There are countless factors that go into making a great athlete. From natural-born talent to training and work ethic, so much influences which players secure the edge on game day. But if you ask head sports dietitian Cat Hammer, the most important factor in athletic performance is rather simple.
“When you’re an athlete, if you didn’t work on schoolwork, your schoolwork probably wouldn’t be great, but you could still do it,” Hammer said. “If you didn’t strength train, you probably wouldn't be super strong, but you could still lift weights and compete at some level. But if you didn’t eat, the consequences would be a lot more dramatic.”
Hammer’s responsibility is to ensure every Penn athlete is at their best from a nutritional perspective. She began working with Penn Athletics in November 2020 and was recently promoted to head dietician.
Throughout her career, Hammer has worked with a wide range of different athletic demographics, all with unique goals and needs. These include the Pittsburgh Pirates of the MLB, Virginia Tech, and the Navy SEALs. With her vast experience in the field, Hammer feels she's equipped with what it takes to handle any nutrition-based quandary for Penn sports.
This is extremely important when it comes to steering a Division I athletics department. No two sports are the same, and neither are their nutritional plans. Understanding how to tailor dieting to specific sports and athletes is one of the most complex yet essential aspects of Hammer’s job.
“It’s a large variety of topics with a large variety of individuals,” Hammer said. “I can start the day working with a female cross country runner, then go and work with a wrestler, then work with a football lineman, then work with a gymnast. I need to talk about totally different things in all of those meetings, but it keeps it super interesting.”
In order to design programs fit for each sport, Hammer works to understand the nuances of the sports themselves. While her knowledge of nutrition is expansive, providing the best possible regime for each athlete requires an acute knowledge of their individual performance.
“If you think about a cross country runner, they’re an endurance-based sport, so the nutrition and recovery considerations for them are going to look a lot different versus a power sport, like a sprinter,” Hammer said. “If you’re working with a softball athlete, you need endurance, but there’s also those pieces of power in their game.”
While each sport requires distinct preparation, Hammer says that one of the overarching truths of athletic nutrition is total calorie consumption. Eating enough throughout the day is crucial for both general health as well as in-game performance, and according to Hammer, many athletes struggle to adapt their understanding of just how much fuel they need in order to keep pace with their energy expenditure.
As a former athlete herself, Hammer knows how complicated the process can be. She was a standout softball player for West Chester University, and during her collegiate career, she grappled with the complexities that plague many of the athletes she works with today.
“To be completely transparent, I struggled when I was an athlete with a little bit of disordered eating,” Hammer said. “I got super into nutrition, and I thought I had it all figured out, and I think a lot of athletes as they go through, it’s hard to take a step back and see it from a different perspective. But when I’m on the other side of it, I can see much, much more clearly and help athletes to better understand their bodies, their sport, and their athletic ability.”
However, Hammer also credits many of Penn’s athletes for their nutritional instincts. If athletes do not fully buy into her guidance, there is only so much Hammer can do to help them maximize their potential. Thankfully for Hammer, many student-athletes are active participants, opening the door for even more possibilities.
“There are some athletes here that I work with that are so incredibly smart,” Hammer said. “A lot of them do research on their own. So with some athletes, it’s cool because there’s more fine-tuning when their diet is already set, and now we get to talk about supplements, and how we may be able to get even 1% better.”
Proper nutrition is one of the most impactful steps an athlete can take toward maximizing potential. And while some may be more inclined toward it than others, it is vital for any player to become the best version of themselves.
In Hammer’s eyes, the most important part of dieting, both in sports and in everyday life, is to grasp the importance of what we put into our bodies. It is often an unconscious process, yet it is one that must be treated with care and consideration.
“Eating is something we do every single day,” Hammer said. “We almost take it for granted. Whereas if we put more intention behind what we’re actually doing, we could see much, much better benefit.”
With Hammer at the helm, Penn’s athletes can not only think about their nutrition, but maximize the advantage it provides them.