“Practical Nutrition,” the Recipe Behind Oregon Athletics’ Success

Beyond the flash and bravado, from the facilities to the plethora of uniform combinations, it’s the track-style brand of play that characterizes Oregon Football. Eugene will always be branded as Tracktown USA, but the Football team has elevated that platform and embraced it as its own. But how did they get here? Is it the unique strength and conditioning program? Or is it the exceptional facilities invested by Nike founder Phil Knight? Yes, but the science goes beyond that. It is the meticulous nature of Oregon Nutrition. To the athletes and members of the coaching staff, nutrition takes just as much of an active role as academics and strength and conditioning does. Regardless of who or what instigated this identity change in Oregon Athletics is up for debate, but the result put Oregon Athletics into the spotlight.

The inception of the Sports Nutrition program at the University of Oregon started with former Football Head Coach Chip Kelly and his assistant James Harris, former Sports Dietician and Life-Skills Coach of the Football team. (James Harris Profile below). Kelly wanted a brand that emphasized his philosophy of speed-freak football. It was Harris’ task of realizing and laying the nutritional foundation. With their recent departure from Oregon Athletics, the responsibility of sports nutrition fell under former USSA and U.S. Olympic Committee Dietician Adam Korzun.

Is it fair to say that all of the recent successes of Oregon Football are the result of nutrition practices? Not necessarily. However, the way Oregon Athletics treats nutrition is certainly a significant catalyst for that success. For Korzun, it’s all about “practical nutrition.” The practical side of nutrition is based on a student-athletes ability to see nutrition as a tangible subject.

“Nutrition is a big deal here because we make it practical. It’s something the coaches can see, it’s something the players see and touch. It makes sense to them,” Korzun says. “It’s valued here for that reason because we’ve taken that approach of let’s make it real, let’s make it available, let’s not just tell you what you’ve had after a workout, let’s make sure what you eat after your workout is available to you and there is someone to provide it for you, make you the shake, or put it physically in your hands.”

Besides educating athletes about the practical side of nutrition, teaching them the visual aspect of learning is one of Korzun’s goals for athletes. For Oregon Athletics, nutrition is not an abstract or foreign concept. It’s a science that’s applied to their daily lives and they can see the results through their own athletic progress.

Before constructing meal plans, Korzun measures athletes’ Body Mass Index (BMI) as a starting point. From there he meets individually with athletes and they both collaborate a plan for a player to reach a particular target weight, size, and strength. Afterward, athletes are re-evaluated for a second test in the Bod Pod after Korzun has structured their meal plan.

“We’ve got two inside linebackers, one needs to gain weight, one needs to lose weight. Everybody has got a little different goal, we’ve got line people transitioning positions, trying to gain weight, guys trying to lose weight, guys that are trying to add muscle mass and get stronger, guys that are rehabilitating injury,” Korzun says.

Korzun continues. “We’ll go through everything and give them a rough idea of a meal plan. I’m not saying you need to eat quinoa but I’m saying ‘you need this much carbs, you need this much protein and make sure you get it. I don’t care how you get it, but get it.’  Korzon goes on to say, “Afterward they can physically see  ‘Oh, what I did worked!’ I gained seven pounds of muscle in two months. Perfect!” For the athletes, the light-bulb goes on, they are able to connect results with their nutrition plan.

According to Korzun, the framing is not, how can a particular athlete make the team better, its how they can personally get better. Then, collectively as individuals the team becomes better because they are personally better. So nutrition is just one way athletes can apply that abstract concept of ‘better.’ He later explains why meal plans are coordinated individually because everybody has different goals, everybody’s expectations for themselves are different. There is no meal plan specific for football or basketball. According to Korzun, no two athletes are going to be the same.

“Everyone’s better is different. For some that could be gaining weight or losing weight, getting faster, or having more energy,” Korzun says.

For the Oregon Football team, expectations have never been higher. The team accolades under Kelly speak for themselves. In his tenure at Oregon, the Ducks have made one BCS National Championship appearance and three straight PAC-12 championships. With the departure of Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles, new head football coach Mark Helfrich becomes the man tasked to accomplish similar feats. Adam Korzun now heads the Sports Nutrition department after Harris left with Kelly to the NFL. The challenge becomes how can either of these guys make the program better than it already is? What changes can we expect to see from both of these guys? Helfrich says “99.2% were gonna be in lock-step.” That 0.8% difference could be Korzun’s impact on the program.

Before Harris’s departure to the NFL, Korzun was tasked to take what Harris started at the Football team and branch it out to the other sports program at the university. Now almost every athlete is monitored daily by Korzun’s staff. In addition, Korzun prepares customized smoothies for every athlete after practice that has each individual player’s name on the cup that differ in flavors based on player preferences, and diet plan. These shakes are further modified depending on the phase of training and season a particular sport is in.

“So not only does everyone have their own shake, but I actually modify them based on what season and what type of training we’re in,” Korzun says. So for instance, I’ll take the carbs and sugar way back when we go back out of spring ball and just lifting. When we go to fall ball I’m gonna change the drinks again so that everyone gets the calories that support what they are doing.”

To the outsider, Oregon Athletics is tailor-made for speed. But to the insider, speed is just a byproduct of what they do. It’s merely a result of a process. The nutrition program is something tangible for the athletes. That’s why Korzun feels the program is successful, because the athletes believe what they are fueling their bodies will help them improve significantly. It’s something manageable and something they can achieve everyday, which directly correlates to their mission statement “win the day.”

“Just like we want the best Football team, we want to be the best nutrition team in the country,” Korzun says. “We want our athletes walking out of here ready to go for the next level. Whether its transitioning to the professional level or to the rest of their career outside of college sports, we want them to be ready, educated, and sending that message (practical nutrition) out because you will be able to reach many more people that way.”

In all facets of training and preparation, including nutrition, student-athletes and members of the athletic staff are able to accomplish their goals one spoonful at a time.

 Q & A with Adam Korzun, Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Oregon

Q: What made you want to take the position as Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Oregon? How long have you held the position?

A: I’ve been part of the University of Oregon for just about a year now, a little bit less than a year. What made me take the position here was the program is moving in a direction that was a good fit for me. We were going to be focusing a lot about practical nutrition as opposed to a nutrition program where you got people who sit around and tell people what to do or how to do it. We’re taking the approach of making it really practical, providing the right fuel instead of talking about it. It’s an opportunity to be part of the university setting. I spent seven years in the Olympic world. Coming here was a way to introduce that experience and education to a younger population who may not be as fine tuned or hasn’t gotten quite to that elite level yet. I want to bring that knowledge to them but also do that in a very practical sense so they can grasp it.

Q: How has your experience as a dietitian of the Olympic team, specifically the USSA, contributed to your job here at the University of Oregon? Do the same dietary techniques apply?

A: My time with the U.S. Olympic Committee put me in a lot of challenges of setting up food services, dining halls, menus, and how to feed athletes. Understanding what’s practical and what works. I came in as this kid wanting to give everyone the perfect quinoa and chicken breast, everything like that, but it allowed me to realize what a working athlete needs and wants and how to modify it. So I got a lot of experience how to feed athletes better through my time there.

With USSA, we have a huge physiology department there. Working in concert with that and doing a lot of testing there showed me how the fuel actually affects the athletes and how the training correlates with the demand for fuel. So what type of fuel, what certain training  loads require, and how our body processes and metabolizes energy. It really worked to be a great experience understanding how to feed, how to produce food, and why and what type of food athletes need.

Q: Why is nutrition such a vital part of Oregon athletics? Why do you guys value it more so than most other programs in the country? Why such a high emphasis?

A: Nutrition is a big deal here it’s because we make it practical. It’s something the coaches can see, it’s something the players see it, they touch it, it makes sense to them, they can do it when its practical and available, and they understand it. It’s valued here for that reason because we’ve taken that approach of let’s make it real, let’s make it available, let’s not just tell you what you’ve had after a workout, let’s make sure what you eat after your workout is available to you and there is someone to provide it for you, make you the shake, or put it physically in your hands, so you’re that much more ready to succeed.

Q: I read an article about how the Philadelphia Eagles have customized smoothies for each individual player after practice with their name on the cup, do you guys do the same thing after practice?

A: We have a shake for everyone after practice. But we go one step further. We actually balance the shakes based on the phase of training they are in too. So not only does everyone have their own shake, but I actually modify them based on what season and what type of training were in. So for instance, I’ll take the carb and sugar way back when we go back out of spring ball and just lifting. When we go to fall ball I’m gonna change the drinks again so that everyone gets the calories that support what they are doing.

Q: Who started the nutrition program at the University of Oregon? Who implemented this culture change? Was it always like this when you got here?

A: It started with James Harris for sure. Chip (Kelly) had the direction. He knew what he wanted. He knew what the players needed and he put it on James to implement a fair bit of it and James did an absolutely incredible job really laying that foundation and groundwork out so that when I came in, it was like ‘here, take what we’ve started here at Football, expand it to everybody. Make this happen for all of our athletes.’ So that’s kind of my big challenge: how do we do that and get back to the practical side of education? So the inception came from there, it didn’t come before them.

Q: How much time do you spend with Coach Radcliffe developing a specific plan for a certain student-athlete?

A: We work together on everything. We meet once a week, so the strength and conditioning staff with the athletic medicine staff and myself kind of go over, what’s the goal? What’s going on? Who’s injured? What’s new? What do we need to update? I’ll get a sense of the training plans that way. Then every term when the new plans come out we meet up again with the performance team, the athletic trainers, the coaches, the strength coaches, myself, and discuss the direction of the program that term and then follow-up as needed.

Q: Are the nutrition plans made on an individual basis, or is it by sport? Does Football have their own specific program that focuses on protein? Or Basketball has an emphasis on carbs etc.?

A: We take the nutrition planning one step further. It’s not football plan, basketball plan, volleyball plan. It’s football basketball volleyball and then each individual player has their own plan from there. No one person, no two athletes are going to be the same. No two football players are going to be the same. We’ve got two inside linebackers (ILBs), one needs to gain weight, one needs to lose weight. Everybody has got a little different goal, we’ve got line people transitioning positions, trying to gain weight, guys trying to lose weight, guys that are trying to add muscle mass and get stronger, guys that are rehabilitating injury. We want to make sure we prevent muscle loss for guys in rehab. Everybody has got a little bit of a different goal going on and we try to take that into account when creating a plan for the student-athletes.

Q: How do you educate them on how to properly recover, hydrate, and maximize workouts? Do the athletes have journals that record their calorie intake? Do you use special programs on the computer?

A: The athletes are accountable to themselves at the end of the day. They could easily lie in a journal, falsely record in a program, so putting too much stock in that is a waste of time and that’s my personal philosophy. I know a lot of people who use those tools, but the thing is they are just that, tools. So what we try to do is provide them with the education and kind of, I guess education and familiarity with what they are doing and making it work. So for instance let’s say we have a Football player that needs to transition to the O-line from the Tight-end position, they need to put on mass, weight, size, strength, etc. So we’ll change their nutrition plan based on that and give them suggestions. We’ll go through everything, give them a rough idea of a meal plan. Here’s when you eat, here’s what the meal composition should be. I’m not saying you need to eat quinoa but I’m saying ‘you need this much carb, you need this much protein and make sure you get it. I  don’t care how you get it, but get it.’ Then well actually check their body composition before we do any intervention then after, this way they can physically see ‘Oh what I did worked!’ I gained seven pounds of muscle in two months. Perfect! So now they connected what I did worked. The Lightbulb goes on and they actually see what happens.

Hydrationwise. We test a lot of pee on this team, so we are always checking hydration to see. are they hydrated or are they de-hydrated? From there we can keep a log of what happened to you during practice. How much weight did you lose during practice today? How many pounds you lost in practice correlates to how much fluid you lost and how much you need to replace. Are you fully hydrated that night? And if not, we need to get more into you, and if you do get more in, what does it take to maintain hydration for you. We have tools that allow us to check each athlete and track them so we can help keep them accountable to themselves. We test Urine Specific Gravity, we test concentration of the urine, and then we use the Bod Pod for BMI index, when we’re not doing Bod Pod, we track weekly weight. There are a couple of new tools out there that I’m looking to partner with some companies. But we’re not going to discuss that publicly yet.

Q: What changes or plans do you have to improve the state of the nutrition program for student athletes? How do you put your personal signature on it?

A: Besides from the practical and teaching part of it. One is being twofold. One is I have culinary background being a chef before , and experience with exercise physiology training, so I have experience working in labs. Having that understanding, I want to bring more of the visual learning to it whereas if someone sees a number, sees a change, they can make a bit more sense of it. So just trying to make it less about a magical product and more about what the athlete is doing.

The other side of it is, I’m not going to tell an athlete what they need to eat. It’s not my role. Rather I’m going to listen to what they like to eat, what they want to eat and help them make it better. We all know what foods are good for you, but if someone doesn’t like them, they are not going to eat them. And if I’m telling them ‘you need to have oatmeal in the morning’ and they hate oatmeal, it’s not going to help them. And there goes my credibility out the window because I’m relying on some magical food to fix it and that’s not the reality. Our body does not metabolize energy that way. At the end of the day, oats are glucose, just like Kashi cereal turns into glucose, just like donuts turns into glucose. Now their speed and absorption rate, breakdown etc. will all have a different variability, but they are all going to turn into fuel. The question is how do we balance that fuel. My big thing is individual. Everything we do is individual because everybody responds to training and diet differently.

Q: Is there a reason why you guys are the lightest Offensive Line in the PAC-12 and ninth lightest nationally with an average lineman at about 288 pounds?

A: We’re a team based on speed. We train speed, we practice speed, we work speed, and we’re fast and we recover. You tend not get speed with size. We can make anyone big no problem. The balancing act or the fine line is how do we make them big and keep them fast. So that we really try to find an ideal. I can put 30 pounds on an individual, but what 30 pounds is it going to be is the issue. What is their performance going to be? And with our athletic medicine department monitoring functional movement, keeping track of different deficits and legs in the body and how it moves, helps us even further, and making sure the weight they put on is the proper weight for their body.

Q: I realize many of these guys don’t become professional athletes. How do you encourage them to continue the habits they have learned all four years here? Hopefully it should become a lifestyle habit right?

A: They almost need a re-education when they get done as an athlete because you’re eating habits and training are completely different now. You’re not spending the energy you once did, your probably not training the same way you were. So nutrition changes. We prioritize quality nutrition, but we definitely change once they are no longer an active player.

Q: Is this a diet program exclusive to Oregon Athletics? Would you recommend this to the average person if they wanted to try it?

A: Nutrition plays a role for everybody–from the professional athlete, to the professional businessman. It changes individually and that’s what everyone needs to realize. When you see something on Dr. Oz. or any show like that, which says there is some miracle diet that’s gonna fix everything, it’s not for everybody. Every single person is different. What I question is if you’re a medical professional you should realize that there is not one diet for everybody. Everybody’s physiology is different. How is there this diet or that diet that can make you better? What is better? Define better. Everyone’s better is different. For some that could be gaining weight/losing weight, getting faster, having more energy. It’s a really broad subjective term but nutrition plays a role for everybody. We need to focus on what are your individual goals and prioritize nutrition from there.

Q: Why do you think your job important? What motivates you to come to work everyday? Why should people care about what you do for the Football program or Oregon Athletics in general?

A: The challenge to be better for Oregon. Just like we want to be the best football team, basketball team, etc. we want to be the best nutrition team in the country, we want to have the best strength and conditioning department in the country. We want people to see and look at what are they doing? Why? The reason why is because we want the best for our athletes. We want our athletes walking out of here ready to go for the next level. Whether its transitioning to the professional level or to the rest of their career outside of college sports we want them to ready, educated, sending that message out, because you will be able to reach many more people that way.

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From Ducks to Eagles, James Harris soars to success.

The phone rings as James Harris picks up the phone from one of his players’ mother. It’s a call he receives on more than one occasion. The conversation between Harris and the mother leaves both of them worried about the well-being of her son, one of his players.  What concerns them at that moment is how the boy will react toward the recent and distressing news. Destined to face the trauma in the forthcoming moments, Harris composes himself, picks up his phone, and gives his player the call.  The boy’s father passed away.

Former Associate Athletic Director James Harris, was in charge of student-athlete development at the University of Oregon. He is now coaching in the NFL as an assistant to Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly doing similar tasks. As a life-skills coach, Harris understands that finding an intricate balance between academic and athletic success is challenging for student-athletes and emotional stresses can sometimes interfere. In February 2010, Harris took LaMichael James, Oregon football sensation, into his home after James was charged with domestic violence.

“Many of these guys are left with one or no parent at all to guide them.  I play the mentor role that many of them are lacking,” Harris said.

The Student Services and Academic Support department is not the first department that comes to mind regarding the success at Oregon, but is nonetheless vital to the success of Oregon Athletics. Just like nutrition, the psychological aspect of student-athletes is just as invaluable to them as the physical aspect.

“Everything that I do always transcends sports and academics.  I would be doing a disservice to our community if I didn’t help them the way I knew how,” Harris said.

Not only did Harris support emotionally distressed players, he monitored the diets of student-athletes at the university.  A graduate from Nebraska in nutritional science and dietetics, Harris began working with the athletic department in 2007.  The original pioneer of the nutrition program at the University of Oregon, Harris also served as an academic advisor and mentor. Harris believes nutrition is the focal point of well-being.  Nutrition is a life-skill that has been overlooked.

“In order to solve other problems you got to start with nutrition. Once nutrition is solved, other problems can be dealt with,” Harris said.

In 2009, Harris was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “I Want My Body Back” which outlines the health hazards offensive and defensive linemen in football face once their collegiate careers are over.  The article explains the body is not meant to keep that much weight and it is imperative that these overweight players change their lifestyle and eating habits. Harris chose to work at Oregon because the school is always looking forward.  It has a vision, he says. Oregon gave him the flexibility and allowed him to express the things he wanted for the program.

Katie Harbert, a former co-worker with Harris and current Coordinator of Student Athlete Development, admires Harris’ drive and motivation to achieve, and his courage to challenge the status quo.  One of these was the program “O Heroes,” a non-profit organization that uses student-athletes’ stardom to provide health, education, and service to the community.  The program was created so that student-athletes realize the value of serving the community.  Through this distinctive immersion, they are actively engaged with all aspects of their mind, body, and spirit.  Harris believes these qualities are vital to the development of the student-athlete.

He also played an integral role in the recruitment of student-athletes.  The Oregon Duck athletic program has exceptional standards. According to rivals.com, Oregon was ranked #22 in best recruiting class this past year. (This survey is based only on prior athletic accolades of prospective athletes. It does not take into account the intangible elements Harris looks for when recruiting.)

“We challenge them so they can reach their maximum potential,” Harris said. “Our job is then to make them the best they can be.”

His goal is transparent.  Helping student-athletes reach their maximum potential as individuals was his top priority. To Harris, it’s not about the athlete or the student but about the individual’s character enabling them to make an immediate impact in the lives of others beyond the college atmosphere.  From the Ducks of Oregon to the Eagles of Philadelphia, Harris hopes to have to the same successes with his induction to the NFL ranks.

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