How customized diets helped increase performance among the Terrapins

December 19, 2012

In Thursday’s WaPo, a profile of Maryland director of basketball performance Kyle Tarp and his unique approach to strength & conditioning, which emphasizes basketball-specific workouts rather than brute strength lifts. He’s also one of the only college basketball strength & conditioning coaches who also handles team nutrition.

Here, we’re going to get a little more in-depth into the nutrition methods that helped various Terrapins significantly alter their bodies this offseason. Over the next couple days, expect some more deleted scenes from Tarp’s program.

Mark Turgeon was in a sour mood. After an unspecified road loss during his inaugural season leading the Maryland basketball team, Turgeon sought solace in a postgame meal imported from Chick-Fil-A. He wanted a fried chicken sandwich, a classic staple of the fast food chain, maybe something with pickles to help take the sting off another defeat. Comfort food, it’s called.

During Turgeon’s playing days at the University of Kansas, postgame meals meant trips to McDonalds for Big Macs, quarter pounders and greasy fries. But on this evening, Turgeon unwrapped the Chick-Fil-A foil and found grilled chicken, not the breaded meat he desired.

Even the Terrapins coaches have been affected by Kyle Tarp, Maryland’s director of basketball performance, whose rigorous nutrition policies have Maryland’s players in better shape than ever.

No Terp has undergone a more drastic and noticeable change than Alex Len, who morphed from a lanky 7-foot-1 center into a bona fide top-five NBA draft prospect, putting on around 40 pounds this summer, most of it muscle. Len chowed down more than 6,000 calories per day, most of it sourced from his favorite American eateries.

A typical day began at 8 a.m. with a Muscle Milk weight-gain shake and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At 10:45 a.m. Len guzzled another shake, then ate two chargrilled Chick-Fil-A sandwiches for lunch at 1 p.m. At 3 p.m., it’s microwaving two frozen burritos for a pre-workout snack then another weight-gain shake at 4:30 p.m. Per an NCAA rule, the team can provide shakes, so long as less than 30 percent of its calories come from protein.

At 7:30 p.m., Len eats dinner at Boston Market or Chipotle: chicken with sweet potato and green beans or a burrito bowl, respectively. Once, Tarp discovered that Len’s iron intake was low, so he added steak to Len’s burrito bowl order and fixed the problem. Len’s day wrapped up at 9:45 p.m. with Greek yogurt and another PB&J.

“In the beginning, when I just started, I didn’t weigh that much, but I got used to it,” Len said. “I had to eat as much as I could, I had to take pictures of everything I ate. In the beginning, I couldn’t eat that much. Maybe 3,000 calories, then I built it up. I ate whatever I could. Just as much as I could all the time.”

Nutrition and exercise provided an edge for Tarp growing up near Monterey, Calif., 10 miles from the Pacific coastline at Palma High School. Never athletically gifted like his football teammates, Tarp crushed heavy proteins after workouts and ate Lean Cuisines just because they were called “lean,” but ignored other vital macronutrients.

“My heart was in the right place, but my knowledge level wasn’t there,” Tarp says.

Tarp kept a watchful eye on the Terps’ diet choices this summer, often mandating picture messages of every meal and sometimes dropping in for surprise visits. Jake Layman, who bulked up this summer like Len, enjoyed a similar calorie-packed diet. Shaquille Cleare cut back on fried foods and late-night snacks. Now, he only eats carbohydrates 30 minutes before or after a workout. Seth Allen similarly traded sodas for water. “Don’t drink your calories,” he says.

“There’s such a fine line,” Tarp said. “A lot of people will try to completely cut off calories to these kids, and then performance will tank. So what’s the threshold where I can have a little deficiency, so I know we’re moving in the right direction, but still give him the right fuel to perform?

“Carbs can be the biggest impetus for body fat if not utilized at the right time. We had to make sure our carb dynamics were on point, and then we can work through a lot of the fat.”

Team managers now haul containers of nuts and beef jerky for road trips. No desserts. When Tarp dines out with some Maryland staff members, they say, it’s all fruit for him after the meal. Once, however, Turgeon got on Tarp a little. Now, team orders from Potbelly include cookies. They’re for the coaches, though. Not the players.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt | December 19, 2012