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Korzun is director of performance nutrition for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and a nutrition consultant to many other world-class athletes. The Alabama native was schooled in meal preparation at Johnson & Wales, and later learned how to make those meals as healthful as possible at BU’s College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College, where he focused on nutrition and exercise physiology. Two years after earning a master’s in 2005, he signed on as a sports dietitian for the US Olympic Committee, creating menus that would help kayakers build a powerful core and shoulders, give weightlifters quads of steel, and keep pentathletes running, swimming, shooting, fencing, and riding.
He later became the sports dietitian for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association and worked with athletes training for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. That year, Team USA won 37 medals, more than any team in the history of the Winter Olympics.
In 2012, Korzun was director of sports nutrition at the University of Oregon. He was recruited to fuel the Green Bay Packers in 2014, a time when both college and professional sports teams were racing to bring on dietitians. Today, 20 of the 32 NFL teams have at least one sports dietitian; 10 years ago, one team did. Professional baseball, hockey, and basketball teams are also starting to welcome dietitians aboard.
Bostonia caught up with Korzun on the road in Texas and asked him about eating for optimal performance.
A lot of the underlying principles of good nutrition are the same in all sports. You eat balanced meals, you balance carbohydrates and proteins, and you make sure that you hydrate. Hydration is very important. But different athletes in different events have different needs.
Downhill skiing is a two-minute event and cross-country skiing—like a 50K—could be two hours long. So you apply the same nutrition principles, but you have to adjust them to the person and to the demand. A two-and-a-half-hour football practice, for example, is like no other event, and a professional football player will make it through countless two-and-a-half-hour practices. A cross-country skier will very often train for two and a half hours as well. But does that make the effort the same? Is one more difficult? Of course not. Just like a cross-country skier may not make it through a football practice, the football player wouldn’t make it through a cross-country ski race. Each athlete has an individual physiology, both genetic, and obviously, trained.
So when working with each athlete, it is important to take into account the demands of the sport, the physiology of the athlete, the clinical needs of the athlete, and of course the personal preferences of the athlete. Just because football practice and a 50K both take two hours doesn’t make them the same. Football is repeated, very short maximal efforts (with obvious impact) and periods of rest and recovery, while a 50K is a sustained effort that builds to a max effort. Both are amazing physical accomplishments…but they are very different.
From a prepractice perspective, you need to convert a lot of food into energy, and having a steak and immediately walking onto the field is not going to work. That energy is not going to be available. It also depends on the event. You have to make sure that an athlete is fueled for the activity that he or she is going to participate in. That could mean certain foods the day before an event, or it could mean bedtime snacks. Many people think it starts with a prerace pasta dinner, but it really starts much farther out than that.
The farther out you are from competition, the more I focus on a meal. Let’s say it’s morning and you’re going to play at 7 pm. We can get a real balanced meal with good complex carbohydrates: sweet potato, oatmeal, and good grains combined with fats. You can do whole-grain pancakes with peanut butter on them for healthy fat, then protein from eggs. You can do the complex meal because your body has time to process it and convert it to energy stores. The closer you get to competition, the more you go with something simple, because you’re looking for a quick blood sugar spike for rapidly available energy. That’s when you look for fresh fruit or fruit juice. That’s why you see so many of these energy gels and bars. They’re just simple carbohydrates that don’t require much breakdown and can be easily absorbed.
Coming off a performance, we’re focused on muscle recovery and managing inflammation. That means refueling carbohydrates and proteins as soon as you’re done. We’re going for a quick shot of protein right away—a protein shake or a smoothie. I’m not talking about when you get home. I mean when you get to the locker room, before you shower and before you go for treatment. The reason is, from a physiological standpoint, you have initially active receptors from recently contracting muscles. They help shuttle carbohydrates to muscle. Your body is helping you refuel, so take advantage of that.
We individualize diets for each athlete. We create a platform, a meal setup that every person, regardless of their goal or energy needs, can use, and from there we educate them on individual goals. Not every wide receiver is the same. One may need a little more fat because he is coming across the middle and has to absorb hits, and the other may be a speed guy who is going to eat a bit leaner. Some athletes need to lose weight, while others need to gain weight, so there are meal setups, and then within those there are personalized goals.
Athletes are much smarter these days and much more aware of the benefits of proper fueling. A lot of athletes are very vocal about that, and about the amount of money they spend keeping their bodies in prime condition. When they come to me, they already understand what a carbohydrate does, so I take it to the next level. But it’s the athlete who does the work.
From my end, it’s helping to educate and guide them toward a routine to improve performance. How, for example, do you help a pitcher develop a routine so he’s ready every five days and can have optimal performance in between sessions? The same with football. You know when you’re going to play and you know what your workouts are going to be, so how do we match nutrition to meet those needs. It has to become a routine. If on game day you’re worrying if you had enough to eat, you’ve missed the boat.
Sleep is one of the pillars of fitness. Sleep is when your body is able to rebuild and repair itself and get ready for the next day. We give athletes a lot of advice: sleep in a cool, dark room with no distractions, no blue lights, and no screens. We set it up so it’s almost like a sanctuary. We actually have custom beds at training camp.
I wish I could say yes, but I can’t. I can say that as part of recovery, we like to implement protein at the right time, as well as antioxidant-rich and nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, heart-healthy fats, and turmeric that will provide the body with nutrients without stressing the recovery process. The idea is to provide clean foods that don’t contain chemicals and junk that the body needs to sort through to get to the nutrients. In healing, the body is working extra, so we aim to not make it work harder. We definitely stay away from junk that is not going to provide your body with a healing benefit.
There is no single diet, and athletes don’t need to eat the same every day. If you have a heavy training day, you may want a higher carbohydrate day. By carbohydrates I mean fresh fruits or sweet potatoes. Also, squash is good, and brown rice and quinoa, or beans. They are all great carbohydrates. For protein we run the gamut: we have chicken and a lot of beef. We have more eggs than you can imagine, and we have fresh fish, pork, and a lot of bison. Tofu is a good nonanimal source.
Well, first of all, here in Wisconsin, beer is part of life. I think, like anything, the answer comes down to timing and being intentional about it. Not overdoing it. There is no forbidden food or drink, but there is a need to be intentional about it. If you are having a couple of beers or a glass of wine with your family at the end of the day and it helps you unwind and puts you in a restful state, there is nothing wrong with that. Also, maltose in beer is one of the highest glycemic sugars, so by that logic, beer is good if you are trying to refuel after a race or a hard training session.