How FLIK Fuels Professional Athletes: Q&A with Nicole Feneli, Director of Wellness, FLIK Hospitality Group
Professional athletes are constantly looking for an edge. One way they can stay ahead of the competition is by putting the right food in their bodies. Fueling athletes requires attention to detail and deep knowledge on what – and when – to eat to best prepare athletes for success in their specific sport and position. That’s where Nicole Feneli comes in. A registered dietitian for more than 15 years, Nicole is FLIK Hospitality Group’s director of wellness and our expert in athlete nutrition. She loves to work with professional teams and be involved in their successes and defeats. We recently talked to Nicole to learn more about her passion for food as well as what goes in to providing specialized nutrition to professional athletes.
FLIK Hospitality: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Nicole: I have been a registered dietitian for over 15 years. I love to cook but love to eat even more. I have two young daughters who, not surprisingly, love to eat – especially vegetables. I am an avid sports watcher (mostly because of my husband) and definitely thankful to have many teams to cheer on these days.
F: What made you want to become a dietitian?
N: Growing up I always thought I wanted to be a chef. I went to culinary school and worked in restaurants the whole way. At the same time, I grew up in a house where healthy eating was the norm, so when I had the opportunity to focus my education on culinary nutrition, I took it. I instantly loved the fact that I could educate and help people and still be exposed to food. It was the best decision because I have never thought about a different career.
F: When did you start working with professional athletes, and how is it different from other specialty areas in the field?
N: I started working with professional athletes and sports teams when I joined FLIK in 2010 and became a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics in 2016.
The fundamentals of nutrition are the same regardless of what field you work in. However, specializing in sports nutrition requires greater understanding of anatomy and physiology and the specific effects food has on performance and recovery.
F: What is it like working with professional sports teams on a daily basis?
N: Working with professional sports teams is very exciting. You really become engaged in their successes and defeats. It also has its challenges as leadership changes or new players join the team – we have to be flexible and adapt our programs and service levels quickly.
F: How do you approach the nutrition plan for each team? Each position? Each player?
N: While we customize our plan for each team, it is really important that we start with high quality food standards and offerings that are meant to fuel athletes. Athletes’ needs vary based on the sports and even the position within the sport. A professional soccer player is surely going to be leaner than an offensive lineman in the NFL, so standard menus are not an option.
One key to our success is learning the players’ likes and dislikes. Serving food that is popular is crucial to getting the athletes the fuel they need. We also consider practice times, travel schedule and recovery needs as we are planning menus.
F: Why is it important to customize the nutrition plan for each person?
N: It is often the case that if an athlete does not have easy access to the foods they need and should be eating, they will either not eat or eat something quick and unhealthy. Because of this, we must ensure that we have food to meet the needs of all team members. This includes options not just for performance, but for allergies and intolerances as well.
F: How do you work with the teams’ dietitians and strength coaches?
N: I see myself as a liaison between the team dietitians, strength coaches and the FLIK chefs. While our chefs have great relationships on their own with the coaches, I help to make sure the information that is given to the players in the weight room translates to the menu and food offering. This includes creating customized food labeling systems for each team.
F: What are some of the biggest nutrition challenges for professional athletes?
N: I think that cooking is actually one of the biggest nutrition challenges for athletes. The teams we work with do an amazing job of educating their players about what they should be eating, and we make sure that when they’re in their facilities they have great food.
Whether they don’t know how to cook, don’t have time to shop, or are too famous to go to the grocery store, feeding themselves at home is a challenge. We teach basic cooking classes for many of teams we work with to try and increase culinary literacy. We also review menus of restaurants local to player’s homes to provide suggestion on quality meals.
Finally, many of our teams prepare take-home meals to fill the gap when players are not at the training center.
F: Why is it important for teams to have sports nutritionist or a robust sports nutrition program?
N: It is widely recognized that proper nutrition is essential to athletic performance as well as increased longevity in an athlete’s career. Over the last 5-10 years, there has been an increased focus on nutrition in athletics and a huge rise in the number dietitians working for collegiate and professional sports teams.
Any advantage a team has over an opponent can increase their chances for a victory, and a good sports nutrition program definitely provides that advantage.
F: What is one of the most surprising things about working with professional athletes?
N: There were a lot of things that surprised me when I first starting working with professional athletes and teams. The first being how nice and down-to-earth everyone is. It is a very high-stakes environment, and even with the ups and the downs that the team goes through, they are always kind to our team.
Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised by the athletes’ willingness to learn and take advice on healthy eating.
F: What is one of the most fun parts of your job?
N: The most fun part of my job is that every day is different. I might be testing recipes one day, teaching a cooking class another day and creating education materials the next.
I also get to work with amazingly talented chefs and eat amazing food every day!