Red Sox Nutritionist on Sports, Stress, & Segterra (and World Series)

Like a lot of people in New England, Tara Mardigan didn’t get much sleep Sunday night.

“It’s 1 a.m. and you’re still thinking about Jonny Gomes sending it out of the park,” she says. (The dramatic home run pushed the Red Sox to a 4-2 victory over St. Louis, tying the World Series at two games apiece.)

Unlike a lot of people, Mardigan is team nutritionist for the Boston Red Sox. Asked what she put in Gomes’s cereal yesterday, she jokes that it was “100 percent natural.”

And that’s about all Mardigan would say specifically about the players’ eating habits. (Well, there’s a little more below.) But she could talk freely about a startup that she’s involved with—Cambridge, MA-based Segterra, a personal health and wellness company. Mardigan sits on the startup’s scientific advisory board and serves as a consultant on nutrition.

Segterra makes a Web-based health platform called InsideTracker. Based on analyzing a blood sample, the company makes personalized recommendations on food and lifestyle to improve an individual’s health and performance. The company is led by CEO Rony Sellam and founder Gil Blander.

Tara Mardigan (image: InsideTracker)Mardigan (pictured), a University of New Hampshire and Tufts University alum, hooked up with Segterra about four years ago through a mutual friend. She also has experience working as a nutritionist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for 10-plus years, as well as with Harvard University’s sports teams.

You might think elite athletes and cancer patients don’t have a lot in common when it comes to nutrition. But you would be wrong. “They are almost the same,” Mardigan says. A big issue for both is, “How can I have more energy when I’m exhausted and have to get up and do the same thing the next day?” she says. Both populations are concerned with keeping their energy up and eating right. That makes them vulnerable to marketers of nutritional supplements, she says. “A lot of that is, quite frankly, noise.”

Of course, athletes and cancer survivors can also be one and the same. Back in 2006-07, Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester—who’s scheduled to start Game 5 tonight—worked with Mardigan on nutrition during his recovery from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer.

For its part, InsideTracker works by analyzing levels of so-called biomarkers in the blood. One example is creatine kinase, an enzyme that can show that an athlete isn’t getting proper rest or sleep. “It can dictate training adaptation,” Mardigan says.

Other biomarkers include vitamin B12 and zinc levels, which can be high in people taking supplements or energy drinks. “Though they sound very helpful, it’s really overkill at the end of the day,” she says. “InsideTracker can help bring it back to more of a food-based approach.”

The health platform also helps users stay on top of their basic blood work. “It’s the way the field of sports nutrition and sports performance is heading,” she adds. “We’re not making best guesses. We’re now at the level where technology allows us to individualize based on genetic makeup and food preferences.”

At the same time, Mardigan takes a traditional approach to try to help patients and athletes get enough rest and nutrition. People might wonder, given the rigors of the playoff schedule, whether the Red Sox do anything different in the postseason as compared to the regular season. “We don’t do anything differently. We keep it exactly the same, because guess what, it worked during the season,” she says. “We try to accommodate what works for the different players.”

That means a pre-game meal a couple hours before start time, and a post-game meal. As for the kinds of food available, Mardigan says, “We try to provide access to healthy stuff, and minimize the comfort food.” She also points out that any team is a mix of people from different cultures who have different food preferences.

“If I told Big Papi to switch to brown rice, he would never talk to me again,” she jokes.

In all seriousness, though, the players and staff have to manage the realities of a playoff environment. “There’s a surge of adrenaline that’s there,” she says. “It’s a form of stress—we frame it as a good stress. It’ll provide extra energy. But sleeping in, taking naps, finding quiet space to read a book or magazine, could be one of the most overlooked performance tools.”

“What makes baseball very challenging is that it’s every single day,” Mardigan says. “It’s a long season. When I hear comments like, ‘Oh, all they do is hit the ball and jog around the bases…’ The amount that goes into trying to throw a ball really fast and really straight, or trying to hit the ball—there’s so much mental acuity involved in the sport.”

Her bottom line for better performance? “Food is one aspect, but there are simple things, like shutting off Facebook or video games early. And getting back to old school [sleep habits]. We’re distracted now. Technology has afforded us the opportunity to be very distracted with what we’re doing.

She adds, “I sometimes run the risk of sounding like Mom.”

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