Bananas an hour prior to every race. Granola bars afterwards. Pasta the night before. As much as for any other aspect of the sport of cross-country skiing, there are dozens of beliefs, strategies, and misconceptions when it comes to food and nutrition.
To clear a few of them up–but by no means all of them–we spoke with recently-appointed U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Sports Dietician Adam Korzun. A native of Alabama, Korzun has worked with USSA for the past two years, including on a chef program at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Korzun took our questions on basics like hydration and recovery, then addressed some broader issues, like strategies for getting the right food while you’re traveling.
FasterSkier: So, since you’re a dietician, the first question is obvious: What’s your favorite food?
Adam Korzun: I wish that was a simple question. I don’t know if I could pick a favorite—I guess I have regional favorites. Where I am from, Alabama, I like a good old crawfish boil down south; in New England, seafood; coming out here [to Utah] and getting wild game. If I was on death row and I was having my last meal, it would be a huge meal.
FS: Can you talk to me about what your job entails? From the press release I read about your hiring at USSA, it sounds like you’re going to be working both with elite athletes, as well as ultimately creating some programs and guidelines for clubs and their members?
AK: In my job description, it’s pretty much just running the nutrition program for all of ski and snowboard. What that entails is doing nutrition counseling, planning, managing the educational kitchen here, running sessions, cooking on the road, organizing other chefs to travel with teams as needed. In addition, there’s the performance aspect of it—I’m involved in the performance testing and physiology.
FS: It sounds like you do a lot of work with the alpine skiers, but I’m guessing you help with cross-country and nordic combined as well?
AK: So far it’s been primarily at camps in Park City. It works really well that nordic combined is based out of Park City, so I spend a lot of time with them all summer. With nordic combined, I’ve been working with them on nutrition and timing, managing body composition for their sport, and ways to maximize their power and power-to-weight. I’m also getting involved and working closely with [Head Coach] Dave Jarrett, doing performance testing and tracking results.
I’ve only really worked with a couple of our cross-country skiers so far this summer. In two weeks, I’m heading out with the team to Lake Placid, and I’ll get to work with them there. I have worked with some of the club cross-country teams—just some nutrition presentations and open questions and
discussions with some of our clubs that are in the area for the summer for training. Out in Lake Placid, we’re going to do some more testing, individual work with athletes, also work a bit of performance testing in there.
FS: So it sounds like you’re work is just as much exercise physiology as it is nutrition, huh?
AK: It is. With being more in the sports world of nutrition, it goes hand-in-hand. Understanding nutrition is one component of it, and really taking it to the next level is pulling in the physiology, like, ‘what energy sources are you using?’ If someone’s doing an exercise that’s 100 percent aerobic, their physiological demands aren’t nearly as high as when they’re beyond threshold. Using that [knowledge] to tailor nutrition plans, and also how they should be recovering from that—you’re not going to recover the same way from a core session as you are from a threshold session.
FS: Can you talk about the nutritional demands across the skiing disciplines? My guess is that the basics are the same for everyone, but then things maybe are more specific at the elite level.
AK: I think the basic compositions are the same, in what you’re looking for. Calcium is necessary for all athletes; iron is necessary for oxygen-binding capacity for all athletes. Protein is necessary for muscle development and synthesis, and repairing damaged tissue. The basics are the same, and it’s just how we fine-tune it for them. A sprint skier is not going to have the same energy systems as a distance skier. If we look at a moguls skier whose event is 20 seconds, versus a nordic combined skier, [those] are also different. Components will stay pretty close to the same, and then amounts are what’s going to be the big variable. The amount of carbohydrates and the composition of carbohydrates will depend on the demands and the type of training you go through.
FS: If there’s one area where athletes could improve their nutrition, what would it be?
AK: In athletic populations, the one thing that I find that I’ll work on the most with the rookies is a little bit more in timing and consistency. Just in timing their meals, and really paying attention to that. What did you have for breakfast this morning? How did it feel? Really timing what, exactly, is going to work for that session, and then translating that to the competition season. A lot of times you have it dialed in for the summer, and then you go off to wherever the competition is and it’s completely lost.
There’s also getting athletes to really start thinking about eating to train and eating to perform, and not just eating. You don’t eat the same every day–if you’re going out and doing interval training, it’s a lot different than jump training, and the energy demands are a lot different. For a sport that’s very conscious of power-to-weight [like nordic combined], [that’s] important. That’s one to the things I start with them right when they come in—I think you get in the mindset of, ‘oh I’m out there training and I eat whatever I want.’ One of the misconceptions is the whole train to eat mentality, rather than eat to train.
FS: For cross-country skiers, the area that always seems to be of biggest concern, nutritionally, is recovery. Can you talk about the body’s nutritional demands after a workout?
AK: If you look at the basics of recovery, it’s carbs and protein, within a certain amount of time after a workout. Post-workout, your body’s in a state of breakdown—you’ve used your energy stores. The muscle’s tissue is damaged and broken down. Your body needs to repair, but it can’t do that without energy. The idea is get carbohydrates and protein into your body as soon as possible.
The carbs will stop the muscle breakdown, and start to build muscle glycogen, which is your energy. Protein comes in once the breakdown stops, and you can use the protein to rebuild your muscles. You need the protein to repair, but you need the carbs to stop the breakdown.
The basics are carbs and protein, as soon as possible. That’s the approach we all took since recovery became a hotter topic, say, five or six years ago. You’ve got a range of carbohydrates, from 30 to 100 grams, and protein, from 10 to 30 grams. It’s a pretty broad range—I’ve been working on how intense your training session was, and using that as a guide for recovery. If you’re doing an hour-long core session, you’re keeping your heart rate relatively low—it’s not essential that you replenish 60 to 70 grams of carbs at that point. A piece of fruit could be an adequate carbohydrate source at that point, and then
adding some protein, like string cheese, could be perfect. Say you’re on the run—chocolate milk could be perfect right there.
That’s another thing: You’re looking at recovery as a snack, not as a meal. Within 20 to 30 minutes of finishing, your body’s primed to take the carbs and protein into the muscle cells. That said, you don’t need to overdo it—it’s just as snack, because then you’re going to have your meal one-and-a-half to two hours later. You look at what you depleted and how hard you worked to gauge how much you replenish.
If your session was a little bit more intense, maybe you want to have a turkey and cheese sandwich, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of chocolate milk, or maybe a fruit smoothie. You play around with the amounts, based on how hard you worked—that’s how you make sure you’re getting the right amount when you need it, but not getting excessive amounts when you don’t. I think that’s especially important in sports like cross-country and nordic combined—you can get away with it a little more if you’re a football player, but for someone who’s a cross-country or nordic combined athlete, it becomes really important that we work on getting the right nutrients at the right time.
FS: Are there any methods you can use to see if you’re recovering the right way and eating the right amount—not too much, not too little?
AK: There’s some folks that will tell you that good recovery can be seen in decreased muscle soreness. I don’t necessarily believe that myself. As far as the carbs and protein component, really looking at the energy level that day into the next day—that’s how recovery makes the most difference, is in those repeat training days. If you’ve got training coming up eight to 12 hours after your first session, the faster you eat, the better fueled and recovered you’ll be next time you go out. Just seeing how you feel, knowing how you feel—that’s kind of a subjective measure, but most people aren’t going to track morning blood glucose levels at a younger level.
FS: Wow, you’ll test blood glucose levels?
AK: I will probably do some of that at the camp coming up here in Lake Placid. It doesn’t make any sense to track glucose once, since it’s independently regulated. If you can track it over time—if you’re someone who is consistently 85 to 80, and one morning and you come in in the 60s, we can correlate that to what you ate the day before 100 percent of the time. ‘Oh yeah, I missed dinner,’ or ‘oh yeah, I didn’t recover right’—you can oftentimes connect it. It’s very useful in tracking trends, but one-time tests don’t give you any information.
FS: What else will you work on in Lake Placid?
AK: We’ll probably do a little bit more in monitoring, just in five days out there, to give them a sense of where they are. Just focusing on what they ate and how they feel, dialing those things in and getting really consistent on it throughout the season—this is one of those additional opportunities for those training camps. Also, they can be really be dialing in a lot of their nutrition parameters: What fuel at what time gives me the best energy?
We’ll also probably work on sweat rates, so we can dial in how much fluid is being lost during training sessions—so that they’ll know how much they need to replenish.
FS: How do you check a sweat rate?
AK: We’ll have them check a weight before they train, and have them check a weight immediately after they’re done training, and then factor in exactly in what they drank during the session. From the change in weight, we can determine how much fluid was lost—the rule of thumb is that per pound of weight you lose, 20 to 24 ounces of fluid need to be replaced. You want to come up with a plan so that they’re not dumping 36 ounces of water in their stomach as soon as they’re done, because you don’t absorb it.
Getting them to take the small, frequent doses of water is going to help them be better hydrated.
FS: Do you think hydration is something that’s often overlooked, since people are more focused on what they eat?
AK: I think it’s easy to overlook. You may not be drinking enough, or you may need to add some electrolytes to what you’re drinking. When athletes come to this level, they’re so accustomed to drinking, and now it’s a question of getting the right amount and the right stuff that they need. [Also], good hydration doesn’t stop when training stops—it’s all day. There is a pretty big tendency—athletes are good at hydrating during training, but then when the day goes on, that’s when we want to be sure we’re maintaining that hydration level.
FS: Do you have to use recovery-specific products, or even athlete-specific products like bars, gels, drink mixes, etc.? Do those have anything in them that normal foods don’t? Or for the most part, can people rely on the stuff they find at the grocery store?
AK: When it comes to bars and gels, we use them, absolutely. When we’re here in Park City, I try to really push the athletes towards the food, because when they are traveling and competing, that’s when they need to rely on those bars. I don’t want them to have 23 bars a week in training sessions, and then get over to Europe being so sick of them that they don’t want ’em. We’ve all had the experience where you get somewhere and the food is terrible, and you have to have a bar for dinner. I always try to make sure that they have the right bars handy and tolerate them well, but my first goal is to really get them to have the real food when they can—and the bars when they need them.
Things like Gu and gels, they’ll be using those in most training session—we’ll be working on finding the ones they like, and timing them. They’ll use those pretty consistently during training, and then really try to go for the sandwich or the smoothie after a session.
FS: Are there any foods you see as being underrated, that people really should be eating more of?
AK: It may sound kind of cheesy, but I think almost all foods are kind of underrated in the sport world. There’s no marketing behind an apple, versus how much marketing there is behind some kind of protein concoction. I always try to steer them towards, ‘how can we try to make a smoothie without relying on all these concoctions?’ You’ve got a bar with 40 grams of carbs and 12 grams of protein—I say, ‘here’s food that’s exactly the same composition.’ I think all food tends to be underrated, in the fact that it doesn’t have any sexy appeal to it, as some of this other stuff does.
FS: What about the other way around? Are there things you would warn athletes to steer clear of?
AK: There’s no forbidden food or beverage—it’s all about how or when you consume it. You’re not going to get done with a training session and just hammer down 10 beers. And you wouldn’t want to have ribs before a race. But if you’re at a barbeque on the weekend…
I would hate to hone in on a miracle food. There’s foods higher in antioxidants that are full of essential amino acids, but as part of a whole, balanced dietary plan, you can achieve those almost anywhere. There are components of foods that are amazing, but they are present across a wide variety of food groups and types of food. That’s how I approach that one.
FS: We had a few questions from our readers. First, someone wrote in asking about getting enough iron, especially for women. What would you suggest to a cross-country skier who recently became a vegetarian, in terms of foods and supplements?
AK: That’s a good question. That’s one of the things we do screen our athletes for. We do complete iron profiles, checking their iron, hemoglobin, and serum iron stores. That is a huge deal, and it’s something we try to take a proactive approach on. It’s absolutely essential, knowing iron functions as the primary carrier of oxygen in the body.
Is it possible for vegetarians to get adequate iron? It is—it’s just a lot more difficult. Animal sources of iron are heme sources, which are much better absorbed than the vegetable counterparts, which are non-heme. Non-heme is a less efficiently absorbed form of iron.
When someone is a vegetarian and looking to have more iron-rich food in their diet, one thing they need to focus on is every time they’re having one of
those non-heme sources of iron, they need to couple it with a vitamin C source. Quinoa is a source of iron: You’d want to have that with tomatoes, or having some lemon squeezed in there is another way that’s going to help with the absorption. Pumpkin seeds are one of the richest non-meat sources of iron: You add a quarter cup of pumpkin seeds to your oatmeal in the morning—having that with four ounces of orange juice is going to give you plenty of vitamin C.
There definitely are ways to get iron from non-meat sources—it just becomes much more difficult, because they’re not as well absorbed. Tofu can be a good source, but four ounces of tofu to give you six milligrams of iron is nowhere the same amount you’d get from shellfish. If they are really concerned about it, in a deficient state, that’s when you’d want to look towards supplementing your iron.
FS: Is there any other gender-specific nutritional advice you could provide people with?
AK: I think iron is a huge one—it’s especially important in younger women as they mature, but it’s important in men as well. That’s a big one. Also, calcium is a big one, especially in more of the aerobic sports. If people are getting stress fractures, that’s something that really needs to be looked into little more. The way calcium works in the body, we’ll say roughly until about age 25 that you store calcium. Beyond that, your body is no longer storing it—it’s just using what you put into it. For kids, thinking about it as a piggy bank, it’s really important to make sure you’re having three servings a day, especially if you’re someone coming off an injury. It’s one of those things you really need to be proactive on.
Vitamin D is the latest craze—that’s just really huge in the literature and the media right now. It’s a combination of a, people aren’t outside nearly as much any more and b, when they are outside they are covered up and c, they are able to test for it now. So, of course, we’re finding epidemic levels of vitamin D deficiency. Obviously, you find dairy products fortified with vitamin D, or otherwise go outside and get some sunshine.
FS: Another person asked about traveling to events and competitions, where most of the time you have to eat at restaurants. Since restaurants don’t always have the best choices from a health perspective, do you have any suggestions for getting foods that are nutritious, and that follow regular eating habits, while you’re traveling?
AK: That’s a really good one. We’ll actually pack food bags with us when we travel, especially when you know you’re going to go to a destination without common foods, and foods you’re used to. If you know a certain cereal or oatmeal is your go-to pre-competition meal, take it with you. You can get a little hotpot and cook it, and take ownership of nutrition for yourself. Kashi makes pre-cooked grains—there’s a lot of ways you can take food with you on the road.
If you’re domestically traveling, and you’re in a hotel, you [can] get sick of eating out—there’s a tendency not to get what you need. Find a local grocery store and find what you can pick through in a complete salad bar—look for a place where you can find what you’re used to eating, where you’re not relying on a menu as much. We have a tendency to overlook the grocery stores and the Whole Foods-type places. When you can walk into any one of those places and buy some bread and deli meat and make a sandwich, that’s going to save you quite a bit of money, and also make you a balanced meal. Salads, rotisserie chickens, you can kind of play around with them that way.
If you are worried about wasting the food, go in with a buddy—that’s one thing we’ll have the athletes do. You pack it in your luggage and plan for it. In New Zealand [where Korzun was traveling recently, with the U.S. Ski Team], the food is phenomenal, but you don’t have access to the bars, the fruit leathers, the amino acids to mix into the smoothies to beef up recovery. I traveled with all the bars and fruit leathers for the teams, just because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get them down there. If you’re going to country X, where the food is not great, that’s where you tell the athletes to make sure to bring enough to eat right before competitions. I think it’s a matter of planning ahead.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.