How important is nutrition in sport?
Over the past half-decade, the uptake in information has sky-rocketed and for good reason.
The days of old when inter-county players rocked up to winter training two stone overweight are long gone. The same applies to football and rugby players with demands dictating that they stay in shape year-round.
On an individual level, the era of boxers such as Ricky Hatton bloating themselves in between bouts can no longer be tolerated.
Again, for good reason.
“I would place nutrition as second behind an athlete’s day-to-day training in terms of importance for them to reach their optimum levels of performance,” says Daniel Davey, lead nutritionist with Leinster Rugby and Dublin GAA.
“It is important to take breaks in order to achieve and maintain that consistency but they can’t take it for granted.
“Not only will they know themselves, but it’ll show on the training pitch and in games.”
So, what is the role of the nutritionist?
Ignorance would tell you they are there to set stringent dietary plans. Followed by making sure they are adhered to. Topped off with a weekly body-fat measurement.
However, while Davey’s role differs from team to team, the principals of each remain the same. The nutritionist’s role is about creating a culture that the athletes can buy into.
“It’s about understanding what a team-first mentality looks like and understanding you’re there as a practitioner whose purpose is to improve the overall skills, knowledge and understanding so they can be better.
“Your first instinct really needs to be about the benefit of the athlete but you also need to be aware. Not only being aware of their needs but being aware of what’s going on their lives. Have they got jobs or exams coming up? All of these issues feed directly into how they build towards performance.
“As well as that, it’s about building the relationship with the athlete and the team, the backroom team and understanding each other’s role and how all those small things add up to big results.”
Sports Nutrition Ireland
What about the individual athlete?
Danny Lennon of Sigma Nutrition has worked with some of the brightest prospects in combat sports.
He feels this buy-in is easier for individual athletes who, most of the time, need to make weight before competing.
“From adherence and a buy-in perspective, a lot of the guys in combat sports, if they have a fight coming up, they’re like robots.
“If you tell them to do certain things, a lot of the time, they’ll have the mindset to go and do it. Whereas, if you’re working with a team, a panel of 30 guys, you’re going to have some that are really interested and some not so much. So getting that buy-in can be different.
“The flip side of that is a lot of fighters that we work with. They know nutrition is important. They even try and place importance on themselves and prioritise it. However, a lot of them have misconceptions about what an appropriate nutrition strategy is.
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I'm super grateful that yesterday I got to spend most of the day chatting and hanging out with @sportrd_clint, who also very kindly showed me around the awesome UFC PI facility. It was so cool to see what resources are now available to UFC athletes. Clint is head of nutrition at the PI, and in addition to being a registered dietitian, has a background as an elite level wrestler; being a 2x All-American and being a former member of the US national team. Hearing about the vision Clint and his team have, they are going to continue to make a huge impact on athlete welfare and knowledge heading into the future. You can see a couple of quick clips in my story highlights.
“They’ll mix up typical principles of nutrition for fat loss and weight loss with what they should be doing as an athlete.”
Again, the ignorant point of view is that nutritionists care about the athlete’s body in how it looks. However, the end goal is about performance, not appearance.
“The goal here is to make sure that you can perform at your best when you’re in there.
“And that may be thinking about what’s the best weight class for you, but also the way you make that weight and making sure it isn’t going to undermine your performance.”
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RATIONALITY AS A TOOL So I was out for coffee with @pow_ah today and we got into chatting about some concepts related to behaviour change, psychology, coaching and several other things. One thing that came up was how one of the most important thing we can do for ourselves or others is illuminating how irrational a lot of our thoughts are. Within the context of how we think about nutrition, eating, health, and body image, often we feel bad about ourselves when we allow irrational beliefs we hold to affect how we respond to a certain event/action. So one way to prevent the spiral of negative thoughts is to question our belief about that event/action and ask "is that a rational belief to hold?" Most often, the answer is no. In fact, this is one of the cornerstones of one of the most efficacious practices in psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy. There one can use rational thinking to overcome negative thought loops. Of course, this little caption is a oversimplified snapshot of an idea, but is worthwhile considering nonetheless. We all let irrationality affect us. We all do this, a lot, in various areas of life. I know I certainly have. But perhaps sometimes we can stop, reflect on what our exact thought is (jot it down if necessary), and really question is it objectively true? In doing so we can sometimes catch ourselves before we spiral.
Whether it’s working within a team or as part of a singular sport, it’s important to view each athlete as their own individual with their own shape, size and mental fortitude.
According to Kate McDaid, owner of NutriKate and nutritionist with Dublin LGFA and Longford GAA, recognising and treating athletes on that case-by-case basis is important in terms of getting a message across.
“I think it’s really important to recognise that you’re working with an individual, and you’re trying to get the best out of that individual.
“You can’t compare players to players. For one person, it might be smaller steps while others may be ready to rock on the nutrition front. In relation to each, it is about giving them a better opportunity in terms of recovering and refuelling.
“I think the individual is really, really important and that’s kind of the key variable here in terms of the information we roll-out as practitioners.”
However, there’s only so much information a nutritionist can give. While each of these top-level practitioners are constantly on call, at the end of the day, it boils down to trust.
Trusting that athletes want to maximise their potential and accepting that nutrition plays a key role in doing so.
“I think there’s a case to be made for a more holistic approach,” Lennon says.
“The way to create the best athletes is to create the best well-rounded human being. I think a lot of teams now focus on this. Any of the great managers like Jim Gavin, for example, focus on players as people.
“If you have happy players who enjoy being part of the team, who generally are doing stuff well most of the time, are trusted to be able to go and have a meal with their wife or go enjoy a party. To not always feel like they’re depriving themselves, then it’s much more likely to stick to good nutrition principles.
“As a happier and healthier human being, you are more likely to be happier and healthier as an athlete.”
You can contact each of theses, top-ranked nutritionists, by following the links below: