Out of Context

Jerry Kavanagh

Jerry Kavanagh
New York,
April 19
Jerry Kavanagh is a former Assistant Arts Editor at New York Magazine, Editor in Chief at Conde Nast's Street & Smith's Sports Group, and New York Bureau Chief at SportsBusiness Journal.



FEBRUARY 9, 2012 5:51AM

Nutrition and the New York Giants

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Late last summer, with the NFL preseason winding down and players getting ready to break training camp, I caught up with Heidi Skolnik, who was a nutrition adviser to the New York Giants for 18 years as well as to the New York Mets and to athletes from the NBA and WNBA, MLB, and MLS. 
     Skolnik is the owner of Nutrition Conditioning Inc., a New York consulting practice that helps individuals, teams, and companies set and reach health and performance goals. Her clients include the Juilliard School, the School of American Ballet, the Hospital for Special Surgery, and Fordham University athletics. I asked Heidi about sports nutrition and her time with the Giants.

Q. We have the ingredients and the calorie counts listed on everything we buy now. Are people more aware of nutrition?
Skolnik: I think our appreciation of it is better. People are more open to hearing about it, more ready to ask questions and to embrace the message. The calories and the ingredient list might be on the label, but you don’t know what to do with the information. There’s still just as much confusion, but there’s more motivation to find out what the answer is.

Q. How are the nutritional needs of professional athletes different from those of everyone else?
Skolnik: There are probably more similarities than you think. Timing of your meals, consistency from day to day, quality — that all matters for everybody. The professional athletes clearly have so many more calories: 4,000 to 5,000 daily. Some of them do really great with that. Others either have trouble keeping their weight on or keeping the weight off. Or even within that day, one player, even with 4,000-5,000 calories, won’t eat a vegetable or a piece of fruit. So, quality-wise, there was a little room there.

Q. What about diet and performance?
Skolnik: The players can’t afford to be off. When they’re playing, their recovery matters more if they’re going to be on or off for the next day’s workout. But they have a lot more calories to play with. 
Their diet is going to affect their performance.
     It’s going to affect your own performance, too, but you idea of performance is different. When you go to a meeting, you want to be alert. You don’t want to be falling asleep. But you don’t need the same calories because you’re not doing the same physical work. Your goals are different. You both care about performance, but what performance means to you is different.

Q. With football players, you were also dealing with different times of the year. The weather is comfortable in the spring, but during training camp in mid-summer it gets very hot and humid. And late in the season or in the playoffs, the players could be in sub-freezing temperatures. How does all of that play into their regimen?
Skolnik: Time of the year matters, as does fatigue. And access to foods is different at training camp from when the players are on their own. Interestingly, you can actually be burning more [calories] when it’s cold than when it’s hot, but you think you’re sweating more in the heat than in the cold. So, yeah, all of those things we took into account.

Q. How did the Giants players respond to your message?
Skolnik: Usually at dinnertime I would do this educational interactive display thing with them. We might play Nutrition Jeopardy or Nutrition Trivia. I found when I made it into a game, I got a lot more takers. The players are completely competitive. If I said, “Here’s a nutrition question. Do your best to answer it,” I might get 10 guys.
     If I put a little basketball hoop up and said, “If someone makes a basket, you have to answer a nutrition question and then you are in for a raffle to win a prize,” I’d get 30 guys. Any time I made it competitive, the participation rate increased. So, of course, I always tried to make it competitive.

Q. One size does not fit all.
Skolnik: Like all of us, the players have to be looked at as individuals: where they come from, how old they are, if they’re single or married, and how many years they’ve been on their own. Some of them love to cook, other don’t. Some of them would never eat fast food, others like fast food.
     There are some performance nutrition issues they all have to care about, but how that’s applied is very individualized. So, again, some might be eating a lot of protein, others a lot of carbs or fat. Some may not be paying any attention to what they eat. They are individual players with a common professionalism toward what they do.

Q. Are their nutrition needs different from those of athletes in other sports?
Skolnik: They are team athletes, not runners or cyclists who really tend to pay way more attention to their nutrition because it’s so much more directly related. In team sports, there are a lot of factors that go into how you do on the field. And they’re all at different stages of paying attention to all the different factors going on that help them to be the best that they are.

Q. Any anecdotal fitness tales?
Skolnik: A few years ago, a now-retired Giants player came back to visit. He’d gone on to another team. He was not a No. 1 draft pick and had to really work for his spot. And he said to me, “If it wasn’t for nutrition, I guarantee I wouldn’t have played as long. I got five extra years.” That was really rewarding.

Q. What was his background?
Skolnik: This veteran had come to me thinking that he wasn’t seeing results from his training. So we looked at it. He would sleep in in the morning. Then he would lift, he’d do his training, and get his treatment. He’d hang out for a while and then he’d go home. By the time he got home, he was famished. Basically, he wasn’t eating enough to fuel his training. So he was in a breakdown mode, not a build mode. He’d eat a lot in the afternoon, take a nap and start all over.
     So, I got him this Captain Marvel lunchbox and I filled it with trail mix, applesauce, granola bars and yogurt, cheese sticks — all these grab-and-go things for him to eat before he came in and while he was here. He got totally made fun of by his teammates for having this lunchbox, but then they all wanted their own lunchboxes. They all went through the different superhero characters they wanted… Captain Marvel and Superman and so on.

Q. Tell me about the nutrition game you played.
Skolnik: One day we were playing Nutrition Tic-Tac-Toe with the rookies. They were divided into teams. I wanted five sources of carbohydrates. They were down to the last square to win and the spokesman for one team said, “Pasta.”
And then he said, “Spaghetti.”
I gave it to him for creativity.

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