Cereal bars, packets of dried fruit and trail mix litter a table inside the Penn State football team’s locker room. Drink options are variable and inside a standup cooler, Gatorade, water and milk are easily accessible.
It didn’t used to be like this.
Oftentimes a player was on his own and would have to head elsewhere after a workout or practice to find a snack to replenish his energy reserves. Even then, whatever that player chose to eat was at his own discretion. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice for ideal weight gain or loss.
Now, Penn State players don’t have to worry whether or not they are eating right. They have someone to help them scrutinize and pick apart their diets meal-by-meal and snack-by-snack.
Since Bill O’Brien took over last winter, the Penn State football program has headed in a healthier direction, relying more on the advice of Dr. Kristine Clark. As the Director of Nutrition for Penn State, Clark is also a registered dietician. And while she’s been with the program since 1991, she’s found herself working more and more with football players since O’Brien began his own overhaul of the program.
He retooled the coaching staff, recently shook up the sports medicine department and has made better use of Clark and her services. O’Brien now requires his players to meet with Clark and her assistant, Cassandra Raugh, multiple times a month.
“Yeah. It has increased,” Clark said of her role with the football program. “I don’t know what percentage to tell you but let’s just say at a record level.”
Clark, believed to be one of the first Directors of Sports Nutrition for a college athletic department, has been with Penn State since she graduated from the University in 1991. Also a registered dietician with a PhD. in nutritional science, Clark was appointed to her position when Dr. Helen Guthrie — an Emerita Professor in Penn State’s nutritional sciences department — and former coach Joe Paterno felt Penn State’s athletes needed regular access to a nutrition expert.
Now in her 22nd year as Penn State’s Director of Sports Nutrition, Clark and professionals with similar job descriptions are still relative rarities in the college football landscape. Few Division IA schools employ a full-time nutritionist and only four other teams in the Big Ten utilize similar experts.
Only Nebraska and Illinois employ directors of sports nutrition and they haven’t been around as long as Clark. Nebraska’s Director of Sports Nutrition Lindsey Remmers has been on the job since 2008 while Illinois’ Chelsea Zenner is in her second year with the Fighting Illini. Purdue employs two sports dieticians and Wisconsin depends on a nutritionist as well, but no other Big Ten school takes as expansive of an approach to sports nutrition as Penn State.
Now that Clark’s role with the football team has expanded, players have reported positive gains in the weight room as nutritional advice has augmented their training.
Overall 39 players that return from last season’s roster have added bulk in the Lasch Building weight room while 27 more have lost weight in just over a year. The football team has added a total of 245 pounds with defensive linemen showing the biggest increases. Nine defensive linemen combined to put on an average of just about nine pounds apiece since last spring.
On average, Penn State’s younger offensive linemen are also much bigger this season. Six have combined to add an average of about 12 pounds per player. Running backs and linebackers have also seen solid improvements while wide receivers, on average, have lost weight.
While the players that need it have added bulk through Craig Fitzgerald’s highly-regarded free weight strength and conditioning program, Clark’s strategies for players have helped maximize those gains while healthy eating has played a part for players, like wide receivers who need to be nimbler, to add what Clark calls, “good weight" or "lean muscle mass."
“It’s been tremendous to see people’s bodies change and guys gaining weight and losing weight, just getting into the right shape for themselves,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said. “That’s just a testament to our strength and conditioning program, our training program and our nutrition program. It is some things we didn’t have in the past that have really helped us as a football team all together.”
In previous years, if players wanted to meet with Clark they’d have to trek all the way across campus to her office in Rec Hall. Now, O’Brien and his staff have made room in the Lasch Building — the football team’s training center — with a second office for Clark.
Although Clark continues to work with all of Penn State’s varsity teams, she now finds herself holding office hours Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays specifically for football players.
“We’ve always had a nutritionist but we’re kind of putting her to more use now,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “Just making sure that guys are eating healthy and doing the right things off the field because you just can’t come in and just expect to play well. You’ve got to treat your body well and get rest and get food. It’s just as important.”
Clark uses an easy, 10-minute test as a baseline to start with.
Players strip down to compression shorts, are weighed and take a seat in an egg-shaped chamber called the Bod Pod. Once inside, a player can peer out of the tinted bubble-shaped window as the machine pulses and hums — it’s a similar feeling to being in a pressurized airplane cabin.
The Bod Pod uses air volume displacement to calculate an athlete’s body composition and break down. After two quick sessions in the Bod Pod, a computer connected to the machine offers a printout of the results. From there, Clark and her staff can show an athlete what their fat to fat-free mass is, their overall body composition and caloric measures that are key in determining how many more calories are required or need to be eliminated for that player to reach a specific goal.
“For some of these athletes trying to gain weight, their baseline calorie intake could be anywhere from 4,000 to 4,700 calories,” Clark said. “That’s their baseline keeping them at their current weight. I need them to elevate those calories maybe up to 5,000, 5,500. It all depends.”
Previously the only Bod Pod on campus was in Clark’s office in Rec Hall where it sat, used by most sports other than football, for 15 years. At O’Brien’s urging, Penn State purchased another one of the 50,000-dollar machines and had it installed in the Lasch Building where Clark now holds routine office hours. Now, multiple Bod Pod appointments are required for football players each season. A Bod Pod test can cost the average person 80 to 150 dollars.
“Guys have to go and do a few things with that and see where they are,” senior offensive tackle Adam Gress said. “And then from there our nutritionist kind of takes it and she says, ‘Maybe you need to cut out some fats. Maybe you need to add calories to your diet.’ Even though it’s different with everybody.”
But Clark isn’t basing her outlines solely on Bod Pod results. Usually she coordinates with individual position coaches who have a weight range in mind for a particular player. She’ll often check in with Fitzgerald and head athletic trainer Tim Bream, too to determine what each individual player needs.
“For example, they might say, ‘We want this athlete to gain weight,’” Clark said. “They don’t really say, ‘We want him to weigh 210 pounds by this date.’ They want to see a nice, slow progression of weight gain, which by the way is a sign that they’re gaining muscle. Just because you increase your calories doesn’t mean that you’re automatically overnight going to put on muscle. It has to be a nice, slow, gradual symbiotic relationship if you will between the increase in calories and the weight training.”
And that entails eating appropriately all the time — before and after workouts and even a quick snack after a brief series of drills is crucial.
Clark, who began her career instructing coaches on the benefits of nutrition, has also coordinated with the NCAA. The major governing body of college sports regulates what an athletic department can and cannot purchase as it relates to foods and Clark said that recently, more attention has been spent educating the NCAA on other healthy food choices that were overlooked in the past.
Recently, chocolate milk was approved.
The cereal bars and healthy snack foods in the Lasch locker rooms are all on that list and Clark will be there to let a player know it’s appropriate to have one or even more depending on the workout itinerary for the day.
“Don’t get me wrong, we love working with all athletes, but the football team is a really fascinating team because number one, there are so many athletes and there are so many interesting challenges and weight is probably one of the biggest ones,” Clark said. “Every individual football player is so unique that you’re doing a lot of nutrition education. They don’t come in automatically knowing how to eat right. They come in automatically with very unique habits.”