PULLMAN – Lindsey Barkley knows which players are eating their vegetables this week, and which ones aren’t.
Approximately one month into her tenure as Washington State’s Director of Performance Nutrition, Barkley is still adjusting to a job that pulls her in many directions. She’s the one measuring the caloric intake of various Cougar athletes, monitoring the nutrients they shovel into their body and, when the situation calls for it, calling some necessary dietary audibles.
This week’s situation for the Washington State football team is a nearly 5,000-foot change in elevation as the Cougars open their 2018 season Saturday in Laramie, Wyoming. Barkley won’t make a tackle for WSU on Saturday, but her role in this particular game shouldn’t be overlooked. Perched at an elevation of 7,220 feet, Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium is the closest FBS stadium to space.
“When I got ahold of the schedule and found out Wyoming was at about 7,500 feet, we began that talk of what can we be doing nutritionally to combat that without getting too much in the players’ head,” Barkley said. “Without them going in expecting to be more tired, expecting to not be performing optimally.”
How are the Cougars preparing for the thinnest air in college football?
“We’ve been drinking some beet juice,” senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer said, conjuring up a few blank stares from the reporters standing in front of him.
If anybody’s slipping on their daily intake, Barkley should be the first to know.
(Reader discretion advised.)
“We do have to warn them that hey, your pee might be red,” she laughed. “Don’t be alarmed, that’s totally normal with drinking the beets. I’m going to test USG (Urine Specific Gravity) here in a second, so we’ll see how many beets they’ve been consuming, actually.”
But why beets?
Essentially, because the bright-red root vegetable is loaded with inorganic nitrates, which can help with vasodilation and the expansion of blood vessels, allowing a higher volume of red blood cells to pass through. So beets increase oxygen transport and help the body replenish ATPs (Adenosine Triphosphate) at a higher rate, which directly affects energy currency.
“Then we’ll be able to perform at a higher intensity for a longer duration,” Barkley said.
At first, Barkley and her staff introduced the juice straight up – no mixers.
“That wasn’t as palatable, necessarily, as we would’ve liked,” she said.
To say the least.
“Terrible, kind of like dirt,” Pelluer said of the substance. “Not enjoyable.”
A more tolerable solution, Barkley found, was blending beet powder and beet concentrate into the team’s “intro shakes” – which are consumed during workouts – and postlift/postpractice shakes. One of the beverages is a combination of beet concentrate, dextrose and Gatorade. Barkley believes players probably wouldn’t be able to detect the beet component of the drink if it didn’t take on a bright-red color.
“Straight, by itself, it’s not fantastic,” she said. “You definitely have your guys that are like, ‘I don’t care what it tastes like, I’m going to get it down because I know it’ll help my performance.’ Then you have those guys that you really have to work to make it palatable.”
She’s also been coordinating with chefs in the team cafeteria to add beets to the salad bar, and worked to educate players on what portions are necessary to increase nitrate intake.
“We started about 15 days out with this protocol and then with the nitrate intake, you can usually see it increase in about 3-5 days, so you don’t need to be as long, but the more the better,” Barkley said. “So we’ve been adding in that protocol for about 15 days and we’ll carry it right up to game day.”
A handful of the current Cougars were around when the team traveled to Boulder two years ago for a Pac-12 game against the Colorado Buffaloes. Folsom Field sits at an altitude of 5,328 feet – by contrast, Pullman is just over 2,000 – and some Cougars remember being winded at different stages of a 38-24 loss. After leading 17-14 at halftime, WSU showed definite signs of fatigue in the second half when the Cougars were outscored 24-7.
Most players have come to terms with the sacrifices they may need to take to get over this high-altitude hump – bad as those sacrifices might taste.
“That was kind of tough,” Pelluer said of the 2016 game in Boulder. “It’s just some more adversity, another challenge, so we’re going to attack it and keeping drinking beet juice.”
“That’s something you’ve just got to sacrifice, man,” senior wide receiver Kyle Sweet said. “The taste isn’t very good, but that’s just something you’ve got to do to make yourself play a little better.”
Barkley, a WSU graduate who most recently worked as a Nutrition Services Field Manager for the Renton (Washington) School District, has also encouraged players to increase consumption of foods rich in iron and Vitamin C. Red meats, poultry, and various vegetables and fruits have all taken on a more prominent role at the Cougars’ dinner table.
“We gave them some images, told them to pick one from each group,” Barkley said. “One food that’s high in nitrates, one that’s high in iron and one food that’s high in Vitamin C at each meal.”
Of course, there’s only so much the nutritional audibles can do. The Cougars feel they’re in good enough condition to keep up on Saturday, but sometimes a low-oxygen setting like Wyoming’s can psych a team out mentally before it impacts them physically – and is one reason it can be such an advantage for the home team.
It was mentioned in a Casper Star-Tribune last year that the Cowboys have won 66 percent of their games at War Memorial Stadium.
“I remember in Boulder it was a long game, especially on defense. We couldn’t get off the field on third downs, so we were out there a lot,” Pelluer said. “I think I ended up playing 110-plus total snaps and so it jumps on your back quickly. At the same time, I also feel like it’s mental, especially if you come into it telling yourself you’re going to be tired, you’re going to be more tired. So I’m going to make sure this team is mentally prepared as well as physically prepared for Laramie.”
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.