If the 2018 Penn State Nittany Lions happen to outperform expectations, remember these two words:
“It tastes like cherry pie, with a cinnamon taste at the end,” receiver Brandon Polk said. “Not awful. Not bad.”
“It’s really tart,” receiver DeAndre Thompkins said. “ You take a little shot of it, so it’s not that bad.”
“Good for inflammation, and good for recovery,” running back Johnathan Thomas said.
A miracle liquid? Nobody in Happy Valley is claiming that, though college and pro sports teams are in the business of trying to improve performance by the slightest of percentages. Cherry juice has become an increasingly common juice in sports nutrition. This summer, it was added to Penn State’s post-practice regimen.
“The first 30 minutes off the field, it can dull the pain of extra swelling,” said Kayla Matrunick Martin, assistant athletic director of performance nutrition services, who performed a similar role at Louisville and Notre Dame before returning to her alma mater, where she had run track. “They take at least two servings in the afternoon — they have an option to take a third if they have a lifting session.”
In addition to relieving inflammation and oxidative stress, “it has a cardiovascular benefit,” Martin said. “You’re looking at improving their blood markers. As an athlete, you need maximum blood flow. It also helps with reduction of illness. This is camp, the biggest grind they’re going through.”
The goal is to reduce the risk of illness, to be more durable, Martin said. Just as important as the science might be the buy-in.
“I will say this is by far the most consistent consumption I’ve seen from a team,” Martin said.
At media day earlier this month, Penn State coach James Franklin, listing offseason areas he was pleased with, quickly mentioned his team’s sports nutrition program, saying he sees “a major difference.”
“Our body fat is decreasing, and we are doing some different things,” Franklin said.
Does Thomas, a fifth-year senior in graduate school, ask for explanations about what he’s taking in?
“Of course, of course,” Thomas said. “Knowledge is power, you know. Obviously, I think it’s very important to know what you’re putting in your body, down to all the little molecules and everything.”
In high school, Thomas’ diet was typical for a teenage boy, he said. Chicken wings? Pile ’em on. Mac and cheese? Another helping, please.
“I eat the same thing every day,” Thomas said. “I cook baked chicken, green beans.”
Anything on the chicken?
“Salt and pepper,” Thomas said.
“I’ll eat that for lunch and dinner,” he said, although he sometimes switches sweet potatoes for green beans.
“I meal prep,” Thomas said. “I cook a bunch of chicken. I have little containers for a whole week. I’m an organized guy. I love to be organized.”
“Same thing every morning: Oatmeal, diced strawberries and blueberries, with four eggs.”
His taste buds don’t get tired of the routine?
“Sometimes it gets tiring, but the thing that I do, that gives it a little flavor, or changes it up for me, is adding different sauces to dip my chicken in. Honey mustard, barbecue.”
For underclassmen, Martin is keeping a closer eye on everything.
“I’m the new person in the program,” she said. “They’re not used to seeing a dietitian around at practices.”
Or at dinner.
“I’m at every single meal, to look at their plate,” Martin said. “We call them their plate plans.”
Different plates and different plans for different-sized players. Guys trying to add weight, trying to reduce weight, trying to maintain weight but turn it into muscle. All different groups. One is named Elite, for players looking to take the next step and keep doing this for the next decade. (QB Trace McSorley is in this group.)
As for the cherry juice, Martin orders it in bulk, adding water to concentrate. It’s the equivalent of about 100 cherries per serving, she said.
At least it tastes better than pickle juice.
The way Polk looks at it, if he thinks it’s working, it’s working.
“Just hearing certain things, like you feel, even if it’s possibly not working, your mind’s saying it’s working,” the wide receiver said. “So, you feel a lot better.”
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