Performance | Oct 7, 2021
Views from the Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Cowboys, Aston Villa, Ineos Grenadiers and beyond.

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Performance nutrition has grown in prominence in recent decades but what does the future hold?

By John Portch

It is a question that Science in Sport and the Leaders Performance Institute posed to five performance experts – three sports nutritionists, one team principal, and a leading academic in the field – as part of our forthcoming Special Report, Winning With Nutrition.

Inside, Sir Dave Brailsford, the Team Principal of the Ineos Grenadiers and a long-time advocate of the impact of performance nutrition, provides an overarching view of sports nutrition and what is to be expected of practitioners.

Attention then turns to the practitioners themselves, namely Susie Parker-Simmons, the Head of Sports Nutrition at NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks, Scott Sehnert, the Director of Sports Performance at the Dallas Cowboys, and Marcus Hannon, the Head of Nutrition at Aston Villa FC, with a view to comparing and contrasting nutrition in the major leagues.

We wrap things up by talking to Professor Louise Burke, the Chair in Sports Nutrition at the Mary MacKillop Institute of Health at the Melbourne Catholic University, whose career as a researcher was preceded by decades spent working with Australia’s Olympians.

Another prominent contributor is James Morton, the Director of Performance Solutions at Science in Sport and Professor of Exercise Metabolism at Liverpool John Moores University, who poses the questions and helps to pull back the curtain on performance nutrition in multidisciplinary contexts.

Morton also delivered his own views on the future of performance nutrition at a Science in Sport Webinar last month.

“I think the practitioner of the future will emerge through a journey of coaching and leadership much earlier in their career,” he said. “I can see a lot of nutrition courses and wider sports science courses really embedding coaching practices and leadership skills throughout their curriculum.”

In terms of the specifics of the discipline, he added: “I think we’re also going to see an explosion in nutrition for other target tissues. I think our discipline has been guilty over the years of being muscle-centric, but of course we know that nutrition affects the brain, the gut, our bones, our tendons, ligaments and so on.

“If you bring it back to performance, that’s probably why the coach should be getting involved in these conversations from the outset; the physio, the medical staff etc. Because the nutrition staff really can affect the success of those other performance team’s roles and outcomes.”

Our expert panel also shared their views on the future.

Sir Dave Brailsford, Team Principal, Ineos Grenadiers

In the end, we’re trying to change athletic performance to get stronger, faster, better endurance, 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.

Susie Parker-Simmons, Head of Sports Nutrition, Milwaukee Bucks

This is such an important period right now in sports dietetics in America, as we don’t have the quantity of experienced sports dietitians to really pick up some of these key jobs that have become available. Young people in the profession are getting these powerful jobs, which is exciting, but there’s not enough mentors out there to help them be successful. So my biggest concern is everyone wants the quick fix or the gold, shiny component and too many – and this is a generalisation – I don’t want the younger ones to just get caught up in that and not work on their foundations. You need the basis first and you need to be a dietitian and not just work on things that look good. For me, it’s a really important time right now in America for us to show that we can do it and we’re the ones for this job, but we’ve got to make sure that we do it properly.

Marcus Hannon, Head of Nutrition, Aston Villa FC

We know a lot about how different elements of nutrition can influence different areas of performance. In my opinion the biggest barrier at the moment is the translation of this knowledge into effective frontline nutrition delivery. There’s work to be done in that space. I can see more Premier League clubs integrating research and innovation into their day to day practice to ensure they stay on the cutting edge. As the scientific research continues to grow and develop, more and more players and staff will see the benefit that nutrition can have on performance. What we will start to see is more and more full-time positions and in five years or so I don’t think it’ll be uncommon to see a number of performance nutritionists within a single club or organisation. Then there’s the performance chef. We’ve seen the development of this role and position over the last couple of years and as people start to realise how much of a valuable asset a good performance chef is, the number of these jobs is going to keep growing as well. Finally, in years gone past, nutrition has fallen under the ‘sports science’ banner. I think it’ll move out into its own standalone discipline alongside sports science, psychology, physiotherapy and so on. It will sit within that multidisciplinary team but within its own domain. That’s the way that nutrition in Premier League football is likely to go.

Scott Sehnert, Director of Sports Performance, Dallas Cowboys

Within the NFL, we’ll get to the point where everybody has a full-time dietitian, then we’ll get to that point where every club has two dietitians. Two mouths to provide that education versus one and just that opportunity to focus the attention on that induvial athlete will continue to grow and that very paper-focused attention to the individual will be there. Another regular season game has been added to the calendar this season and so we now play 17 games versus 16. I think that recovery nutrition will continue to be a spot where we push the needle; wanting to have more information to help these guys through research. There’s always something coming out that you’re wondering ‘is this going to help them day to day, week to week that is going to help them physically recover?’ That’s always something on our mind and I think that’s where the focus will be as we have a longer season.

Louise Burke, Chair in Sports Nutrition at the Mary MacKillop Institute of Health, the Melbourne Catholic University

I always think there’s room for improvement because you think you know something and then other stuff comes out and surprises you. Even when talking about fuelling, we were really happy with ourselves, we were telling people 60 grams per hour as the really good fuelling target, and kept pushing the boundaries. The brain is a really cool area and supplements will continue to be alluring. There might also be another beetroot juice out there that comes from nowhere. I think the hot topic at the moment is energy availability and fuelling, especially the low-energy fuelling and the low-energy availability. We need to get that periodised as well. We’ve gone from restricting the body, getting them as low as possible, thinking that’s what wins races to thinking you need to have high energy availability all the time because that might be good for health and training support. But then that doesn’t allow the athlete to have these intensified training periods for Tour de France races, the body fat manipulation periods. We have to be able to integrate everything. There’s a time for everything and there’s a way to do it so that you maximise priorities, but then it goes into the background when some other priorities take over.

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