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Smith-Ryan shares research on long-term athlete health at Tar Heel Tailgate Talk

Wide-ranging talks are held before Carolina home football games that start later than noon at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.

Before she was an associate professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Abbie Smith-Ryan was a runner. During her four years as a college athlete, she suffered nine stress fractures.

“It was related to poor nutrition, poor training and poor oversight,” said Smith-Ryan. “I was hungry for knowledge.”

That hunger inspired her studies and her academic career at Carolina, where she works in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science to increase knowledge, reduce injuries and improve overall quality of life for athletes.

She recalled that hunger for knowledge during her 30-minute lecture “Building an Athlete to Withstand Time” on October 17. It marked the second of this season’s Tar Heel Tailgate Talk series. Kevin Guskiewicz, distinguished professor and senior associate dean for the natural sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, introduced Smith-Ryan to an audience that included Chancellor Carol L. Folt.

Talks are held before Carolina home football games that start later than noon. The series at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History covers topics ranging from the invention of commercial sports to the delights of Southern tailgating.

Smith-Ryan is part of a multidisciplinary team within the Department of Exercise and Sport Science in the College of Arts and Sciences that works with athletes from the NCAA, NFL and NFL Players Association to offer a scientific approach to training, performance and nutrition. Her research uses factors of body composition, metabolism and supplements to help athletes stay healthy while they’re playing and long after they’ve left sports.

Many times, a simple research measure can offer major insights into improving health. Smith-Ryan and fellow researchers worked with Division I cross-country athletes to help identify why many runners experienced stress fractures. Her research showed higher fat and worse muscle quality in the group experiencing stress fractures.

“Our cross country team, especially our stress fracture individuals, needed to be lifting heavier weights,” said Smith-Ryan. “Let’s cut out some of the mileage and lift weights to try and help maintain or increase that lean mass and muscle quality.”

Encouraging the Carolina fans in the audience to be aware of their own body composition, Smith-Ryan emphasized that a research-based approach can help everyone, because, “really, we’re all athletes,” she said. “It takes physical activity to carry the groceries into the house. I can carry them all in one hand – that’s why I lift weights.”

To watch the full lecture, on YouTube.

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