Human Performance, Performance | Dec 2, 2021

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“Nutrition is one of your performance fundamentals, one of the bits that you’ve got to get right,” says Sir Dave Brailsford.

For Brailsford, it goes far beyond the ‘marginal gains’ philosophy he has become renowned for during a career where he helped to transform British Cycling into one of the powerhouses of the sport and been the person at the helm for 12 Grand Tour victories for the Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky).

Beyond the science, it is the day-to-day practical implementation that most occupies his thinking on performance nutrition. “Elite, world-class sports nutrition is as much about the delivery and execution of it as it is about knowing what and when to eat,” he continues.

“It’s not that you don’t know what to do but it’s a challenge when your chefs are moving all the time, you’ve got trucks and kitchen trucks and fridges and you’ve got  to buy the food and make it; get it in the right place of how you’re going to lay it out, keep it warm. There’s a lot of execution challenges, which I would lump into ‘nutrition’ because I think when we talk about nutrition it’s very easy to get stuck in the science of nutrition; what to eat and when to eat it. It’s also about being able to have it in front of you to eat at the right time!”

In this chapter, Brailsford tells James Morton of Science in Sport why there is so much more to being a good performance nutritionist than specialist knowledge.

James Morton: Is nutrition given the attention it deserves across sport?

Dave Brailsford: Depending on the sport, it’s how apparent is it that your nutritional component is a real determinant of success? In a sport like cycling, everyone knows it’s a big determinant of success so the motivation is towards getting that right. People think, ‘if I make sure I understand this and make sacrifices around here, it’s going to impact quite dramatically on the performance’. That’s on the endurance side. I think strength and power is involved, and speed, if you want to develop that speed and strength then you have to fuel it somehow and build those muscles and get the right nutrition to fuel that. But there are some sports that are highly skill-based and team-based, and tactical, spatial awareness, formations; the team sports where I imagine – and I do say imagine – where all of the things that impact on performance. I know nutrition’s key, but is it as apparent? Is it as obvious that it makes a big difference? I think you have to think about performance on individual, organisational and team level because, in the end, an organisation’s not going to feed you, a team’s not going to feed you, you’re going to feed yourself and you’re going to have very individual preferences, individual behaviours and individual habits around food, which is so emotionally-driven for most people that it’s a highly complex delivery mechanism. And what works for me might not work for you. Where there’s good education and a good understanding and awareness of the impact of nutrition on a sport, that can be brought to bear in the environment for the athletes. We’ve talked a lot about environments over the years and I think you can have a high performance nutrition environment, that’s for sure.

JM: What advice do you have for performance leaders looking to create that culture?

DB: It’s a push and pull because you have to get the athlete themselves to really buy-in and understand why it’s important. Nutrition isn’t something you can tell. I can’t just tell you what to do and expect you to do it. That’s never going to work. It’s really an educational piece; it’s encouragement, facilitation and support. There’s also a degree of coaching and questioning, of mentoring, and it can be more directive. ‘I’ve got more experience than you have and I can fill this knowledge gap or skills gap’. In a race, you understand there’s a fuelling strategy that’s been recommended to you but you haven’t got a skill yet to concentrate on the race, survive in the race and, on top of that, making sure you’re having whatever grams of carbs or whatever fuelling strategy you’ve been advised; you can’t deliver on it. You’ve got a skill gap. You need a mentor, someone that’s older, more experienced, that can teach you how, why and what. It’s very easy with a service into a team, such as nutrition, to provide a generic level – it could be a high level – but a generic level and therein lies the challenge because that’s not going to give you elite performance. The trick is to facilitate a standard delivery, you make the environment right, but, in the end, nutrition is individual. You’ve got an individual demand, and an individual role and demand within your team or within your sport, and individual preferences. The goal has got to be that individual understanding and education and delivery to the athletes, but you need a high level of nutrition support in an environment to facilitate that and it’s easy to just deliver a good average, but then you just get mediocrity.

JM: To what extent is sport guilty of not giving nutrition enough time?

DB: As time’s gone on, there’s more and more awareness about the impact of food and diet and nutrition on gut health, your immune system, your mental health. It’s a very complex subject and it can be kept simple but, in the end, I think the more you can educate yourself around the impact, the potential performance impact of nutrition, the greater it is. There’s a lot of confusing information out there. You’ll find advocates for everything and it’s evangelical. It’s such a broad subject that I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all.

JM: What makes a successful performance nutritionist?

DB: Like anything else, you’ve got the continuum from knowledge to execution. You need the knowledge to be a great practitioner but, equally, you can be a pretty good practitioner without having PhD level knowledge in gut health or microbiology. We’re talking about applying nutrition. The coaching and delivery of nutrition. There’s a motivational component, there’s a rational, education, evidence component, and then there’s an interpersonal component. Very often, it’s the interpersonal component that enables and facilitates the trust that enables the advice to be taken onboard for a person to go on a journey. More and more, you’ve got to say the specific knowledge is a given and that’s not the challenge, really. The challenge is in how do you become an expert practitioner? Anyone wanting to be a performance nutritionist at the highest level needs to sit down and think carefully about: what is practice? What does it look like? What am I trying to achieve? Do I understand humans? Do I understand my style and how I come across? What do I understand about myself? Also, the impact of a nutritionist isn’t 24-7; it’s compacted, small inputs. Then you’ve got to input and step back. In the end, eating or drinking for an athlete is part of the process. You don’t need somebody there 24-7 to coach it, so I think that a great practitioner knows that they’re going to be required in very short bursts of high intensity. That regular in and out, fluctuating role in the overall performance. It’s part and parcel of the job. The other part of it, being a good performance nutritionist these days, you’ve got to have a good relationship with the chef, the coach, the physiologists and the psych and everyone else. The ability to be part of an integrated group is going to determine your success as well. They also need to understand the difference between mentoring and coaching. The fundamentals of supporting and helping people understand education.

JM: It’s very easy to stand still and nutrition is an area where opinions and facts are changing all the time. How important is a culture of innovation around nutrition?

DB: In the end, we’re trying to change athletic performance to get stronger, faster, better endurance and more hydration, whatever it might be. But food’s not changing that much. The macronutrients aren’t changing. The working model isn’t going to change that much from an innovation point of view. The interesting aspects are the dosage, the timing, the mix of the macros. Then there’s the question of trial and error because, in the end, you’re only going to know by trying. It’s like anything else, when you find a really good solution, and it works, then you probably stick to it to the point where it fails. Then it’s too late – you’re going to start losing rather than changing just before you start losing. You’ve got to have an open mind and having an innovative approach is as much about the athlete’s drive because, in many cases, I’ve seen that it’s actually the athlete themselves who are pushing and driving and they’re desperate for that next step and they’re pushing the support staff, they’re pushing the coach, they’re pushing the nutritionist.

JM: How do you view the role of the wider performance team?

DB: There needs to be an openness where there’s discussion, collaboration and a willingness to look outside. They’re scanning with their eyes, they’re looking at academia as well as the worlds of the military and everywhere where there’s people trying to solve the same problem. We should be having a look, because some are going to solve it better than others, but it needs an openness and willingness to move all the time and, over time, you get periods where you think, ‘we really need to push on this particular’. It could be the nutrition side. Then you think, ‘we’re looking pretty good on that side at the minute, we’re not pushing hard enough on the aero’, then you go on to aero; then it’s tyres, ‘we’ve got to do tyres’, then ‘we haven’t got a mental game plan in psychology, let’s go onto psychology’. All these different elements are like spinning plates in a multidisciplinary environment; and performance nutrition is one of them. I think it ebbs and flows. There are periods where you really go at it and periods where you back off and periods where you go again. How do you do that? It’s not easy and it’s often down to the individual and the environment they’re in.

JM: It’s effectively balancing what you do well with adding ‘sprinkles’ on top. People get bored quickly.

DB: Very true. Over the last 25 years, I’ve seen a lot of the same ideas recycled with new titles and it makes you smile a little bit. ‘You did that ten years ago but it’s now come back with a different name and everybody loves it’. Part of the magic of being a good practitioner and maintaining performance is you’ve got to avoid the groundhog day. A lot of that is down to language and how you present things. That keeps people motivated and excited.

This article first appeared in our latest Performance Special Report – Winning With Nutrition

Long relegated to the side lines, nutrition is finally getting the attention it deserves when it comes to helping athletes achieve peak performance. Download Winning With Nutrition, produced in partnership with Science in Sport and featuring NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks, the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, and English Premier League club Aston Aston Villa.

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