With over 30 varsity teams, the University of Waterloo has many student-athletes who must balance rigorous academic schedules with the demands of playing elite sports. But what does the lifestyle of a varsity athlete actually look like?
Often, the Warrior lifestyle requires early mornings. Athletes on the swim team, rowing team, soccer team and many others attend practices before class several times a week.
“I get up at 4:15 a.m. on weekdays so I can get ready for the day, and drive to practice for 5:30,” said Robert Walsh, a varsity rower and second-year mechanical engineering student.
Devon Miller-Junk, a fifth-year computer engineering student and one of the captains of the men’s varsity swim team, wakes up at around 5:00 a.m. most days for 5:45 a.m. practices.
Given how early many practices run, athletes can find themselves short on sleep.
“The biggest sacrifice I make as a varsity athlete is probably my sleep,” Walsh said. “Some of my classes can be difficult when I’m really tired, but it’s definitely worth the satisfaction of an early morning row.”
However, not every sport requires its team members to be early birds. Lauren Jutlah, a third-year tennis player, does not have morning practices.
Regardless of how early or late practices run, the varsity athlete schedule requires significant time commitment. Between team practices, fitness training and games, many Warriors spend upwards of 15 hours a week on their sport.
“The hardest part about being a varsity athlete is trying to balance the time commitment of training and competing with school work. Making sure you are on top of assignments and ready for class can be tough when you’re tired from an early morning practice or stressed about an upcoming regatta,” Walsh said.
“I spend about 18 to 21 hours per week on rowing, with two hours a day dedicated to practice at the boathouse, one hour per day dedicated to commuting, and about three one-hour weights or conditioning sessions per week. We also have a regatta about every other week during the on-season, which takes about 10 to 12 hours of the weekend,” Walsh explained.
Miller-Junk expressed the same sentiment.
“It’s challenging to balance your responsibilities and commitments within the sport and outside the sport. It can be really easy to lose sleep or your diet when pressed for time,” he said. “It varies by term, but I try to dedicate around 18 hours per week for training during our season, and 12 to 15 [hours per week] during the off-season. This is usually 80 per cent in the water during the season, and 50 to 60 per cent in the water during the off-season.”
During the soccer season, the team practices for eight hours a week, on top of which athletes complete three to four hours of fitness training. Games add an additional five to eight hours to the weekly schedule.
Jutlah, who spends between eight and 12 hours a week at tennis practices and six hours a week at games during the season, said that the biggest sacrifice she makes as an athlete is personal time. Between training and a busy academic schedule, it can be challenging to find time for self care and a social life.
In addition to the time demands of training, Miller-Junk highlighted the importance of recovery time — including enough sleep — between practices, further emphasizing the need for varsity athletes to have strong time-management skills.
Many athletes also manage their diets closely.
“The biggest problem with most swimming diets is getting enough food at the right time,” Miller-Junk said. “You want protein-heavy meals very soon after training, with smaller cutting back [in how much you eat] soon before competition,” he explained.
Competitive swimmers often follow a taper training schedule, which involves reducing the volume and intensity of practices in the days leading up to a competition. Tapering allows swimmers to recover and reserve energy before a big swim meet. During this period, swimmers may reduce their overall food intake — to match the reduction in caloric expenditure — and increase consumption of carbohydrates.
Even athletes with less strict diets need to monitor their food and water intake to keep themselves in top shape.
“I don’t really tend to have a specific diet, but I definitely like to meal prep. Having my lunch for the next day prepared the night before makes it easy to just grab and go when I leave my house in the early mornings,” Walsh said. “I also like to eat a bunch of small meals throughout the day, rather than a few big ones. I find having two breakfasts, and two lunches helps to keep me better fuelled through the day, rather than having one of each.”
Every athlete emphasized the importance of hydration.
“The most important thing is getting enough water,” Jutlah said.
Despite the challenges associated with a varsity athlete schedule, the rewards overwhelmingly outweigh the sacrifices.
“My favourite thing about being a varsity athlete is the opportunity to compete with other schools, and see how much I can improve. It’s really satisfying to set goals, and then work hard to achieve them, and setting a personal best is always a great feeling,” Walsh said.
Meanwhile, Jutlah highlighted the benefits of being active and the friends she made on the team.
“I love the supportive community and active lifestyle,” she said.