Colin Greening, an extraordinary athlete and scholar, graduated from Cornell University in 2010. Since then he has played for the NHL and the AHL. In a recent phone interview from Toronto with Anne Ledbetter EdD, Director of Education at the Center for Nutrition Studies, he shared his personal insights on taking responsibility for ones health for the long run.
Dr. Anne Ledbetter: As an outstanding scholar and athlete at Cornell University, what was your recipe for balancing academics and athleticism?
Colin Greening: I think it was actually focusing on both. They were both a reprieve for me. When I had a tough time with hockey or when it was very demanding, I could throw myself into my school work and vice versa. When I was having a tough time with school, I could throw myself into hockey. I always thought that was a really good balance for me and allowed me just to clear my head. During the day I’d make sure I did my school work but then from the hours of three to seven when I had to be in the gym or when I was skating, I was totally focused on that. I think it almost gives you a new perspective when you go back to school work after that. That was a good recipe for success.
AL: What is a typical week like as a professional hockey player?
CG: You use the word ‘typical.’ Unfortunately when it comes to professional sports and particularly professional hockey, there really isn’t a ‘typical.’ But if I can try and come up with something, I would say that typically you would play three to four games a week. Sometimes you might play most of them on the road, sometimes you might play more at home. Where I am now in Toronto, we have a pretty tough travel schedule. When I was playing in Binghamton last year in the NHL, a lot of our games were road games. In terms of on a monthly basis, I would say that you practice almost every single day. You get about three or four days off, where it’s completely off, where you don’t necessarily have to go into the rink, but a lot of times people are still practicing to work on extra things. Whether it is physiotherapy or shooting some pucks or looking at videos. You don’t get a lot of time off in the schedule. Usually once you show up to camp in September, it’s pretty much go, go, go until the season is over, I’ve been lucky enough to play into June. Sometimes it’s been unfortunate that I finish toward the beginning of April. Like I said, it’s hard to come up with a typical week because a lot of pro hockey is ‘fly by the seat of your pants.’
AL: What’s a day like for a professional hockey player?
CG: I’ll go through a typical game day. I’ll get up probably around 7:30 or 8am. I’ll either eat breakfast at home or they do serve breakfast at the rink for us, which we’re very fortunate. I get there probably around 9 o’clock and either I eat breakfast, but if I don’t you’re going in there and you’re getting ready for the game. That’s your own personal routine. In the mornings I like to stretch out. If I have some aches and pains, I’ll have the trainer take a look at me. You’re usually on the ice by like 10:00 or 10:30 for the morning skate. You’re out there for 20, 30 minutes to get your blood flowing. Some people like to do morning skate, some people don’t like to do morning skates. I’m different. I don’t really need to do a morning skate but if it’s good to get my mind sharp, I’ll certainly do it.
Once you’re done, around 11 or 11:30 you’ll get off the ice. Sometimes with Toronto they provide a pregame meal for us. We have a lunch there, which is whatever you want, usually round 12, 12:30, or 1 o’clock. Then I’ll head back home, where I’ll grab a nap for about an hour and a half to two hours depending how tired I am. Usually I get up around 3:00 or 3:30 and then I’ll grab another little snack like some fruit or some nuts or something like that. I’ll shower up, I’ll throw my suit on and I head to the rink. I usually get to the rink for a 7 o’clock game, around 4:30. Then once you get to the rink it’s the same thing.
You’re doing your routine. You’re tapping your sticks, you’re going over your video, you’re reviewing the other team’s players, their systems, their tendencies, you’re warming up. Then by 7 o’clock the puck drops and you’re there basically until 9:30 or 9:45 when the game ends. Then after that you’re doing a cool down or you’re doing media or you’re doing something. There’s always something to be done. Tomorrow night I’ll probably get home around 10:30 and grab a quick bite. Then you get up the next morning and then head to practice.
AL: It sounds demanding.
CG: It is and it isn’t. It’s like anything. I have a lot of friends who are in finance in New York or in Toronto. In fact, I had a friend over last night and he was saying that for his hours in finance, he has to be there at 7 AM and then most days he works until 8 PM. I thought about that. At least I get to come home during the day. That to me, that sounds grueling. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
AL: Do you have any tips for eating healthy while traveling?
CG: The biggest thing that I have found is finding good juice and smoothie places that have organic fruit and vegetables. I always look for them in the cities I travel to. Sometimes they have them, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t I think you need to focus on bringing your own fruits and vegetables. I bring a lot of apples and oranges and watermelon or melon or things like that, which can help me. However, that only helps me for a day or two. If you’re going on the road for a week, I think you really need to search out the really healthy restaurants. I take a lot of cashews and walnuts. I take a lot of flax seed powder with me, things that can add nutritional value when sometimes you’re limited in what you can have.
But for me, I have a lot of apples, a lot of blueberries, things that have a lot of color that are very easy to bring with you. It’s a little bit tougher when you’re crossing the border because sometimes they won’t allow that. But I would say definitely finding the smoothie places, the juice places, and bringing your own fruits and vegetables, is what is really important to me. We’re all humans and we’re all creatures of habit. When we get hungry and we need energy, the first thing our brain looks to is something that’s a quick fix like sugar. A lot of times it’s not the good sugar that you would get in an orange. Having those snacks and having those options is good, not only for nutrition but so that you’re not putting in foods that can cause inflammation in your body.
AL: Great. What habits and practices have you found that positively impact your professional athletic performance?
CG: A lot of what I’ve learned has probably been in the the last four or five years. Actually just from when I took Dr. Campbell’s class and he talked about nutrition from a wholistic perspective instead of pinpointing every single vitamin and mineral. I agreed with that to an extent. I think you need to focus on those for sure. There’s some people who are deficient in vitamin D and there’s people who are deficient in magnesium and all of it but I think when you’re focusing on that as the cure, that’s putting a band aid on the wound. It’s not really getting to the root of it. I think you need to look at your nutrition and your nutrition plan from the whole.
Actually it’s interesting because just today one of my trainers asked me, “What anti-inflammatory foods do you eat, what about turmeric? I heard turmeric is really good for anti-inflammatory.” I said, I might put that on my food, but I don’t rely on turmeric as my anti-inflammatory. I rely on my nutrition as a whole. The habits that I’ve created, it’s a daily process. What I need to do is I need to put foods in my body that will allow me to recover quicker than had if I eaten something with casein protein for example. If you go through that day and it is a grind, you come home, after a game and your body is so susceptible at that point because it’s been so beaten up and it’s tired. What you put in your body will cause a huge reaction with your body and affect how you recover the next day.
If I’m eating cheese and drinking milk, to me, it will cause a huge, huge, inflammation reaction. For me, the habits that I’ve created are all anti-inflammatory. The food that I put in after a game, before a game, on an off day, it’s all about creating an optimized situation so that my body recovers as quickly as possible.
AL: What an advantage you have!
CG: This is a passion of mine. For other people it’s out of sight, out of mind or they don’t care about it. But I care. I notice these things. For me, it was a major injury that I had but it was a blessing in disguise. I think it was like my fourth year of professional hockey. Up to that point I hadn’t really a missed game due to injury. I thought I was eating the right foods and then all of a sudden that year I started feeling a little bit more tired. One game my knee just blew up. It just blew up with inflammation and I could not play. I missed six games and I couldn’t understand it because everyone kept asking did you take a hit? Did someone slash you? Something happened where there was trauma. I couldn’t think of it. Just by chance, I was doing some work with a cancer resource center. There was a nutritionist there who dealt with cancer patients. I was talking to her a bit about what was going on. She said, “Why don’t you come talk to me? Come to my clinic and we can chat a little more about it.”
She did a little blood work on me and she came back. She said, “You have a lot of high inflammation markers in some of the foods that you’re eating.” At that point, I didn’t really understand what she meant. She basically said, “When you eat these foods, it doesn’t allow you to recover very quickly. It can cause problems in your body.” She said, “I think that’s probably what happened, your body was just under a lot of stress and trauma from the hockey season. You weren’t giving it the right foods to basically reduce that.” She said, “It came back and caught up with you.” Since then, learning about this has really lit a fire under me!
AL: Since then, has your knee been inflamed like that time, for no particular reason?
CG: Nope. Never!
AL: Could you tell us about any significant take aways from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies Course in Plant Based Nutrition?
CG: The effects that dairy can have on your body and especially with the way it’s processed these days. it’s homogenized and it’s heated and there’re so many things that are done to it. How exactly are you supposed to absorb that? How can your stomach lining absorb something that’s just been manipulated so much that it’s supposed to be some sort of benefit to you. I learned so much about casein protein and dairy with his class and the effects of it and what it can do to cancer rates. It was really eye opening for me.
A lot of people when they talk about foods that they eat, they’ll say, “that doesn’t affect me. I feel fine. I feel great.” Then five years later something happens where they just get some sort of disease or something goes wrong.
It hits a personal note for me because one of my best friends, he passed away from cancer. He died when he was 25 years old. He was very healthy. Actually he was studying to be a doctor. He had never really any problems growing up. Then all of a sudden he had this very vicious and aggressive tumor. He went from being diagnosed essentially in September, to passing away about seven, eight months later. When Dr. Campbell was talking about the stages of cancer in class, it just really resonated with me, that it may not necessarily affect you now but it’s growing inside of you. Don’t give it any chance to grow, any type of cancer or any type of disease that’s going to negatively affect you.
AL: If you could share one message with other athletes, what would it be?
CG: Regardless of whatever type of athlete you are, you have to know your body. Someone once told me, they were an athlete and they said, my body is a corporation and I’m the CEO. I decide what goes in it and what happens to it. I think a lot of people need to do this, in their own way. They need to take that mentality on, where they really need to know what affects their body. If you want to be a pro athlete and you want to be in it for the long haul and you want to make a career, I’m not just talking about playing two or three years, you really have to understand your body and understand what affects it. The first thing that affects your body is the food that you put in it.
Colin Greening is currently in his seventh season as a professional hockey player. He attended the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University where he graduated magna cum laude and achieved academic honors on the Dean’s List for all four years. At Cornell, he served as a two-year hockey Captain and in his senior year, led his team to an ECAC championship and was honored as an Academic All-American and with the prestigious Senior Class Lowe’s Award. He is a T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and eCornell Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate Graduate with a keen interest in health and wellness.
Image Credit: Graig Abel Photography