The Cal Poly men’s basketball team is taking a new, nutrition-heavy approach.
Jefferson P. Nolan
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Cal Poly basketball player Chris Eversley burns 2,434 calories every day sitting completely motionless.
Earlier this year, Eversley lay on his back with a bubble-shaped helmet enveloping his head. The helmet fed a tube into a computer, and for 25 minutes, the senior forward lay in the kinesiology lab, simply allowing the six-figure machine to do its job.
“We felt like astronauts in there,” Eversley said. “It counted how many calories you burn at rest in a day. They had us lay there, and they just made a formula where they could tell guys were burning upwards of 2,000 calories a day just sitting still.”
Nobody on the basketball team had ever been tested by a machine in the kinesiology department. But that was before head coach Joe Callero included a nutritionist to the coaching staff. That was before Chris Borgard.
At the beginning of this season, Borgard joined the Cal Poly men’s basketball squad as their official performance nutrition coordinator.
A graduate of Arkansas State, Borgard received a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and went on to earn a master’s degree in kinesiology from Cal Poly in 2010. Before returning to San Luis Obispo, Borgard served as a strength and conditioning coach for the Oakland A’s minor league system in Stockton, Calif. and Vancouver, in addition to stints with the St. Louis Rams and the Oakland Raiders.
Until the beginning of this season, Borgard’s main duties included acting as a part-time lecturer, as a graduate teaching assistant and conducting research in sports science on campus.
His role with the basketball team all started when Callero decided that he wanted a nutritionist to sit down with his players for a day and talk about the importance of their diet.
Callero was interested in nutrition, body composition and overall wellness of his players. For the fifth-year head coach, it has always been about doing the little things right. But until now, nutrition hadn’t been a part of the game plan.
Callero expressed his interest in nutrition to Scott Reaves, an associate professor in the food science and nutrition department.
But when Reaves entered Callero’s office, the professor had a different proposal in mind. With the help of Borgard, Reaves petitioned to complete an in-depth analysis of the body composition of each basketball player, and with variables such as food preferences, current diet and style of play, they decided to generate a complete diet modification specific to each player.
“We went from having a glorified speaker to, ‘Let’s make it a comprehensive evaluation and educational program,’” Callero said. “They said, ‘If we spend three months doing this right, we’re going to impact these athletes for the next four years.’”
With the financial aid of Julie Hock, a donor to the Cal Poly basketball team who previously provided the team with Muscle Milk as a post-workout supplement, Borgard and Reaves went to work.
The duo drafted the endeavor as a research project with the objective of getting students on campus involved.
Assessing each player’s metabolism using instruments from the kinesiology department, the team measured the athlete’s calorie count in order to determine the nutrition they need to perform at an optimal level. In the lab, Eversley and the rest of the basketball team underwent a series of tests to determine bone density and composition that informed them of the exact percentage of body fat and the amount of lean body mass of each player.
“We’re attacking from a whole bunch of angles,” Borgard said. “Initially, we had them do a 72-hour food recall where they listed all the foods they were eating. We even looked at their class schedules, their sleep and nap schedules when we made those suggestions individually of what to eat and when to eat.”
Reaves and Borgard see the work done with the basketball team as an opportunity to expand Cal Poly’s “Learn by Doing” approach. Borgard and Reaves recruited the assistance of nutrition students Morgan Podmajersky and Sebastian Zorn. Using the data given and the criteria they had, they were able to formulate a unique diet for each player on the team.
“The students have taken a long time planning out their diets,” Reaves said. “It’s students helping students. It’s about giving them research experience and publishing the results. We’re running this as an intense pilot project, and hopefully in the future we can expand other programs here and get other students and teams involved. Our students get a chance to work with Chris, who has real-world experience in strength and conditioning.”
But as the Mustangs prepare for conference play, Callero knows better than to expect tangible results only a few months into their new program.
“It’s a longitudinal issue,” Callero said. “You may not see the results in four weeks. It may not manifest itself in a 20-game winning streak because of a nutritionist. But every meal is advancing the cause to win. That’s the one-minute contract. That meal either helps you or hurts you in an opportunity to have great endurance that they need. It helps the players have the mindset of a professional.”
The noticeable difference, Callero believes, will come in the offseason.
“We’re just in a warzone now,” Callero said. “We’re surviving. It’s not about whether they’ve gained or lost seven pounds. You’re just trying to make sure your body’s not falling apart.”
But even if the results aren’t immediately available on paper, both Reaves and Borgard played collegiate sports and the duo knows that every advantage one has over an opponent may be the difference between victory or defeat — even if it’s as simple as the food you eat.
“There’s a subjective aspect to it,” Reaves said. “If the player knows that they have changed their diet, and now they’re on a diet that makes them feel better, that can give them an advantage over some of their opponents. That can give them the edge psychologically. When you put it all together, with the conditioning they do, their diet is extremely important. There’s so much science that has shown that if you incorporate good, solid nutrition, it’s a huge benefit for performance.”
And even if the results aren’t yet available in the stat-book, from the players’ perspective, the difference is drastic.
“We feel terrific,” senior guard Jamal Johnson said. “My game has improved. I feel like I recover better after practices, and I’m ready for the next day. Our bodies feel better than they ever have.”
The positives: The players feel fantastic, they recover quicker after weightlifting and practice, and they are given a slight mental edge over their opponents because they prepared correctly for each game.
The downside: Trips to In-n-Out Burger become more of a rarity.
“Oh, we find our ways of getting In-n-Out,” Eversley said. “To be honest with you, we have our days. A few (Cal Poly basketball players) live together, and when we’ve been on a health binge for the past three or four days, it’s time to get a burger. We literally pack five people in a car and just go to In-n-Out. Chris said it’s OK to have a cheat meal, so it’s OK.”
But now, even a double-double cheeseburger doesn’t taste the same to the young athletes.
“I don’t digest fast food like I used to anymore,” Johnson said. “But there are times, like when we go on trips that eating vegetables aren’t easily accessible, that my body just starts feeling weird. Food I would normally eat just doesn’t taste the same.”
Callero and his team realize the education and testing done is a luxury. According to him, his team is included with 10 to 20 college teams across the country receiving similar education and treatment. Sports nutrition is up and coming in collegiate sports, and with the 550-600 student athletes on campus at Cal Poly, the two nutritionists hope that they can broaden their areas of influence.
But for now, Borgard’s focus remains with the basketball squad. Around the time of the conference tournament later in the season, he and his team will conduct a two-week checkup where they test the players’ body weight, body fat, circumference measurements, resting metabolic rate and how many calories they’ve burned. Still, it’s one meal at a time.
“When I run into them downtown and they are eating a more high fat, empty calorie option, they may try and hide it or they may make a joke about it, but that’s just part of it,” Borgard said. “The cool thing is that (Reaves) and I were former college athletes too. We know how practical all of this is. There’s going to be times when they’re not going to have access to great healthy options, but we can make suggestions still. Throughout the course of this season, I think a lot of positives are going to come from it. We’ll find out.”