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Golden nuggets: Dietary advice you can trust from Team GB’s Head Nutritionist

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Sports nutrition can be a baffling beast, with mixed messages and misconceptions muddying the waters. The number one tip from English Institute of Sport Head of Performance Nutrition Mike Naylor, is that dietary advice is best left to the experts. But for those club coaches who do feel starved of appropriate basic knowledge, Mike sits at the top of the food chain when it comes to dispensing credible information that you can pass on to your athletes.

  • According to research, 43% of coaches who give nutritional advice only rate their knowledge as average.
  • A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, certainly if it is based on erroneous information spread by the media.
  • Nutritional strategies should be based around a detailed understanding of your athletes’ performance requirements and health requirements.
  • As a rule of thumb, only experts should be getting involved in designing individual nutrition plans.
  • People who are going to the gym for 30 to 40-minute sessions three or four times a week do not need to be taking supplements.

We have all heard the story of how Jack got his hands on some magic beans on his way into town, that grew overnight into a giant beanstalk.

What should also be common knowledge, is that the story is make-believe.

Alas, there are those who believe they too possess magic pills which can have a similar miraculous overnight effect on their own growth patterns. They know Jack, you might say!

Some people who engage in physical activity live in fairy tale land when it comes to believing everything they read about nutrition.

It is important as a coach that you do not have your head in the clouds and can bring any deluded athletes taken in by clever marketing ploys or sensational attention-grabbing headlines back down to earth.

Sports supplements are big business and they can be a valuable asset to those engaging in physical activity, helping optimise performance and recovery – if used in the correct context.

Unfortunately, being a multi-billion industry, embellishing the truth in the rhetoric of product advertisements helps generate revenue, while the media, who have papers to sell and website clicks to accumulate, lap it up and spread misconceptions that a naive and gullible public often fall prey to.

Specialist help

In his role as Lead Performance Nutritionist at the English Institute of Sport (he was promoted to Head of Performance Nutrition in April), Mike Naylor spent five weeks in Rio as part of the team behind the Great Britain Olympic team.

He was in daily communication with the athletes in the build-up and during the Games, developing a detailed understanding of what each team and each individual’s strategies were, in order to create an environment that allowed those strategies to be executed at the highest level.

The dietary requirements of every athlete were painstakingly pored over so that the individual programmes could be turned into solutions on the ground, enabling the athletes to perform at their peak exactly when they needed to.

‘Every time the national anthem was played was a special moment,’ says Mike, ‘but seeing just how far nutrition has come was another big highlight for me. The conversations with athletes out there were at a really high level. And they desperately wanted to learn about eating the best foods to make a difference.’

Clearly, Mike is qualified to dispense nutritional advice, and, clearly, elite athletes are more enlightened than ever before.

But new research suggests that 43% of coaches who give nutritional advice to their athletes feel underequipped to do so and would only rate their knowledge as average.

They are torn between not biting off more than they can chew, and hoping the bite-sized chunks they do cherry-pick from online articles, newspapers and magazines to feed to their athletes are reliable. Sadly, they can be reliably erroneous, with the result that they risk providing advice that is potentially more harmful than providing no opinion at all.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The best source of energy for our bodies comes from good old fashioned food, and those who take part in sport and physical activity of any kind will do well to remember that salient point.

‘Nutrition can be quite basic but people can try and overcomplicate it and make it more sexy to sell their ideas,’ begins Mike.

‘It’s hard for the general public when they are constantly being fed multiple bits of advice that says something is good for you one minute and bad for you the next minute – to the point when you really need to seek credible advice rather than believe in all the media headlines.

‘I think the key thing first of all, before buying any supplements or looking for any magic pills, is to get the fundamentals right. It is those fundamentals that are really going to make a difference to an athlete’s performance.

‘Once you understand what the performance questions are, then it is figuring out how nutrition plays a role and supporting the development of that athlete.’

Having an awareness of what motivates each of your athletes should be a prime focus of every coach.

Understanding your participants’ individual needs, by getting to know both the person and the performer, is paramount because that knowledge will directly determine your bespoke approach to nurturing their progress over the course of time.

Nutritionists work to the same underpinning principle.

‘It is understanding what their performance requirements are, what their health requirements are, and then creating their nutritional strategies based on those factors,’ says Mike.

‘The volume that every athlete trains at is different, the type of training is different for every athlete, the adaptation they are trying to create is different, the competition schedule is different, so you need to take that into account in order to be able to provide sound advice.’

Nutrition 2

To shake or not to shake

A quick question and answer.

With supplements, does the science back up what it says on the packet? Not always.

Is drinking water a better option than quaffing a glucose-rich sports drink during a training session? Most of the time.

Do protein shakes, gel bars, powders and of over-the-counter pills have their place in sport and physical activity? Yes, but caution is advised.

‘It is easy for people to jump on the supplement bandwagon and assume that because they are doing some exercise they need to take a sugary drink with them. Ninety per cent of the time that’s not the case,’ explains Mike.

‘It’s the same with protein. They finish their session and think they need to consume a protein shake. Actually, they could get a decent source of protein and carbohydrate through milk, so it is understanding that and being led by sound nutritional advice rather than being swayed by the advertising.’

In simple terms, if you are a wannabe Arnold Schwarzenegger pumping iron in the gym under a thick layer of sweat, and groaning louder than a Maria Sharapova serve with every repetition, then a protein supplement will help you build new muscle.

If you are stepping up your training for a marathon, lose the protein shake and consider instead a high-carb drink specially manufactured for endurance athletes.

If you are exercising for less than an hour at low or medium intensity, go for the water option, not some celebrity-endorsed rocket fuel.

It really isn’t rocket science.

‘People who are going to the gym for 30 to 40-minute sessions three or four times a week, I would very often question the need to be taking supplements,’ says Mike.

Use but don’t abuse

To cover every base, I ask him about the inbetweeners: those intermediate club athletes who exercise maybe three or four times a week at a fairly high level of intensity.

Should they be thinking about taking supplements?

‘You need to be eating the right food first and foremost and remember that supplements are what they are. They are there to supplement the diet and not replace what you are doing good food-wise.

‘If you are doing prolonged activity, and you are, say, out on your bike for over an hour, riding at a high intensity, then that’s when the likes of the carbohydrate gels can support what you are doing.

‘The more competitive you are – or maybe you are running marathons or training for marathons – then we would usually recommend carbohydrate gels when you are running; not necessarily to perform any better but certainly to enjoy it a bit more because glycogen depletion during endurance events can be very uncomfortable.’

Online guidance

Offering nutritional advice is a grey area for well-meaning coaches.

Ideally, leave it to a qualified nutritionist to deliver that information properly and appropriately.

Certainly, only an expert should be getting involved in designing individual nutrition plans that suit each athlete’s particular training needs.

Or as Mike puts it: ‘An athlete wouldn’t go to a nutritionist for coaching advice, and that should work both ways. You should go to specialists in the area.’ 

But if you are a grassroots coach and access to a nutritionist is unfeasible, or you are an aspiring club coach who is batting off requests from your athletes, then there is help at hand in the form of the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register.

‘General coaches can consult this resource for credible practical application advice,’ says Mike. ‘They will find suitably qualified practitioners with relevant experience.’

EIS can also help, with their team of nutritionists having collaborated with The National Lottery over the Food Champions Project – a website dedicated to educating young people about the importance of a healthy diet. 

It offers nutritional support to athletes, whatever performance level they operate at or aspire to, to help them perform to their optimal level, while sharing with the public the eating habits and refuelling secrets of the professionals.

If in doubt, leave it out

So the message is to tread carefully where nutritional advice is concerned.

If you were a chef concerned that the raw shellfish you bought wasn’t fresh, you would not serve it to your customers. It follows that, if you are unsure about dishing out advice to your athletes, mindful of the damage the poor advice could result in, you are best served by taking it off the menu. Coaches should not gamble on the health of their athletes.

Your athletes may expect you to have all the answers, but delegation and referral to specialist advice is sometimes the best answer.

Rather like coaches, General Practitioners (GPs) receive calls for help on all manner of health issues. But if someone expresses symptoms, say, of psychological difficulties, they will refer them to the relevant mental health service who are trained to give specialised support and treatment.

Plenty of food for thought. But what is your view on sports nutrition? Please leave a comment below.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

Next steps

Read our nutrition blog: Coaches lack the appetite to exploit clear link between healthy eating and performance

UK Coaching (formerly Sports Coach UK) has produced a Nutrition and Hydration for Physical Activity infographic

And for more information and advice, you might like to browse the following websites:

NHS Eat Well Guide

The British Nutrition Foundation

Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register

Food Champions Project

Follow Performance Kitchen on Twitter, where elite athletes give their personal nutrition tips

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Coaches lack the appetite to exploit clear link between healthy eating and performance

Comments (3)


Good to enforce eat clean and healthy and question do you need a supplement. As coaches we need to instil good habits around food with athletes to allow them to make good choices. And we need to also educate parents too.

Not sure about the Sharapova reference!

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Excellent article. The food champions website is an excellent place to direct athletes too initially. Making nutrition and healthy eating understandable to everyone is always beneficial instead of buzz words and advertising that only confuse and ultimately lead to poor choices.

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Excellent article, as a football coach the amount of times that i've seen parents drop their child off for training with a LITRE bottle of Lucozade Sport under their arm.
The said child takes a swig from the bottle and is "hyper" for 15-20 minutes of the session, before fading off as the sugar rush leaves their body...
They then run for the bottle, and take another long swig or two, and the cycle continues...... :)

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