Human Performance, Performance | Nov 25, 2021
James Morton of Science in Sport states his case for the nutritionist being one of the first and most important hires in your high performance team.

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By James Morton

In reflecting on the growth and evolution of performance support models across different sporting environments and cultures, I am amazed that one of the most crucial elements of the performance plan – nutrition – is sometimes overlooked.

Notwithstanding my bias, it is important to remember that it is in fact nutrition that provides the basis of all human performance. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that in my conversations with leading performance directors from around the world, I often comment that nutrition should be one of the first and most important hires for anyone leading a new performance programme.

I am going to explain why.

Why nutrient intake impacts performance

Where once our focus was solely on ensuring sufficient muscle fuel stores, it is now accepted that what we eat before, during and after every single training session has the capacity to drastically alter our whole-body physiology, affecting tissues and organs over and above that of skeletal muscle. For example, the timing, type and quantity of both macronutrients (i.e. carbohydrate, fats and proteins) and micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals), alongside total body water content (i.e. hydration status), can all affect the daily function of our brains, gut, kidney, liver, immune system, bones, tendons, ligaments and so on. When considered this way, the importance of nutrition extends far beyond that of body composition or fuelling for game day. Rather, our daily nutrient intake affects our ability to make decisions, execute physical actions and technical skills, withstand mechanical load, fight infection, maintain training volume, promote sleep, reduce injury risk and so on.

From a human performance perspective, a poorly fuelled athlete is therefore likely to suffer from poor sleep quality, exhibit increased incidence of injury and illness and display impaired growth, maturation and recovery, all of which can manifest in your star player apparently suffering from a lack of responsiveness to training and a loss of form. It is through this lens that it is no exaggeration to say that I have witnessed transformations in athletes’ careers and longevity within their sport once they have embraced the principles of a performance approach to nutrition. From the performance director’s perspective, the hiring of a highly skilled performance nutritionist could thus be viewed as one of the shrewdest returns of investment across the organisation. For without one, the other key members of the ‘orchestra’ are unlikely to get the best from their athlete.

The limitations of the ‘consultant’ model

The practical delivery of performance nutrition has evolved considerably throughout the last decade.  In the historical service model, sports typically employed an expert ‘consultant’, usually based on their academic and/or practical experiences. Despite the expert knowledge that a carefully chosen consultant can bring to the performance programme, the consultancy model has obvious limitations in that ‘face time’ is typically restricted to one or two days per week. In such instances, the consultant often spends their time in setting up generic team-wide systems and protocols (e.g. fuelling, recovery, body composition protocols etc), upskilling the knowledge base of existing staff to support practical day-to-day delivery, as well as managing specific athlete case histories. However, in considering my reflections from this model, I am not convinced that this type of approach yields the cultural change or attention to detail that is required to truly support the delivery of a high-performance service. Indeed, in many situations, the consultant may be responsible for the remit of improving performance in excess of 100 athletes, a task that clearly conflicts with the concept of creating and delivering highly individualised and multidisciplinary athlete performance plans.

The triangulation of practitioners, academia and the sports industry

Fortunately, with the increased recognition from both head coaches and performance support staff on the role of nutrition in supporting performance, the landscape of nutrition delivery is changing. This is especially prevalent across the UK and Europe and is beginning to be adopted across the big leagues of the US. As an example, most soccer clubs within the English Premier League now employ a full-time professionally accredited nutritionist to operate at first team level as well as an additional full-time head to focus on nutrition to the academy players. Such individuals typically travel home and away to ensure that nutrition delivery occurs at the heart of where and when it matters. In some situations, the nutrition programme is also supported by formal collaborations with academic institutions so that academic experts can also inform the creation of an evidence-based programme, the nature of which may extend to the integration of PhD practitioner-based researchers within the club. Given the requirement to adopt a safe supplement programme, a fully integrated partnership with a sports supplement provider specialising in banned substance testing is also an essential ingredient of an elite performance nutrition programme. Upon reflection, it is this triangulation of practitioners, academia and industry that could now be considered a model of best practice, one that can be dynamic and responsive to change as the performance questions arising on the front line are posed thick and fast.

Integrated performance nutrition

The increased appreciation from head coaches and performance directors on the performance effects of sound nutrition is particularly pleasing to see. In the 2020 Uefa consensus statement on nutrition for football, former Arsenal Manager Arsène Wenger, who currently serves as Fifa’s Chief of Global Football Development, contributed an accompanying editorial where he argued the case for nutrition to be integrated within a performance team’s activities. ‘It should be a fundamental part of the team’s performance and/or medical meetings, where the priorities for each individual player are discussed in detail’, he wrote. ‘When nutrition—like any other element of sports science—exists in a silo, answering only the questions or interests of a single practitioner (i.e. the nutritionist, him or herself), it is detrimental to the team.’

This integrated performance approach that Wenger calls for certainly resonates with how we approached Performance Nutrition during the four seasons I spent as Nutrition and Physical Performance Lead at Team Sky. When Chris Froome pulled back 3 minutes 22 seconds on Stage 19 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia to win his third consecutive Grand Tour, I knew our programme was in a good place. “Today was about fuelling, today was about making sure you can fuel a ride like that all the way to the end,” Sky’s Team Principal Sir Dave Brailsford told the media in the aftermath. “It’s fundamental really, so all staff, myself included, have been out at the side of the road putting together a fuelling plan for him so that he would absolutely not miss a beat, because that’s basically the game changer.” In the years to follow, the team (now known as the Ineos Grenadiers) have since employed three full-time performance nutritionists (two of whom are integrated practitioners from the Science in Sport Performance Solutions team) alongside three full-time performance chefs. There is consistency, clarity and a performance-focused approach across all training camps and races.

Athletes are starting to ‘see’ nutrition

As a result of this increasingly adopted integrated and full-time staffing model, athletes and staff are now ‘seeing nutrition’ on a daily basis. The role of the nutritionist is now considered much more important than the mere organisation of food services at both home and away games. It is no longer a consultant who appears and disappears in the flash of an eye. The nutritionist now sits at the top table, having visible dialogue with the most influential decision makers in the organisation. The culture is changing.

From both a theoretical and practical perspective, perhaps the biggest leap we have made is in the recognition that nutritional needs are not static. In the same manor that physical load and performance objectives are periodised across the micro- and macro-cycles at both team and individual athlete level, nutrition should subsequently follow suit. It should no longer be a one-size-fits-all approach where every day is the same. Rather, the entire performance team and athlete roster should recognise that nutritional needs will change between and within each individual depending on the development and performance goals at any given time. Every meal should be carefully considered because it can impact the work of the whole performance team.

In this regard, the remit of the nutritionist has developed to be the:

“Strategic periodisation of energy, macro- and micronutrient availability (alongside targeted use of supplements and ergogenic aids) to improve body composition, training adaptations, performance, recovery and athlete health.”

The outcomes of such an approach will produce an athlete who is ready to win consistently.

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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