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To many Penn athletes, nutrition is a crucial element of day to day performance.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

You are what you eat. And for Penn’s varsity athletes, nothing could be more important than what they put in their bodies.

Expending massive amounts of energy on the court, the field, the track, the pool or in the weight room, something has to give athletes the fuel to power their bodies through multiple workouts per day, as well as to (maybe) stay awake in class.

It’s a challenge for anyone to eat right, but getting the proper nutrition is even more critical for athletes to ensure peak performance. And with the amount of not-so-sound nutrition information floating around on social media, the unlimited amount of ice cream in the dining halls and the time crunches between class and practice, it can be hard to know exactly what, when and where to eat.

The path to healthy eating

The resources available for Penn’s athletic nutrition program have been steadily growing for the last few years. Adding full-time sports nutritionist Kayli Hrdlicka in 2013, as well as investing in equipment such as the Bod Pod — which provides metrics on body composition such as body fat and lean muscle mass — means that the information on sports specific nutrition is more readily available to athletes. Prior to Hrdlicka’s hire, the sports nutrition department consisted only of a single part-time employee responsible for the school’s 960 student-athletes.

Hrdlicka initially developed an interest in nutrition after losing her uncle to a heart attack far too early.

“He was only fifty-two,” she said. “I had a lot of family who struggled with health issues that could have been helped with better nutrition. That sparked my interest and that was the only thing I wanted to study undergrad.”

The nutritional challenges faced by collegiate athletes resonate personally with Hrdlicka, who herself was a collegiate distance runner at Northwest Missouri State, where she studied dietetics. Now a registered — as well as a certified sports specialist — dietitian, Hrdlicka works throughout Penn Athletics to provide nutritional and team-specific dietary support.

“As an athlete during undergrad, I’d sit in classes and wonder, how does this affect me?”

Hrdlicka, though currently working as Penn’s sole sports nutritionist, has goals to expand the sports nutrition program.

“I think right now we’re in a really exciting transition period. Last year they had deregulation in the NCAA where you can now provide more meals and snacks [to athletes],” she explained. “We’ve pursued that a little bit and been able to provide more nutritional support to certain teams. There’s been more excitement and interest in how nutrition can impact athletics.

“I’d love to be able to provide more recovery options and to expand some of my educational reach to athletes and maybe eventually partner with Dining Services.”

Increased communication with the coaching staff has also helped Hrdlicka further expand her influence and educate athletes.

“When I first got here, [the coaches] weren’t used to having someone here,” she said. “It wasn’t something that came to the forefront of their minds and I had to reach out to talk to their teams. Now I’m having coaches reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, can you come in and talk to my team?’ They could really benefit from you.

“Hopefully as years go on, this will become more of a standard, and it’s a given that a team will meet with me.”

Nutrition, supersized

Standing at 6-foot-11, Darien Nelson-Henry needs to fuel not only a super-sized body, but a super-sized beard and off-the-charts activity levels. Eating properly has been a critical factor in Nelson-Henry’s basketball success and overall fitness.

“I do think of myself as a nutrition-conscious person,” he said. “That doesn’t always mean I follow it, but if I do eat something I know is bad for me, I know it’s bad for me. I learned a lot from Kayli and [Strength and Conditioning] coach [Stephen] Brindle in terms of tailoring my diet, but a lot also comes from my own individual research — it’s not hard to go on Google and pick up on central themes to plan your diet around.”

However, Nelson-Henry wasn’t always so nutrition-savvy.

“When I came in as a freshman, I weighed around 280 pounds, but now I’m around 250-255,” he noted.

“When I first got here, [Former Penn coach Jerome] Allen told me to lose 15 pounds, so I was kind of forced into doing it. But when I did do it, it made being on the court so much easier and from there I took it upon myself to do everything I could to eat as well as I could. On the court [having an extra] 10 pounds is like jumping with a weight vest on.”

Though Nelson-Henry cites himself as one of the more nutrition-conscious members of the Red and Blue basketball squad, a shift in attitudes towards the role of nutrition has also come from the staff.

“With [current Penn coach Steve] Donahue, I’ve noticed he really stresses diet and noticed a shift in some of the way my teammates eat. He’ll do anything for us in terms of scheduling meetings with Kayli and getting us into the Bod-Pod.”

When practicing multiple times per day, it can also be difficult to fit in meals and snacks, as well as to properly time them.

“It’s pretty hard to fit in meals [between practice and class]. Sometimes you’re going to look stupid and be the only person eating in class, or bring food to the gym and scarf it down before you work out.”

Being from Seattle, Nelson-Henry gives a nod to his hometown and family for being in tune with health trends.

“Everyone at home is really health-conscious and all organic, gluten free, all of that stuff. My dad is a really amazing cook and great at portion-sizing and food groups. My mom — she and I eat out more, but still pretty healthy. She isn’t a very good cook, but I still love her.”

Starting the day right

Breakfast, as the saying goes, is the most important meal of the day. But what do you do about breakfast when practice starts at 6:00 a.m.?

Penn’s rowing teams face this predicament almost every day. The early mornings mean that cooking breakfast requires the rowers to wake up at a time when most students would be just wrapping up an all-nighter. In the hours before sunrise, sometimes even finding an appetite is hard, and the demands of practice mean that fueling and hydrating beforehand is critical.

However, the oarsmen and women have found ways to adapt.

“When I wake up in the morning, I have no appetite. I found there are two ways to handle that,” senior oarsman Diego Fiori said. “One is to get up earlier and get some coffee in my system — that helps me get going so I can stomach something — or I bring my snack with me and eat right before we get on the water, so that will get to me at least for the second half of a two-hour practice. I used to not eat anything before practice, and there are a lot of guys who do that — what’s important is hydrating beforehand.”

For the heavyweights, weight is a factor that can influence performance on the water.

“Weight matters for us, and that’s tied to diet,” captain Conor Davenport said.

“I think there are guys, who if they realize [they] are a little too heavy for their fitness levels, will alter the way they eat — but it’s usually a matter of a few pounds in one way or the other.”

“We don’t live and die by weight,” Fiori continued.

“But I think if people realize their weight isn’t in line with the demands of the sport, they’ll change something, but it’s not extreme. Weight can affect your performance on the erg, and you can throw your weight around, but in the boat, other people have to pull that weight too.”

If they’re able to stomach it, tailoring meals to the demands of morning practice has proven helpful for others on crew.

“I tend to front-load my meals, because our practices are front-loaded as well,” senior rower Anne Stack said. “I’ll try to eat a banana or a bar beforehand.”

Stack’s nutrition is further complicated by the fact that she is gluten-intolerant. Though she found that out during her freshman year, a time where she started a new school in a new country, the Zimbabwe native was able to manage her dietary restrictions with the high-energy demands of the sport.

“The only thing it really cuts out for me is bread, pastry and pasta — though pasta is a pain,” she said.

Beyond having food restrictions, meal timing has also been a struggle for Stack and her team.

“Finding the right times to eat is difficult,” she said.

“I definitely struggled because by the time I finished practice and went to class, I’d be hungry but nothing would be open. [Dining Services] have been better about having a 24/7 option, but valid options with a balanced meal aren’t always open.”

More than just a number

For sophomore Kennedy Wong, who joined the rowing team as a coxswain after a year as a distance runner on the track team, shifting athletic expectations have impacted the way she fuels her body.

“I took some of the things Kayli told me from when I was running and tried to maintain that in my current diet, like trying to eat more protein to avoid injury.”

As coxswains must maintain a certain weight in order to streamline the boat’s movement, part of the demands of the position is to be more weight conscious. However, Wong has managed her transition smoothly.

“The weight a female coxswain is expected to be is close to my natural weight and our coach is very good about not demanding a single number. In the spring it’s more important, but it’s not something I worry about — I still run and I eat healthy, but that’s part of being on a sports team and respecting the work the rowers do.”

Wrestling is infamous for taking extreme measures to make weight — whether trying to sweat out water weight or fasting before a match. However, with proper planning and guidance, these measures don’t have to be taken.

“Everything I eat, I make sure it’s good quality. I’m big into ethical treatment of what I’m eating, I use cage free eggs and grass-fed beef,” junior Caleb Richardson said.

“You have to plan ahead or you’ll be stuck eating out. There are healthy options on campus, but I’ll suck it up and walk back home to Baltimore Street.”

Eating on the road, where prior to competing the grapplers must weigh in an hour before competition, is something that makes fueling for matches difficult.

“It can be tough — I’ve gotten better at both being strong and weighing in lighter. The night before I’ll restrict fluid and some food, and sometimes even right before I won’t be able to eat or drink anything and have to work out, but as soon as I step on the scale and weigh in I can refuel.”

“It’s the water that’s the biggest challenge, because hydrating can’t be done in an hour. A bottle of water is a pound, and a Clif Bar is two ounces.”

However, knowing these restrictions exist, the staff has been able to deal with these challenges in a unique way during competitions and on longer trips.

“[The staff] will take us to the grocery store to buy weigh-in food.”

“When we went to Chattanooga, we walked to the store and got ingredients — like sweet potatoes — and made them in the hotel microwave.”

A community forged in food

There’s always that one table in the dining hall populated by those in gray Penn Athletics hoodies or navy blue Dri-Fit team apparel, sweaty and starving after a long practice. Eating together is an important part of team unity for many athletes on campus, but the dining halls can be problematic for many teams. Finding ways to properly fuel an athletic body can be difficult when relying on Penn’s dining services and working with a limited personal budget.

“I think [the challenge is] the availability of good eating resources. I can’t say everywhere on campus is bad, but you have to work to put together a good plate and cost can be a factor,” said Nelson-Henry. “If you play a sport and the dining facility is only open for a set of hours, and you have practice during those hours, you’re kind of out of luck with the dining hall options and you’re forced into a much more narrow selection.

“The time limitations of being an athlete definitely impacts the ability to eat properly.”

Those limitations affect athletic teams at all times of the day, especially teams with weekend or morning practices.

“Across all sports teams, on the weekend, all the on-campus eating facilities just aren’t open when you need them to be,” Wong said.

“We practice at 8 or 9 on Saturdays, and for the freshmen, they just don’t eat before practice and can’t eat breakfast, unless they have access to something in their rooms. It sets you up to not eat the healthiest meal sizes when food becomes available.”

Hrdlicka, knowing the challenges of eating in a setting where the options, though numerous, are not optimal, has started to give dining hall tours to incoming freshman athletes to give them a preliminary idea of what healthy, athletic-minded nutrition looks like in a dining hall.

“We’ll go to one of the dining halls and have one of the chefs and the dietician for the Penn dining hall system walk us through what are better places to look in the dining hall, [asking], ‘Where does the food come from, and how is it prepared?’” Hrdlicka said.

“[I’m] making sure the athletes know all of the options available at the dining halls that can make up a good balanced plate and corresponds to the point in their season and the level of training that they’re at.”

When eating becomes dangerous

In a body-conscious and image-obsessed society, the extra layer of pressure from athletics can sometimes send athletes over the edge and into the territory of disordered eating.

“Many female athletes engage in restrictive eating, sometimes in hopes that losing weight will increase performance in their sport,” said Tiffany Stewart, head of the NCAA’s Female Athlete Body Project, in a recent article. “Research suggests that disordered eating among female athletes is especially dangerous because it increases risk for relative energy deficiency in sport and subsequent injury.”

Traits of an eating disorder can easily be masked as dedication to the sport or a commitment to health for both male and female athletes. However, both teammates and athletic staff are able to be a resource to athletes who need help if they become aware of the issue.

“I think people have had issues in the past on teams I’ve been on,” Stack said.

“Dealing with that was [about] figuring out the best treatment for that and how to support them through it, and also finding the right people to contact. Putting everyone together — coaches plus teammates plus parents plus Kayli — that’s the best way to deal with it.”

Wong credited the rowing staff for being receptive to her concerns and observations when she feared a teammate had a problem.

“I wasn’t afraid to go to them and trusted that they wouldn’t blow the situation out of proportion.”

Penn’s nutritional support may not yet be at the level of larger athletic powerhouses, such as Oregon, Wisconsin and Washington (among many others) which have introduced athlete-only dining halls with athletically tailored food choices. Wisconsin even has “refueling stations” with snacks and energy bars in locker rooms and weight rooms.

But at Penn, the increased support and enthusiasm stemming from Hrdlicka, the coaches and the athletes themselves is a healthy start.

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