Sharing Olympic Secrets...
While some of you may be mourning the loss of our Brazilian Partnership, as someone who worked supporting athletes in Rio, it is time for me to reflect on my experience, thinking about what went well and what improvements I will make going into the next 4 year cycle.
As my role as performance Dietitian I was lucky enough to provide nutritional support to Olympic Marathon runner Aly Dixon, Paralympic Wheelchair fencer and silver medalist Piers Gilliver, and the Wheelchair basketball male (bronze medalists) and female squads in the run up to and during the Rio Games.
So what, you may ask, are the secrets to Olympic and Paralympic Nutritional success?
Secret 1 - Planning Nutrition for Olympic Gold
In healthy eating, the ultimate goal is to promote long-term good health and fend off increased risks of disease, while maintaining a balance so that food is still enjoyable.
In comparison, sports nutrition, although still based on healthy eating guidelines to an extent, is performance driven. It is about getting the best out of your training but also ensuring consistent training.
Making the right nutrition choices to suit not only your specific sport but the intensity of that activity within your given training session will ensure that you have:
- Put the right amount and type of fuel into your body to meet the demands of your session, allowing you to perform it to your best ability.
- Made the correct choices after your training session, which will allow your body to adapt to your training and make it stronger within your chosen sport.
Secret 2 - Meeting the 4 Goals of Olympic Nutrition
It’s not just about energy in and energy out.
They may well maintain their weight and have the energy to train but what they don’t see are the adaptations that they should. So what should they see?
- Increases in strength and lean muscle mass
- Improvements in performance within their chosen sport
- Good consistency between training sessions so that each one can be done to the best of their ability
- Good sleep patterns, good mood and high energy levels
By just meeting energy demands, you may be able to carry out all your training but you may not see any actual improvements in your day-to-day training and overall performance.
Although so far what I have mentioned regarding sports nutrition is applicable to anyone with a performance goal, it becomes even more important when working with elite athletes. Helping them to periodize their nutrition around key competitions is vital for success.
Just as training needs to be adjusted to ensure that the athlete can train consistently well over several months without becoming injured or ill, nutrition has to meet these demands accordingly. Even during relatively low intensity weeks, advice will be provided to maximize immune function, recovery and rest.
So for example, an athlete who has competed in a major event and is in an active recovery phase during off season, although training volume and intensity may be significantly reduced, the body will be at more risk of injury and illness. Good nutrition strategies will include:
- Increasing protein requirements (frequency of protein rather than portion sizes at any given time)
- Increasing intakes of fresh fruit and vegetables
- Consuming foods high in essential fats and Vitamin E such as seeds, nuts, oily fish and avocados
- Adjusting carbohydrate intakes according to the training but not removing as this is likely to lead to a depressed immune system
- Additionally, for female athletes, it is essential that during this off season, nutritional intakes and body composition allow for regular menstruation
Secret 3 - Adjusting Nutrition for Female Athletes
However it is inevitable in some cases and sports that increased training volumes can lead to some irregularity.
The aim will always be to prevent absence of 3 consecutive periods; if this is exceeded the consistently low oestrogen levels can affect bone density, putting the female athlete at an increased risk of stress fractures.
Similarly, before a major competition, nutrition will be adjusted according to training load, ensuring:
- Sufficient intake of carbohydrate before and after training
- The use of a probiotic 12 weeks prior to competition to support immune function during a high training volume
- Ensuring athletes are not dehydrated as this reduces saliva production; again important for first line defence of the immune system
- Monitoring body composition to ensure goals and targets set at the start of the season are being met in an appropriate manner
- Regular blood tests to monitor levels of inflammation. muscle damage, fatigue, immune function and Iron stores
Secret 4 - Adjusting Nutrition for Paralympic Athletes
For example, if you have an individual who has had extensive stomach surgery, you will need to consider what affect this may have on absorption of fluid and certain Vitamins; an inability to absorb Vitamin B12 for instance, can have a huge impact on fatigue and subsequent performance.
Similarly, preventing dehydration in athletes that need to catheterise can prove a huge challenge, especially when temperatures are warm, like they were in Rio.
Going into Rio, being a Dietiten with a clinical and performance background has been instrumental in ensuring that all aspects of nutrition and performance were explored and put into practise.
Secret 5 - Olympic Nutrition on the Go
It helps if an athlete has been to be place before as we can start to think about what is available from local supermarkets, hotels they might be staying in, or restaurants.
It may also be necessary to advise on what food items they can take with them, especially if travelling to remote areas where it is difficult to know what you will be eating!
Secret 6 - How to Avoid a Positive Drugs Test
There are some key messages that need to be provided to ensure that the athlete is always making informed choices and not putting their performance at risk. The key difference will come with supplements and sports products; it is helping the athletes to firstly assess a need.
If it is deemed necessary for the use of a protein shake, ergogenic aid or vitamin supplement, the next step is advising on suitable places to purchase these from.
The local supermarket, pharmacy or online retailer is not sufficient as there is a possibility that their products could have been tampered with and contain prohibited substances that the athlete will not be aware of.
For this reason, as a Performance Dietitian it is my responsibility to ensure that all products being used by the elite athletes I work with are batch tested and a relevant certificate is produced to support this.
This just provides some reassurance to the athlete that in the unlikely event that they produce a negative test, we have some proof to say that we have done everything possible to ensure that we have used safe products.
Have friends looking to take their nutrition to the next level?
Know someone with an interest in Olympic Nutrition?
Then why not share this article? :)
Join us on Facebook or email to keep yourself updated with new articles below!