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Lions take nutrition to heart

One of the people responsible for the massive physiques of Penn State's football players is well-known to Nittany Lion fans: head strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, whose pregame rituals, high intensity and dislike of long pants have made him a fan favorite in less than two years.

Photo courtesy of Mark Selders/Penn State Athletic Communications

Another one of those people is a slender, brown-haired woman who has been at Penn State since before nearly all of the current athletes were born. While Fitzgerald helps sculpt the Nittany Lions' bodies, Dr. Kristine Clark, Penn State's Director of Sports Nutrition, helps ensure those athletes are getting the right kind of fuel to withstand his grueling workouts, be at their best on game days and make the kinds of changes to their bodies they aspire to.

There is nothing subtle about Fitzgerald or his workouts. Clark's methods, on the other hand, take several factors into consideration.

"I don't do an overhaul," Clark says. "We ask athletes, what do you typically eat? What does a typical day look like? Because athletes are usually quite repetitive. And then within the confines of what they tell us they eat, we will ask them to make modifications."

One football player, who needed to drop a few pounds, recently mentioned that he typically ate a 12-inch sub at most meals. Clark asked him if, instead, he would opt for a six-inch sub with extra servings of meat and vegetables, which would allow him to cut carbs without sacrificing protein.

"Yeah," he said. "I think I can do that."

Sometimes it's as simple as asking an athlete to drink water instead of Sierra Mist or adding some olive oil to pasta or some shredded cheese to a salad -- extra calories easy to include in most meals -- if the athlete needs to add weight. No matter the athlete's specific goal, Clark understands that whatever changes she suggests won't work unless that athlete is able to incorporate them into his or her daily routine.

"We're going to make some changes based on the reality of what that athlete thinks they can do," she says.

With the help of Clark and a group of Penn State coaches that is putting an increased emphasis on nutrition, athletes in the Lasch Building and on several other Nittany Lion teams are changing their routines and getting results on the field.

Dr. Kristine Clark, Penn State's Director of Sports Nutrition, has been with the athletic department since 1991.

Greater emphasis

Clark has been working with the athletic department since 1991, and was available to all of Penn State's varsity programs, but when Bill O'Brien took over the program in January 2012, her role with the football team blossomed.

"He let me know that nutrition was a really big deal to him," she says.

Clark speaks every day with Penn State head trainer Tim Bream, her primary liaison to the team, and also has regular discussions with O'Brien. She spent about two afternoons a week this fall in the Lasch Building and would also have one-on-one meetings with players in her Rec Hall office. Early next month, she'll move across campus so that the football players -- and the other athletes who live around the East Area Complex -- will have easier access to her office, and a second full-time nutritionist -- Penn State alumna Erin Columbia -- will move into Clark's old office in Rec and take on approximately half of the workload.

"All the teams are really, really using our services more," Clark says, "which is why getting a new person is helpful."

Tennis players, fencers, golfers -- all sorts of athletes who didn't regularly seek nutritional counsel before have come through Clark's door during the past several months.

What do they talk about? Sometimes their coaches want them to drop weight. Sometimes they've been asked to add some. Or they simply want to feel better during or after performing. Clark helped Garry Gilliam add 40 pounds and transform from a tight end into an offensive tackle. She helped DaQuan Jones drop 25 pounds and become one of the best defensive linemen in the nation.

She can give general advice (and does -- she's met with the team as a whole to give very basic lectures about what to eat before, during and after workouts or games) but the best results come when she gets specific -- and sustained -- feedback from the athletes themselves. Clark can show them the path toward a different body type, but the athletes have to walk it.

Penn State football players are measured in the BOD POD four times per year.

"They're good compliers -- up to a point," she says. "If they're keeping track of what they're eating, I'm in a better position, as their dietitian, to give them better direction if I can see on paper what they're really doing. The question is always the accuracy."

The BOD POD

In Clark's office in Rec and in the Lasch Building sit two devices that look something like the spacecraft Superman might have arrived in. Officially, they're called air plethysmographers, but to athletes, they're known as the particular brand name: "BOD PODS." They're used to measure an athlete's body composition -- or give Clark a better idea of what she's working with.

The athlete will sit in the pod for about a minute and measures both fat mass and fat-free mass (muscle, bone, organs, skin) by using air displacement. The readings will show an athlete -- and the trainer -- exactly what kind of shape they're in.

"It gives the players good objective information that's tangible that they can actually see instead of a strength coach using skin calibers or saying, 'You're looking a little skinny, you need some muscle.' The BOD POD won't lie," Bream says. "We use it to show them, 'This is where you were, where you are, where you need to get to.'"

Penn State football players are measured four times per year; they had their most recent sessions last week, and will do so again at the end of the offseason workout program, following spring ball and before the start of the preseason.

No athlete is required to step into the bod pod, Clark says, but the vast majority do; they usually are as curious about the readings as their coaches. Based on those readings, some players won't see Clark for months. Others, occasionally urged on by Bream or Fitzgerald, will meet with her every other week.

Bream said that from April 2012 to the most recent cycle, Penn State football players had 87 percent positive outcomes, meaning those players either decreased their body fat, increased their lean muscle or a combination of the two as a result of their training and dietary changes.

For those who need to lose weight, the answer can be something as simple as less bread, more meat in a sub, or more chicken and vegetables and less steak and potatoes. Those who are asked to gain weight -- and, says Clark, many college athletes both male and female are underweight regardless of sport -- can find it trickier.

Clark wants such athletes to undergo a slow, healthy weight gain, typically recommending they add 500 to 700 calories per day.

"That's basically a sandwich and a glass of milk, but it's the consistency," she says. "Where athletes struggle is doing this every single day."

What also makes weight gain difficult, Clark says, is that the amount of exercise an athlete undertakes in a day can change from season to season, depending on the sport.

"With a college athlete, every single phase has to be evaluated with 'How does it tax the athlete's time?'" she says.

When Penn State athletes have time to eat, they take it very seriously.

Table matters

Olympic athletes will sometimes consume between 6,000-10,000 calories per day. Penn State football players typically don't eat that much -- but it's not that far off.

That's why the Nittany Lions' training table is stocked with not only pounds and pounds of food, but a wide variety of choices. Jim Hopey, the assistant director of Pollock Dining Commons, works with Clark and Bream to keep the menu fresh and diverse.

"He's awesome at accommodating any type of request," Bream says.

Hopey helps oversee the preparation of holiday feasts, and once a week, a Japanese chef will come in and prepare fresh meals before the players' eyes. Bream takes care to make sure that whole foods can be offered instead of processed foods wherever possible, and wants to make sure there are plenty of complex carbohydrates.

For athletes tasked with gaining weight, training table is a haven. For those who need to drop a few pounds, it can be a dangerous place.

"Research has shown time and again that more than one variety at any one time or feeding period, the greater the variety, the greater the opportunity there is to eat more," Clark says.

A football player finishing his meal is more likely to stay and sit to chat with a teammate who sat down to eat a few minutes later, Clark explains, and thus more likely to get up and grab a second helping. They often justify it because of the calories they had burned during that day's practice.

"Athletes are saying in their head, 'I just burned X number of calories. I just swam or ran or jumped for three hours -- I can have anything I want,'" Clark says. "And they're learning that's not true."

What athletes eat -- or don't eat -- between meals is just as important. There are five key foods Clark often recommends to athletes looking for a snack -- chocolate milk, peanut butter (or any sort of nut butter), cheese, applesauce and ice cream.

Yes. Even -- or especially -- Creamery ice cream.

Clark recently estimated a cone she ate at Penn State's renowned dessert producer to include about three cups of ice cream -- or 1,020 calories. That's a pretty indulgent snack for the average fan, but for a 20-year-old, high-level athlete who can drop three pounds during one practice, it's an inexpensive, easily accessible and delicious way to replace those calories.

Penn State's weight room is stocked with Gatorade and water, but there's also an assortment of snacks well within reach in the Lasch Building -- Rice Krispie treats, cereal, trail mix, granola bars, oatmeal to go, pretzels, Goldfish crackers, Chex mix, beef jerky -- familiar, everyday snacks that many of the athletes probably grew up on. But they've all been previously screened.

"We look at stuff we can keep the total fat calories at 30 percent or less," Bream says. "We don't want high-fat snacks."

Educating and motivating

Getting athletes on a basic plan and getting them to change their diets is a huge part of getting results. First, though, those athletes very often need some background.

"With younger kids that are just coming in, no kidding, they don't know the difference between the three types of macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates), don't understand the difference between protein and carbohydrate nor do they really understand they need carbs for energy and that they need both carbs and protein after a workout," Clark says. "You're doing a lot of explaining in the early stages of meeting with the freshmen and it's not lost on any of them."

Those explanations are easier, Clark is finding, as another generation of coaches puts a greater emphasis on nutrition in sport.

"When I was hired in '91, I was dealing with middle-aged or older coaches who had a strong belief that nutrition was superfluous," Clark says. "When a coach believes that nutrition matters in all kinds of things well being, health and performance, they refer their athletes here much more chronically instead of acutely.

"The coaches go to their own meetings and they're learning about nutrition," she adds. "They understand enough to make them interested but they also understand their limitations. Sports nutrition is a specialty within the field of nutrition. Athletes and coaches really know more knowledge about sports nutrition can be useful. The strength coaches and the athletic trainers know more of the value of nutrition."

And though Clark has been spending more time with football during the past two years than ever before, other Penn State teams and coaches have recognized and embraced the value of Clark's program.

"I truly believe it's a very important piece to the puzzle if you want to have an elite level program," Penn State men's basketball coach Patrick Chambers says. "These guys have to learn how to treat their bodies."

Chambers points to sophomore forward Brandon Taylor, who has trimmed 40 pounds since arriving on campus last year and as a result is able to do things on the floor he would "never have done in the past," says his coach.

Six-foot-three freshman guard Geno Thorpe was 177 pounds when he joined the Nittany Lions during the summer and, after consultation with Clark and a few changes to his own routine, began the season at 189 pounds.

"I'd not only eat three meals a day but get it up to four or five," he says. "I'd always have a snack with me."

As both Clark and Bream pointed out, professional athletes treat taking care of their bodies as part of their job, and have specialized diets or, in some cases, personal chefs. Bream, who worked with the Chicago Bears before coming to Penn State, will often point out examples of what star linebacker Brian Urlacher ate after a morning workout or before a game -- showing college players the benefits of eating routines that, to them, can often seem like work.

"I tell the athletes, 'If I offered you a million-dollar contract, would you gain weight?'" Clark says. "And you bet they would."

The majority of the athletes who visit with Clark won't sign hefty pro contracts, but they do understand that how they approach their daily meals and snacks can often be just as vital as what they do at that day's practice or weightlifting session. Penn State's coaches, including those in the school's most prominent sport, are treating it that way.

"Coach O'Brien really likes the program," Bream says. "He feels it helps them evaluate guys as far as where they're going and their potential on the field. We've also found out that it not only helps for performances, it also helps with prevention of injuries, academically, creates higher energy levels, their mental capacity's better.

"It's a great tool the whole way around."

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