics.
After stops at Oregon, Alabama and a year at the helm of Baylor’s nutrition efforts, Byrd landed at OU as the Sooners’ first Director of Sports Nutrition. She describes nutrition today as being where strength and conditioning was 20 to 30 years ago—a key component of performance that is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. Her primary focus in her first months in Norman has been building relationships with teams and coaches.
“Food is very personal to everybody, because everyone has a different relationship with it,” Byrd commented. “For some, it’s a little tougher than others. You have to have a relationship with an athlete before you can get them to truly open up.”
Byrd understands that she is at Oklahoma to help teams achieve their goals, describing good nutrition as an important “piece of the puzzle” on the path to winning. She is not here to micromanage the diets of student-athletes; instead, she focuses on education and crucial steps that Sooners can take to help themselves train and recover. Among her biggest education tools is the acronym “BOOMER,” developed by Byrd to help her athletes remember the six most important facets of a balanced diet:
Begin with breakfast
Own your protein
Must have fruits and vegetables
Rest and Recover
“Breakfast, recovery nutrition and hydration are paramount,” Byrd said. “Those are the three huge pillars. After BOOMER, we work to tailor things more specifically based on the individual athlete and their respective sport.”
With the vast demands of each OU sport, the changes that an individual student-athlete might see can vary as well. Byrd cites the example of the fourth quarter in football: most athletes can start fast, but will they be able to finish at a similar level? When teams or athletes are evenly matched in competition, the better-fueled competitor will have the advantage.
“Diet plays a huge role in your energy levels and your ability to recover from workouts and tough competitive schedules,” Byrd said. “A Division I student-athlete has a hectic schedule and lifestyle, and diet is very influential on how they’re able to remain on top of their game.”
Byrd’s efforts focus not only on creating tangible benefits for an athlete while performing or recovering, but also in promoting their overall health for a life beyond athletics. A student-athlete following a solid nutritional plan might see increased energy, less fatigue and higher levels of performance. As Byrd puts it, their goal is to “get the body to ultimately do what they need it to do.”
Student-athletes come to OU for the opportunity win championships, to be part of a tradition bigger than themselves. Byrd and her staff are part of an effort to build a bright future for these Sooners, particularly with the opening of new facilities like Headington Hall. Many of Byrd’s efforts will take place in Headington, where the new state-of-the-art Sam Bradford Training Table will help centralize her nutritional work.
“We’re working on every aspect to make sure these athletes are able to get the nutrition, the meals and the quality as well as quantity that they require,” Byrd said. “At the end of the day, it’s about performance. You come to the University of Oklahoma to win championships, and that’s what we’re trying to help them do.”