GREEN BAY, Wis. — It’s not just a treat in practice, a 20-ounce bottle of water, a carbohydrate shake in the locker room, a fistful of kale in a fruit smoothie.
It’s a burst of energy, a plan for rehydration and recovery, a remedy for inflammation.
And it could all help reduce certain kinds of injuries.
Just as sports at all levels have become more sophisticated, the role of nutrition for professional football players has become a science. This goes way, way beyond the simple relationship between what a player eats and what the scale says during his weigh-in.
“Football is evolving,” Packers linebacker Sam Barrington said. “…It’s a whole new ball game. We’ve got the electrolytes, the snacks, the recovery drinks by Gatorade.”
At the start of training camp, the Packers hired nutritionist Adam Korzun to educate the 90-man roster on the benefits of food for both performance and injury prevention. The team wouldn’t make him available for an interview, but there is a noticeable culture change going on, and players seem to be buying into it.
“It’s all about winning a Super Bowl,” Barrington said, “and if he can help a guy who can help the team, it just adds more to what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Take the little chewy snacks passed out to players on the field at practice.
“Sodium, potassium, calcium and carbohydrates. I think there’s little bit of sugar in there,” veteran defensive back Jarrett Bush said.
In other words, they’re little shots of energy, probably not unlike the gummies or gel packs used by distance runners.
“I do notice a difference,” Bush said. “It’s like a Jell-O energy bar. I was a big cramper, too, and I’m not cramping nearly as much.”
At the training table, a wide variety of food is available — but not processed stuff.
“Everything is organic, there’s no sugar,” safety Charles Clay said. “So whenever you grab something from there, you know it’s not bad for your body. I love their chocolate muffins. They’re sugar free, preservative free, it’s got protein. Every day I grab one.”
Players can ask for fresh juices, which are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants. There’s a smoothie bar, where superfoods like kale, spinach, chia seeds and flaxseeds can be hidden in sweet fruits.
“I do eat all of that — but I try to blend it in so I don’t really taste it,” Bush said.
And even when the training table is closed, the Packers have good options.
“In the weight room you can make yourself a shake with the protein mixes,” Clay said. “There are pre-made smoothies in the fridge.”
After paying no attention to nutrition in his college days — “I just knew what I needed to do as far as playing” — Packers defensive lineman Josh Boyd started working with his own nutritionist a few months ago.
“I gave up all fried foods, and it was pretty rough,” Boyd said. “I haven’t had a cheat day yet. I’ve been trying to stick to it, because I feel like if I have a cheat day, I might go back.”
Now he’s eager to take his nutrition even further with Korzun.
“He talked about regular sweat and salty sweat — some people have one and some people have the other,” Boyd said. Players are tested to see which kind they have. “He told me I need to put more back into my body to recover.”
Hydration tops the list as the starting point for good health — and preventing some injuries.
Susan Kleiner, who was hired by Bill Belichick in 1990 to be the nutritionist for the Cleveland Browns, talked extensively about how what a player eats, and chooses not to eat, can lead to a healthier team all around.
Kleiner, a registered dietitian, explained that for every molecule of carbohydrates stored in the muscle, the body also stores three molecules of water.
“They go together,” Kleiner said. “The more well-fueled your muscles are in training, and the more hydrated you remain all the time, the more fueled the muscles remain and the better recovery is after.”
Muscle isn’t just for making football players strong and fast, she said.
“Fat is just going to slow them down,” Kleiner said. “But muscle around their body is what protects them. If they’re not hydrated and they’ve worked their muscles hard, they won’t build as much muscle as quickly. Their risk of injury is higher because they’re not as well-recovered.”
Rookie center Corey Linsley said that was the first order of business he had with Korzun.
“He talked a lot about hydration and how muscle elasticity plays a part in that,” Linsley said.
Some Packers said they have been advised to take their body weight, divide it in half and drink that every day in ounces. So the 204-pound Clay should have 102 ounces of water a day, or more than 12 cups.
That’s a lot.
But remember, players can sweat off a couple of pounds in just one practice.
Receiver Jarrett Boykin carries a gallon-sized water bottle around with him all day, a reminder of his goal to have it all in 24 hours.
“I’ve had days where I am just dehydrated, and the next day you bounce right back — because you hydrated,” Clay said. “I’m not sure how it works, but I know that’s what your muscles need.”
Some injuries in a collision sport are unavoidable. Players in good health can strengthen their bones, and wear good protective equipment, but still may not be able to stop a collarbone from snapping after a crushing blow from an outside linebacker.
But can you minimize the hamstring and groin pulls? The muscle soreness and fatigue that slows down an athlete and makes him vulnerable? Kleiner doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.” Good nutrition helps. Bad nutrition hurts.
Inflammation is another issue for football players. A little right after practice, when they broke down those muscles, might be OK. After that, it’s a race to recovery.
Kleiner said football players need plants. All vegetables and fruits, in variety and in abundance, especially beets, kale, spinach, collards, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage. They’re all high in antioxidants.
They need lean protein in small amounts throughout the day. Fish and fish oil, lamb, avocado, grape seed oil, extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and nut butters, and seeds.
“There’s nothing wrong with eating an apple and banana. But if that’s all you eat, you’re missing everything else,” Kleiner said.
The carbohydrates are equally important: yams, whole grain carbs, beans, starchy vegetables and even dairy.
What not to eat? Sugar and bad fat in the form of fried or processed foods.
“When you eat foods that are prepackaged and have a lot of fat in them — or bakery, or fried foods, or all of those snack foods, packaged foods, chips — those oils are very highly processed because it’s the only way that they can not go rancid on a shelf,” Kleiner said. “And it’s the only way they can be heated to very, very high temperatures. Those oils promote inflammation.”
Kleiner also said sugar and highly processed refined starches aren’t good for anybody; they cause too many problems, including inflammation.
“But it’s particularly evident in athletes who are constantly bumping themselves or tearing their muscles down,” Kleiner said.
Athletes who tend to be sore all the time, who have additional injuries, or who have had surgery are dealing with additional inflammation. Eating sugar, unhealthy fat and processed food is “about as much as two steps forward and one step backward as you’re ever going to get,” Kleiner said.
“You’ll just never get ahead. Your diet will always hold you back. It will not heal.”
Even with that overall level of sensitivity to what goes into a body, some players follow more advanced, strict eating regimens and add supplements for recovery. Kleiner’s company sells a supplement that claims to empty from the stomach in 10 minutes and reach the muscle cells in 40, twice as fast as other products.
Some Packers do use supplements, but they count on the team or their own personal trainers to help them navigate that largely unregulated world. Bush cautioned that a tainted supplement could lead to a bad drug test with the NFL and he wanted no part of that. Other players don’t even risk going in that direction.
“I eat right and I have pretty good strength and pretty good size,” said Barrington, who is 6-foot-1, 240 pounds. He shuns supplements. “I did it with food. Also, you can eat to recover. Food is basically a medicine in itself.”
Eating healthy doesn’t guarantee good health — or good luck. Clay Matthews and Mike Neal have shared some of their eating habits, and they’re flawless. Yet both are often injured.
Nevertheless, with millions of dollars at stake, teams are looking for every possible edge.
In Green Bay, Boykin used to just give food the “eyeball test” and not worry too much. Now, he’s ready to learn more.
“I don’t really have a strict diet, because I don’t think I’d gain fat. I’m running too much,” Boykin said. “But any advice that (Korzun) has, I will definitely soak it all in.”