Article by: Matt Jones - Head of Nutrition at West Ham United Football Club
Despite being the youngest of the sports science fields, sports nutrition is an absolute minefield awash with conflicting, often confusing information, and even ‘fake news’ (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4019830/ and https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-6-S1-P1). It’s continued to grow exponentially as search for the magic ingredient intensifies. But is that search warranted, are we looking in the right places, at the right things? More to the point, does the magic ingredient everyone is looking for even exist?
I often hear of professional teams signing huge sponsorship deals with supplement suppliers. Yet the club chef is making little more than minimum wage. I see athletes being provided multivitamins, to then skip the vegetable section. I see them avoiding carbohydrate in an attempt to reduce body fat. I see staff chasing players around the field with sports drinks, yet the same player skips breakfast.
Missing the forest for the trees is an expression used of someone who is so invested in the fine details of a problem that they fail to look at the situation as a whole. I think it sums up the current situation perfectly. Many have become lost in the details.
I often talk about the unspoken pyramid of importance with athletes. It’s nothing mind-blowing; many others use the same idea. It’s just a simple, graphic representation of the different aspects of nutrition and orders them based on importance. I’ve found it to be an extremely effective means of educating and explaining a potentially confusing topic; it’s actually formed the backbone of my Performance Nutrition Curriculum of Education used in Premier League academies.
Nutrition is relatively simple. Each day we wake up with a set of requirements for energy, macronutrients, micronutrients and fluid. Our primary aim is to meet these requirements through the consumption adequate amounts of various foods and fluids.
Those requirements differ from person-to-person depending on a number of factors, but generally the most significant difference is the energy component. Given total daily energy intake is the most influential factor, energy forms the bottom layer of the pyramid. Of less importance than energy, but still relatively influential you have the macronutrients, carbohydrate, protein and fat, and the micronutrients.
The remainder of the pyramid comprises of meal timing and supplements. Both are relatively insignificant when compared with the aforementioned layers. The chronic effect of consistently hitting energy and macronutrient requirements will certainly outweigh the acute effects of meal timing and supplementation. Take, for example a football player who has maintained a 700 kcal energy deficit for the 7-days leading up to a game. Even if said player was to consume the perfect pre-match meal (2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram body mass, 20 grams protein and less than 5 grams of fat and fibre) this player is still likely to underperform.
Within professional sport I continue to see people missing the forest for the trees when it comes to nutrition. Lost in the details they chase after the marginal gains, when in fact the fundamental aspects are crumbling. To tell the truth it’s infuriating.
I understand we can only control a certain proportion of an athletes diet, as we are limited in the contact time we have with them. I also get the theory of marginal gains and the massive potential it offers. But to chase marginal gains in the face of significant gains is ludicrous. Surely the return on investment in putting more resources into improving basic stuff such as general eating habits is greater than that of purchasing cherry juice and ensuring they consume a post-workout recovery shake?
In all honesty this is where professional sport can learn so much from the fitness industry. Personal trainers often do an incredible job of educating clients on how to eat well away from the gym, providing recipes, meal plans and demonstrating how to track calories. I cast my mind back to the middle-aged woman and her personal trainer I saw in the hotel gym. He was not discussing how the role of multiple-transportable carbohydrates could increase rates of glucose oxidation to 1.75 grams per minute and how that may benefit her performance on the treadmill, nor how a pre-exercise coffee could improve her squat strength. Instead they were discussing bigger picture topics such as meals, consistency and sleep. He appeared to see the bigger picture, while performance teams are perhaps sometimes lost in the details? If you do find yourself drawn into that way of thinking then pause for a second and put things into context.
I often here of the term “keeping up with the Jones’s” in professional sport, perhaps that’s the case here. Professional sport is a high-pressured environment; the perception is that if you’re not being innovative, creative, thinking outside the box, chasing kaizen then you’re not going to be successful. “Fear of missing out” is also common in high-performance sport, and could be at play here. I’m all for innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box and kaizen. I’m all for trialling new things and I actively promote a growth mind-set within my team of staff. But not before ensuring the simple stuff is covered, implemented consistently and fully understood by all.
I look at the incredible work of Dr James Morton and colleagues at Team INEOS (formerly Team Sky). They seem to have it figured. Continuing to push boundaries having literally invented the term marginal gains as it applies to sport performance, yet also consistently delivering the basics in terms of quality food, delivered in dosages specific to the nutrient needs of the athlete. The bottom up approach to nutrition has been adopted successfully by England Rugby, led by Graeme Close and chef Carl Engleman, likewise David Dunne at Harlequins with the support of Omar Meziane. Perhaps we are getting there in high performance too.
To echo the thoughts of others involved in high-performance environments such as Fergus Connolly and Martin Buchheit my advice would be to take a step back and view the performance problem from a wider lens. Maybe then the magic ingredient will look a little different?
This not only applies to professional, high performance sport, but the fitness industry too. If a client is struggling or not progressing in the way you had expected, rather than continuing to push, take a moment to pause, step back and view the wider problem. Lifestyle, stress, sleep, diet. A wider lens is better able to pick up problems.
Head of Nutrition at West Ham United Football Club
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