One of the questions I get asked a lot is “What does a sports nutritionist do?” Fundamentally, I look at an athlete’s diet and tell them what to eat to help them meet their sporting goals. This could be finishing their first marathon or winning a gold medal at the World Champs. The second question is usually “How is this different from regular nutrition?” This can be summed up in three ways:
The basics of good nutrition are the same for athletes as for everyone else. So, my first task is always to make sure the athlete is getting enough lean protein, wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, and water. I also look at how much of their diet is junk food and takeaways.
The difference is that, for an athlete, a poor diet can not only affect their appearance, it can also seriously hamper their performance. I had one athlete who was mystified as to why he couldn’t put on muscle mass. He was a sprinter and his coach had suggested that increasing his strength would lead to more power and faster sprint times. His diet consisted of breakfast bars in the morning, a cheese sandwich for lunch, pizza or burgers for dinner, with a mass gainer protein supplement before bed. In five days he had exactly one piece of fruit and one serving of vegetables!
This athlete had fallen into the trap of thinking that is was only the quantity of food that mattered, and that supplements can make up for a bad diet. They can’t. Quality matters too.
The second thing I check is if the athlete is getting enough food to support their level of training. For an athlete, the number one thing they can do to reach their sporting goals is have enough energy to have a great workout, recover, and go hard again in the next workout. If athletes are not eating enough to support their training, not only will their performance suffer but they may also develop health problems. After all, the energy has to come from somewhere. Athletes who consistently undereat are more likely to get injured, have a higher incidence of colds and flu, lower fertility, and are at higher risk of developing osteoporosis (brittle bone disease).
At the other end of the spectrum, some athletes vastly overestimate the number of calories (a measure of energy) they burn during a typical workout, and overeat in consequence. These people tend to believe that being a runner, rugby player, or whatever, means they can eat whatever they want. This is why you can have people gaining weight even when training for a marathon!
Having a sports nutritionist calculate an athlete’s energy balance (calories being eaten versus calories burned through daily activities and exercise) can be particularly helpful in explaining why an athlete is underperforming or putting on fat despite training hard.
This comes back to using food to support your training. Athletes need to make sure they eat before training so they have enough energy to get through their workout. If a moderate or intense exercise session is going to last more than an hour, then most athletes will benefit from taking a sports drink, energy gel, or energy bar during the session. And taking in a snack of meal with some protein and carbohydrates after training will kick start recovery.
However, eating too soon before a hard workout can cause stomach upset. Other athletes find that having too much food in their stomach during a training session makes them feel sluggish. It’s a fine balance between eating close enough to the session to feel energised, and giving the body enough time to digest to prevent issues. What’s more, hard exercise can kill the appetite, so some athletes have no interest in eating immediately after a workout.
A sports nutritionist will work with an athlete to determine the best meal timing for them. They can also recommend foods which are less likely to cause digestive issues, or which go down easily even if they’re not that hungry.
In the end, for most athletes, sports nutrition is really not that different from regular nutrition. The difference is in attitude: Sports nutrition is about using food to fuel performance.
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