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How to Eat Your Way to Olympic Gold

Carving turns, shredding pipe, grabbing air—and winning gold—with help from dietitian Adam Korzun

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While most of the world will be glued for the next two weeks to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London (the opening ceremony will be televised tomorrow night), Adam Korzun is already thinking about the Winter Olympic Games—still more than two years away.

The sports dietitian for the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), Korzun (SAR’05) made sure nutrition wasn’t a barrier for US skiers and snowboarders competing in the 2010 Olympic Games, where Team USA won 37 medals—the largest medal haul for any nation in Winter Olympics history. With those Vancouver victories behind them, Korzun is now focused on developing nutrition plans for the USSA athletes who will compete in Sochi, Russia in 2014.

Korzun’s philosophy is simple: “Nutrition is not going to win you a gold medal, but it can definitely keep you from getting one.”

Breaking Training Records

Fueling Olympic athletes has been Korzun’s job since 2007, when he joined with the US Olympic Committee (USOC) as a sport dietitian. A culinary-school graduate with experience at Boston’s Four Seasons Hotel, Korzun completed Sargent College’s Master of Science in Nutrition program and was working in Boston-area hospitals when Joan Salge-Blake (SAR’84), a Sargent College clinical associate professor of health sciences, sent out an email advertising a position at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. With his previous experience as a chef, his dietetic credentials, and his Sargent training in exercise physiology, Korzun was a perfect fit for the role.

In Colorado, he helped prepare weight lifters, kayakers, wrestlers, and pentathletes to compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics. When the USOC shifted its focus to winter sports, Korzun began spending considerable time in Park City, Utah, consulting with the men’s alpine ski team. He assisted the trainers there with a yearlong study: “We were checking and monitoring blood glucose levels, hydration, hematocrit, hemoglobin, etc., when the athletes were cooking on their own, when they were eating a meal plan, and when they were using private catering.” For the final phase of the study, Korzun traveled with the alpine team to a training camp in New Zealand where he planned and prepared all their meals himself. “It was the highest training level they’d ever achieved at camp. All of the blood parameters were perfect,” he says. Convinced of the benefits of concentrating on nutrition, USSA’s high performance director invited Korzun to help strategize for the 2010 Vancouver games.

Adam Korzun, athletic training and sports nutrition dietitian, Boston University Sargent College

Understanding athlete's energy use and training thresholds helps Adam Korzun match his nutrition advice to individual needs. Photo by Sarah Ely

Korzun attributes part of the team’s success in Vancouver to a decision to house athletes outside the official Olympic Village. During the games, US skiers and snowboarders stayed in condominiums, where all their meals were prepared by private chefs, according to Korzun’s nutritional guidelines. The controlled environment minimized exposure to the Olympic Village’s international supply of germs, discouraged partying, encouraged team bonding, and—most important for Korzun—ensured that athletes were properly fueled for their competitions.
During the games, Korzun accepted a full-time position with USSA, making it the only US national governing body with a dedicated dietitian on staff. Korzun now works at USSA’s five-acre Center of Excellence in Park City with a team of strength and conditioning coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, and other specialists, all charged with developing and maintaining the health and performance of 146 World Cup–level athletes.

Optimal Fueling

As he develops his nutrition plans, Korzun must keep in mind the specific demands of each USSA sport. Giant slalom and mogul competitors, for example, ski multiple runs in quick succession. Mogul skiers may only be on the hill for 20 seconds, “but they’ve got a second run coming up,” Korzun says, “so how do we optimize fueling between those runs?” Cross-country skiers have similar needs to those of runners, “but then you have to factor in the cold component, so you’re looking at the electrolyte balance from the fluid changes that occur at negative 20 degrees in cloudy Norway.” The trickiest sport from Korzun’s perspective is Nordic combined, which pairs ski jumping with a 10-kilometer cross-country ski race. “Their coaches push them to be as light as possible for the jump, but they still need to be strong and fast enough to ski,” he says.

Korzun’s plans also factor in athletes’ individual needs: “At this level, it’s all personal.” One nutrient added at a certain time before a certain race, he says, can make a world of difference. Creating individualized nutrition plans begins in the spring and summer—months before the season’s first snowfall—with exercise and physiological testing. Strength and conditioning coaches use the test results to develop an athlete’s training regimens, while Korzun uses them to fine-tune the athlete’s diet. A lactate threshold test (which indicates at what heart rate an athlete’s body switches from aerobic to anaerobic energy production), for example, helps the coach determine the athletes’ training zones and allows Korzun to provide proper fuel sources. “When I’ve got a cross-country skier going out for an interval session,” Korzun explains, “and we know his heart rate is going to be in the 180s, we can look back at his lactate threshold data and see that he crosses the threshold at 160. That tells me this activity is going to be all anaerobic, which is all carbohydrate dominant; therefore, we need to work on a bit more carbohydrate recovery or carbohydrate timing for that particular session.”

Adam Korzun, sports nutrition dietitian, Boston University Sargent College

Adam Kurzon develops individualized nutritional plans based on the specific needs of each USSA sport. Some favorites include salads (from left), pancakes for dinner, and lean, grilled proteins. Left and right photos by Sarah Ely

Pancakes for Dinner

Once the summer testing is done, Korzun spends most of the rest of the year—up to 200 days of it—traveling to training camps and competitions. While he fills his luggage with protein bars and ergogenic supplement powders, Korzun relies on real food as much as possible. “Food is just so much more delicious,” he says—and it can provide valuable mood boosts. “When you spend four months in Europe, you don’t get Mexican food, so if I bring someone a quesadilla in the middle of Austria, I’m a superhero.”

Another treat the athletes love: breakfast for dinner. “I’m all for cooking bacon,” Korzun says. “You won’t hear many nutritionists say that, but it all has its place.” Skiers and snowboarders who get up at 6 a.m. for training and competition never start a day with pancakes and eggs, but Korzun occasionally prepares these morning favorites for evening meals. “I do it at the end of a big block—maybe after a third straight day of intense, high-volume training,” he says. “I’m filling them full of carbohydrates with the pancakes or the French toast, they’re getting good sodium from the bacon, and they’re going to be drinking a good amount of fluid.”

Korzun’s unpredictable travel schedule and the gold-medal stakes make for a stressful job, but he says the athletes’ appreciation makes the sacrifices worthwhile. Five-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller “has all the money in the world to go out and do whatever he wants,” says Korzun, “but comes to every meal because of how it fuels him.” And if Miller earns yet more gold in Sochi, Korzun will have the satisfaction of knowing he contributed to the triumph.

A version of this story appeared in the 2012 edition of Impact.

3 Comments

3 Comments on How to Eat Your Way to Olympic Gold

  • Rob Green on 07.26.2012 at 9:10 am

    Great read

  • Kathleen Searles on 01.16.2013 at 4:16 pm

    Nice article! Just came across it at this late date…just after I got the Tweet that Bode is out for 2013 to focus on 2014 :( Keep up the good work Adam!

  • Is Skjoldur on 02.21.2013 at 3:16 pm

    What about that Alaska salmon, Adam? Food of champions.

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