Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Training during illness

Following the immunity theme, and while cold and flu viruses are doing the rounds, I thought it would be sensible to do a piece on how athletes can manage their training during this time. We all know that athletes are tough cookies, especially endurance athletes, and try to get out and train no matter what.  This, however, is a bad idea when you have a cold or virus! It is better to back off for a few days rather than end up with a much more serious condition.

One general rule is that light exercise is OK if all symptoms are above the neck, including a mild sore throat, stuffy nose and headaches. If any of the symptoms include a very sore throat, fever, fluid in your lungs, coughing, body chills and aches, exhaustion, diarrhea or vomiting, athletes should take a day off from training. If complete rest is more than you can handle, light general stretching may help.

If athletes are too ill to train, athletes should rest, drink plenty of hot fluids and still try to eat healthy, even if there is no appetite.

Once the below-the-neck symptoms have resolved, athletes should wait an additional day before resuming training.  The initial workout should be a light recovery-paced session, as should all exercise until all of the above neck symptoms disappear, and resting heart rate has returned to normal. Gradually build the intensity and duration of the sessions, paying attention to recovery, hydration and nutrition.

Hopefully the disruption to your training will be minimal and a regular routine will shortly follow. You won't loose a substantial amount of training in the 5 to 7 days that it normally takes to overcome a common cold.  In fact, with adequate rest and recovery, you may come back stronger than ever.

Related Posts:
Christmas and the Immune System
BCAA and Immunity
Immunity and the Athlete

Friday, 26 December 2014

Turkey Leftovers

Turkey is an excellent, low-fat source of protein.  And at this time of year there is no shortage of it. Turkey and stuffing sandwiches can become a little monotonous though, and so, in this post I'll share what I did with turkey leftovers for luch today.  Please add your turkey leftover suggestions as comments below.

Turkey Wraps

1. Stir fry peppers and onions in a little bit of olive oil
2. Add strips of cooked turkey.
3. Add sliced tomato and heat gently
4. Thinly spread some pesto on warmed wraps
5. Place a generous helping of the turkey mix in the wrap
6. Top with some diced feta
7. Fold and serve

Peppers and onions are excellent sources of vitamin C, and together with tomatoes, provide a range of other antioxidants.  Turkey is high in essential amino acids, and feta, a relatively low-fat cheese, is also high in protein.  This is a great light lunch/protein replacement meal for after workout.  Add some fajita or Cajun spices to the turkey for an extra tasty treat.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Day: To Train or Not to Train

This seems to be an annual question: should you train on Christmas Day, when your rivals might be taking a day off, or should you sit back, relax, and enjoy the festivities.

The purpose of this post is not to tell you what you should do. I don't know your life, so it would be wrong for me to advise either way. Like everything to do with 'lifestyle' you've got to decide what works for you.

When I was a teenager, we looked forward to Christmas Day because it was the only day that we were sure would have a 'REST' next to it on our training programmes. There was usually even a few exclamation marks, reiterating the fact that we could have a guilt-free day off.

But as years passed by and running became a bigger part of my life, I realised that I no longer 'had' to take the day off. With Christmases devoid of little people and the associated excitement, we found that we needed something to fill the Santa-shaped void in our Christmas mornings. And so, for myself and my brother, the long Christmas morning run on the beach has become an important ritual.

Last year, due to a number of factors (and in the absence of my regular Christmas morning running partner), I even ended up doing a fartlek session on Christmas morning. Did I feel guilty for training hard on Christmas morning? Of course not! Why should I? Do I think that everyone should train hard on Christmas morning in the fear that if they don't, their rivals might be streaking ahead?  Absolutely not!

A much used quote at this time of the year is the one by double Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson who once said 'Train twice on Christmas day! Your competitors may only train once.' While I appreciate Thompson's sentiment, I don't believe that we all have to listen to him. Firstly, 99.99 percent of us are not Daley Thompson, nor will we ever be. Secondly, it's not that one day in the year that makes the difference - it's the other 364. And thirdly, it's no coincidence that a considerable number of athletes don't make it to the Olympic start line. In an effort to do more than their rivals, they forget the importance of rest and recovery and end up injured. This is, of course, the fine line that every top athlete walks along, and a balance that is difficult to strike, but 99.99 percent of athletes - serious or not - won't be affected by taking one afternoon off in the whole year. In fact, relaxing might just be what you need to improve your performance.

I love to run, and I don't see why I should deny myself a 10 miler on the nicest beach in the world on a day that has become all about over-indulgence. But I'm not everyone, and not everybody has access to the most beautiful beach in the world.  And so, I just have one piece of advice - if you do rest on Christmas Day, don't feel guilty; and if you train, enjoy it!

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Christmas and the Immune System

While we are on the theme of immunity and staying healthy over Christmas, here are a few pointers which may help with immunity during the busy festive time, when the normal training routine is often disrupted.

Christmas is the season to celebrate; there can be lots of late nights with visits and Christmas parties to be enjoyed. A lack of sleep, too much stress, eating poorly and being in contact with people who may be ill, all increase the risk of illness.

1. Stay hydrated

Make sure that you drink plenty of water as well as your other drinks so you stay hydrated and try to drink water as soon as you can when you wake up to rehydrate.

2. Plan when you train

With clubs and sports centres taking closed over Christmas, athletes often have greater flexibility with when they train.  Plan your training so that hard sessions don't follow late nights.  It's also a good idea to train in the morning before visitors and distractions makes you have to choose between doing your training and enjoying Christmas.

3. Moderate your diet

Some of the foods associated with Christmas do offer good nutritional content, its just about moderation and not over indulging in the bits - such as chocolates and sweets - which may have a lower nutritional content.
  • Cranberries - High in Vitamin C, which is great for immity, and anti-inflammatories
  • Turkey - Good source of protein and is often leaner than other sources of meat protein
  • Parsnips - Excellent source of Potassium, which regulates hydration and is involved in muscle contractions
  • Salmon - Sometimes an alternative choice at Christmas and a good source of omega 3 fats
  • Carrots - Excellent source of antioxidants, beta-carotene, Vitamin A and Vitamin C
  • Brussel Sprouts - Often a Christmas must - but are also a great source of Vitamin C
  • Walnuts - Perhaps cracked open as a post-lunch snack - but a great source of Omega 3 fats
Fruit salad, dried fruit and salads are also good, nutrition-packed food options, which offer some protection against Christmas colds and viruses.

So enjoy your Christmas meal and the celebrations.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

BCAA and Immunity

Two weeks ago I wrote a piece on how to improve immunity during the winter months, focusing on training load and recovery, environment, psychology, clinical conditions and diet and lifestyle. In the coming weeks, I will look in more detail at the nutrients that can improve immunity, and outline ways to ensure adequate intake and variety of these nutrients to maintain health and help training and recovery. I'll kick things off by referring to a blog post that I wrote earlier this year on Branch Chain Amino Acids, a vital group of nutrients for health and recovery.

Peanuts and almonds are both good sources of Leucine, one of the three Branched Chain Amino Acids.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Process Goals

Earlier this year, when delivering a workshop on goal setting, I used my athletics goal for the year to demonstrate the characteristics of a SMART goal. My goal was to go to the European Masters Athletics Championships at the end of August, compete in the 2,000m steeplechase, and win a medal. The goal excited me, it was measurable and timed, challenging yet achievable, and I was, at that time, committed to it.  I knew what I needed to do to achieve my goal, and was committed to regaining some of the speed that I'd lost in recent years.  I didn't need to be in the shape of my life, but I needed to be running better that I had been in recent years. And that was real key to my goal.

Process goals are all about the things over which we have complete control.  They deal with the technique or strategy which is necessary to perform well.  They are usually used to establish that route to achieving outcome goals.  They help to focus attention, and because they have nothing to do with uncontrollable factors they can help to control anxiety.  Examples of process goals in a race setting might include: running at 6-minute mile pace; mastering water-jump technique; carrying out a predefined warm-up routine.  Over the course of a season, a process goal might be to get into shape to run a 7-minute 2000m steeplechase.

As the summer progressed, I slowly got quicker.  Because of the slightly unusual international competition schedule this year, my track season started earlier that usual, but knowing that my main target race wasn't until the end of August, I patiently worked my way into shape, staying focused on getting faster and racing better.

Then, before I knew it, it was time to enter the European Masters Championships that I had so being looking forward to.  But there was a problem.  I was broke.  I was due a couple of payments that would have covered the entry fee, but would have left me without any money to live on for the next few weeks.  And then I would have to come up with money for the flights to Turkey, and for the accommodation.  I lay awake for hours the night before the entry closing date.  I had to come up with a solution.  I had looked forward to this event for so long.  And yes, I would come up with the money somehow.  But it all came down to a matter of priorities.  Did I want to spend all my money on one week in Turkey, to (possibly) win a medal in an age-group European Championships, when there would be European or World masters championships for me every year until the end of my running life.  Could my goals wait?

Sometimes, our goals can conflict with each other.  It then comes down to a matter of priorities. What do we really want to achieve, and why? What is most important to us, both in the short- and long-term?

As I lay there thinking, I realised that the outcome was not the important part to my goal.  That one goal that I'd set at the start of the year had other purposes.  The processes that I needed to go through to achieve it (i.e. getting faster) stopped me fearing the 1500m and 3000m, and I was getting stuck into races like I used to do when I was young. Rather than fret about getting old, I embraced turning 35 and gaining 'master status'. I realised that a medal would mean very little to me if I still wasn't running as fast as I felt that I could.  I still wanted to compete with the seniors.  True, I was disappointed, but I wasn't going to let that disappointment ruin my year.  I was going to make the best of the rest of the season.

On Sunday 10th August, I won the Irish Masters 3000m Championships.  My winning time, 10:15, was the fastest that I'd ran for the distance in 13 years.  Though my outcome goals weren't going to be achieved, my process goals were.  And that's why they are so important.  Process goals can help us achieve outcomes that we don't even realise are possible.

Other aspects of goal setting were discussed in our previous blog posts: Goal Setting: The Key to Lifestyle Management? and Goal Setting - Part II.  When you sit down to set your goals for 2015, don't just set outcome goals.  Add some process goals too. Perhaps they will help you achieve things that you don't even think are possible now.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Immunity and the Athlete

Helping to maintain training during the winter months

An immune system which operates within homeostatic limits protects against common illnesses that can impair an athlete’s ability to train and perform.  Ensuring adequate carbohydrate and protein intake, a well as adequate intake of a wide range of micro-nutrients will help maximise the immune system's ability to protect against illness.  Improving immune health should be based around a five point plan:

1. Training - Load and Recovery

Adequate rest, alongside appropriate training, will ensure there is the right balance of overload and adaptation. Too much training with too little rest will lead to athletes becoming run down, and more prone to illness and injury. Sometimes, taking a day off when you feel run down or 'under the weather' may help prevent having to take a week of down the line.

2. Environment

There are some things that you cannot control, such as the training environment. However, you can be prepared. During the winter months, when the weather is likely to be colder and wetter, dress appropriately and keep warm whilst training and during warm up and cool down. Remember, just because it is cold, doesn't mean you don't sweat, so still pay attention to fluid levels and hydration, and ensuring that you shower and change out of damp clothing as soon as possible after training.

3. Psychology

High levels of stress and anxiety will also lead to a higher risk of illness. Try to reduce the risk of these feelings by focusing on things you can control, such as managing your time and meeting deadlines.

4. Lifestyle (Sleep, Diet, stress)

Be organised, ensure there is adequate rest and focus on healthy eating, meeting carbohydrate needs, adequately refueling, and choosing a wide range of fruits and vegetables.

5. Clinical conditions

There will be bugs and germs, and sometimes the sports environment is a perfect breeding ground for these to spread. Pay attention to good hygiene habits especially washing hands to reduce the risk. 


Athletes can be quite quick to turn to vitamin and mineral supplements to prevent illnesses and time out of training. However. these should not be the first thing that the athlete looks to, and careful thought should be taken before this step is taken.
  • What is the likely benefit of the supplement, or the likely harm?
  • Are there any interactions between the nutrients, supplements and medications?
  • What is the evidence supporting these supplements
  • What is the cost, availability, and risk of contamination for the both the sport and the individual

In future posts I will look at some of the nutrients which are thought to reduce the risk of illness (including Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Pro-Biotics, Glutamin, Zinc and carbohydrates), supporting claims for supplementing with these nutrients, and natural dietary sources for these nutrients.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Managing Career and Sporting Transitions

Irrespective of what our career is, what sport we do, or what our personal life looks like, we all go through a number of points in our lives where major changes occur.  Our ability to prepare for and deal with these times of change - or transitions as they are popularly called - can be a major determinant of success both on and off the field. Dealing with small transitions successful can help us manage bigger, more significant transitions later in life.

Some of the major transitions that an athletes faces include:
  • The transition from junior to senior competition
  • The transition from school to university
  • The transition from university to the world of work or full-time sport
  • Retirement from sport
There may be a number of other significant transitions which have the potential to impact on your sport. These may include becoming a parent, changing coach, changing event, becoming an Olympian, or becoming famous.

Because of the difficulties many athletes experience, the retirement transition is the one which we hear the most about, and we have blogged about it to some extent here.  But the purpose of this post is to look at transitions in general, and highlight some of the skills required for smooth transitioning from one phase of your life to the next.

Transitions are often viewed as stressful events, with hurdles and pitfalls.  But that's not always the case.  Indeed many transitions bring with them new opportunities, and making the most of these opportunities can have long-lasting benefits.  The change of environment that often comes with a transition can also offer a fresh perspective of life, and of your sport, and renew the mind and soul for the sporting efforts that lie ahead.

Resilience can be helpful in dealing with the more difficult challenges that transitions bring. Check out last week's introduction to resilience post for more information.  These are some of the other steps that we can take to ensure smooth transitions from one phase of our lives to the next.

1. List all the things that will be changing

It’s often easier to face something if we know exactly what we’re facing, and when it comes to transitions, it’s a good idea to list all the things that well be changing.  Transitions such starting university involve more than just a change in the place of study, and can coincide with numerous other mini transitions.  The following are just some of the things that may be changing around that time:
  • Moving city (or country)
  • Living away from home for the first time
  • Cooking for self
  • Budgeting for self
  • New teaching/learning styles
  • Own responsibility to attend lectures
  • New coach
  • New training group
  • Increased training load
  • Moving from junior to senior competition
  • New independence
  • Living away from friends
  • Legally old enough to drink alcohol
Once you have made a list of all the things that will be changing (location, educational, social and sporting), you can thing about which ones scare you, which ones will cause difficulty, and which ones you can prepare for.

2. Decide on your goals for the transition

In a previous post, we spoke about how goal setting can be the basis for all good lifestyle planning, and here is not exception.  If you know what the purpose of the transition is, and what you want to achieve following the transition, you can cope a lot better.  If you are changing training group because it is better for your longterm development, then it might be easier to manage transitions around that, and if you want to be an international athlete, the temptations of student life might be less tempting for you.  Goals help to keep you focused and manage your life.  They can also help motivate you to make a success of any transition that you are going through.

3. Plan and prepare

Much planning and preparation can be done in advance of a transition that will help overcome the potential hurdles.  Those planning for retirement can start to acquire new skills that will help increase their employment opportunities well in advance, and those due to start university in the next year or so can learn some of the skills that will help them to live on their own.  Set aside time to become proficient in cooking 3 or 4 different meals.  Avail of any one-off opportunities to meet or train with your new coach/training group in advance of the start of term.  Visit the university.  If driving will make the transition easier, make sure that you have passed your test in advance of starting term.

4. Speak to people that have undergone this transition

Taking the opportunity to speak to other individuals who have undergone the transition that you are about to face will help ease any concerns that you might have, and may highlight other preparation that you have to do.  Speaking to older athletes in your sport is a good starting point for those about to start university.

5. Discuss your concerns

If you have any concerns, or are anxious about the whole transition, be sure to speak to someone. Speaking through your concerns will help to distinguish between actual areas which you can prepare for, and issues which you are needlessly concerned about.  Through talking, you may also be able to find individuals who can help you with particular areas of preparation.  Writing down the things that scare you may also help.

6. Look forward to the opportunities that lie ahead

Each transition brings with it opportunities.  Transitions help us to grow and to ‘raise the bar’.  Don’t be afraid to get excited about these opportunities, and be ready to avail of other opportunities that result as a by product of the transition.

7. Keep some things consistent

You may also benefit from keeping something consistent in your life.  For athletes starting university, just continuing to compete in your sport will be that consistent thing.  Retiring athletes who walk the dog daily, for example, should continue to do so.  However, be careful here.  Trying to life your old life rather than availing of opportunities in your new life will only lead to regret.  If you feel that you need to make a clean break, do so.

We will look specifically at retirement transition planning in a future post.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

An introduction to Resilience

A few weeks ago I took part in a BASES Webinar on Developing Resilience.  The session, delivered by Mustafa Serkar from the University of Gloucestershire and Paul Morgan (Bucks New University) was very informative.  Resilience is a very topical area at the moment, and is relievant not just to sport, but to business and other areas of life.  I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of the main points from the session.  The full webinar can be downloaded here, but  you'll need to register for a Human Kinetics account first.

What is resilience?

  • Resilience training programmes may help prevent against mental illness while at the same time boosting achievement levels and productivity.
  • Resilience should be seen as a form of 'ordinary magic' that we all possess, rather than some special skill that only the gifted have.
  • Resilience is a progressive phenomenon that involves sustained long-term betterment, rather than some sort of quick fix that can be applied to a problem or situation.
  • Resilient individuals or teams are those who are able to respond positively to change.
  • Resilience is not the same as bouncing back from a setback.  It is not a fixed trait, and can be trained.
  • Most importantly, resilience is not the absence or suppression of emotions.  Embracing emotions, both positive and negative, is an important part of building resilience.  We have mentioned before about the importance of embracing emotions, rather than suppressing them, in the prevention of mental illness in athletes, and this seems to be a recurring theme.

Building Resilience

Failure and setbacks are both important in building resilience.  Individuals who are proactive and seek change and improvement, build resilience.  Maintaining confidence (in self and support network) is an important component of resilience.  You develop better resilience from failure that from playing it safe.  Many successful individuals have reported that adversity-related incidents were crucial in their development as top athletes.

During times of change, individuals and teams should stay focused on the bigger picture.  Discussing what is learned from setbacks will help build resilience.

We can choose to see pressure as either a challenge or as a threat.  Those who see it as a challenge will cope better.  Therefore, developing resilience will involve the individual or the team changing their mindset so that they see pressure as a challenge and an opportunity for growth, learning and development.

Groups should be encouraged to openly discuss resilience and what they learn from pressure situations and adversity.  Players should be given ownership and encouraged to be involved in developing solutions to overcome adversity. Falling back on plan B and plan C should become second nature. Individuals should be encouraged to seek challenge.

Using praise following an adverse situation can also be useful.

Key Points

  • Resilience is a positive response to change.
  • We shouldn't be afraid seek challenges.  Don't always play it safe.
  • Learn to view pressure as a challenge rather than a threat.
  • Become involved in developing your own solutions to overcome adversity

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Feeling a little peckish? Suitable lunch time meals

The role of lunch for an athlete is twofold. Its first is to assist with the recovery process after a morning training session  (if relevant), and the second is to ensure that your muscle glycogen stores are topped up ready for an afternoon/evening session. It has a third role in that it will also help concentration and energy levels in the afternoon for those at college or in employment.

Your training demands and needs will influence the size and content of this meal. Those who have a hard training session in the late afternoon/evening should take care to ensure that they are adequately fuelled.

Try to avoid missing lunch - you will often find this leads to more unhealthy food choices/snacks later in the day.

Salad Bar - Salad is a good option to start your meal as it provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Energy content is low, but you can increase this by including bread, jacket potatoes, pasta or rice. Add slices of chicken, ham or beans, pulses and nuts to increase the protein content. Beware of salad dressings which can be high in fat.

Soups - Vegetable soups are another easy way of getting a variety of nutrients in, and can be a substantial energy provider which is sometimes easier to consume and welcoming in the winter months. Homemade soups can be easy to make and to suit an individual’s taste and needs. Again you can boost the energy by eating with wholegrain bread, or by adding pasta.

Pasta/rice - Pasta and rise dishes are a good source of carbohydrate and are an even better option if you can choose wholegrain. Combine with a protein source such as fish or chicken and a sauce for a flavor. Adding a variety of vegetables to your pasta meal is a quick and easy way to increase nutrient variety of your meal.

Jacket Potato - Jacket potatoes can provide a quick easy energy source, and will digest quickly avoiding leaving you feeling uncomfortable before your training session. Including a high protein source such as tuna or chicken or even baked beans will give you an all-round high quality meal.

Yoghurts and fruit are excellent choices for dessert, due to their nutritional value and low fat content. Although treat desserts are appealing, try to limit the intake of these at every meal and have a varied choice. Yoghurt is a good source of protein and good choices offer a good source of vitamins and low in fat and sugars. Combining with fruit will also add to the nutritional content of the meal.

Alongside the meal, ensure that at lunch and throughout the day you are taking fluids in to ensure hydration before a later training session.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Breakfast for athletes

There are many athletes who choose to train in the morning, before work, school or college; there are also sports that require training twice a day, one of these being in the morning. Some athletes will be able to consume a small amount of food in the morning before this session; others struggle to face anything until the training session is complete. Post training breakfast is an important way to ensure that adequate recovery is achieved and even if there is no morning training, a good breakfast is key to fuelling activities throughout the day. 

In terms of recovery there should be three aims:

Refuel - If training has taken place that morning or the night before, breakfast is vital to the recovery process, and helps to replace the muscle glycogen used during training.

Repair - During training, muscles are damaged.  It is important that you help your body repair these damaged muscles as soon as possible to aid recovery and prevent injury.

Adaptation - Training produces stimuli which cause your body to adapt so that it is able to cope with sessions better.  These adaptions, which include enhanced energy production and increased muscle size and strength, need energy to happen, and breakfast will help to fuel these after a morning training session.

What you can choose:

Cereals - Wholegrain cereals are a good choice as they provide quick and easy carbohydrate to help you refuel. Milk is a good source of protein, will help hydration, and is a good source of important vitamins and minerals like calcium. Many wholegrain and fortified cereal will also provide B vitamins and iron, both of which are important for energy breakdown.

Porridge - Porridge has Slow releasing energy, is high in carbohydrate and will keep you feeling full for longer. Milk will also add protein content and wholegrain oats will act as a good source of B vitamins. By adding a fruit compote, syrup or honey, a quick source of energy will be supplied which will help those who have had a hard morning training session.

Toast - Toast is another option for carbohydrates and toast from wholegrain bread will provide more nutritional value. If you wanted to add protein to toast you could choose a high protein spread such as peanut butter or serve with baked beans and or an egg (see below).

Baked Beans - Baked beans can be high in sugar, which can act as a source of fast carbohydrates which can be helpful following a hard training session.  Beans are a good protein source to go alongside toast.

Egg - Eggs are an excellent source of high quality protein, and contain most of the essential vitamins (except vitamin C). It is particularly rich in B vitamins, which are important for energy release, and Vitamin D, which athletes are normally low on. Eggs also contain antioxidants for healing, growth and fighting infection, which can be important during heavy periods of training for athletes.

Fresh Fruit - Breakfast is a good opportunity to get a healthy fruit portion in, so make the most of the selection that is on offer. Combine with your cereal or add to your porridge to boost the energy content, or simply take away for a mid-morning snack.

Yoghurts -  Yoghurts can be a good option on their own or with the addition of fruit or muesli. 


Not only is it important to refuel following morning training, but it is also important to make sure that all your fluid losses during training are replaced. Even if no training has taken place that morning, there has been a sustained period of time while you have been asleep and not taken any fluid on board. Ensure you are hydrated before you start your day.

Smoothies -  Are a great option for those needing extra energy or for those who may struggle with breakfast in the morning. To read a previous blog on Smoothies please click here

Concentrated Fruit Juice - This is a good option to be included with your breakfast meal and can count towards your portions of fruit and vegetables. Fruit juice will provide a good source of vitamin C which will not only help immune function, but also help the absorption of iron from your breakfast. If the athlete has had a hard morning training session, where sweat rates are high, fruit juice may not be the best option for rehydration, but a good option alongside water.

Squash/Water - Fruit juice and water will help rehydration following a session and should be drunk throughout the day. Squash has better rehydrating properties than water alone due to the solutes contained.

Coffee/Tea - The caffeine may help with alertness, but it’s not the best choice for hydration so try to have squash or fruit juice alongside.  Also, if you depend on coffee to wake you up in the morning, you may need to consider getting more sleep.

Hot Chocolate - Milk is now one of the most promoted recovery drinks and a natural source to. Its combination of protein and carbohydrate help promote recovery from training and it also includes many vital vitamins and minerals which many commercial recovery drinks fail to include. By adding coco powder to milk and warming provides a drink option which promotes recovery.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Personal identity: a short task

In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of having an identity that is not solely based around your successes as an athlete.  I want to take this opportunity to share a task that I asked young talented individual to complete as part of a workshop I ran on dual careers a few weeks ago.  This is a useful task for individuals of all ages to complete, and is a good starting point for career planning, a way of focusing and motivating individuals, or simply an exercise to boost confidence.

This is me
Explore your personal identity by filling an A3 sheet of paper with things that make up you and your personality.  Use words, phrases, sentences, pictures, or images cut from magazines and lay out the page in whatever way you feel appropriate.  Include some or all of the following:
  • Successes that you have had outside of sport
  • Characteristics that define your personality (e.g. three words that describe you)
  • Long term goals – 1 for sport; 1 for education/career; 1 for life in general
  • What I would like to be when I ‘grow up’.
  • Hobbies
  • Things you like (food, books, tv) – Pick one and explain why you like it
  • Skills (maybe things that you’ve learned from sport that you can apply to life
  • Things that make you happy/laugh
  • Things that you like about your sport
  • Why you do your sport
  • Favourite subjects at school
  • Your coping skills
  • You top values*
This should be a positive document.  Use only positive words.  From this task you should see that there is more to you than just a person that goes to school, or a person that does sport.  You are multidimensional!

* Values-type exercises are among my favourite career planning tools.  Below is a list of some values.  Take some time working through the list and thinking about what each word means to you (each individual will interpret the values differently).  The theory is that those who are happiest in their careers have work and careers which meet their values.  Once you’ve made a list of the values that are most important to you, write them on a small piece of paper, and place it in your wallet.  Check it regularly and ensure that your values are being met on a daily basis.

Older individuals can take the above task a step further to help with career decisions.  Instead of just depicting the current you on a sheet of paper, you can depict your career so far as a journey or timeline, and explain how you’ve got from one stage to the next.  In a metaphorical sense, plotting your journey so far will help to see where the road is leading you.  Write down the key stages and words and talk through the plot with a friend or any willing listener.  This is a useful task when big decisions have to be made, as it takes the emphasis away from the pressure decision, and helps get you into your comfort zone.  We are all experts in our own lives, so that’s where we should focus our attentions.

I’ve included a further adaptation of the ‘This is Me’ task from a career perspective below.  This is something that I did for a recent job interview.  Essentially all of my work experience is in a sporting perspective, but writing it down like I did below helped me realise just how broad that experience is.  It’s ok to have life experiences that are just sports related, but recognising the skills that are transferable is key.  We’ll explore transferable skills in a future post.

Hopefully doing the above task will help you realise just how multi-dimensional you are and highlight areas that you can branch into.  Maybe it’ll inspire you to take up a new hobby, or generate an interest that you can explore on training camps when you have plenty of time on your hands.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Helping recovery from late training and competition

With more and more clubs struggling to get time in sports facilities, many athletes are face training, competition or matches late at night. I've known many swimming clubs have pool time 9-10pm (and then followed by a 7am morning session), and was recently expected to be on court for a match for 9.15. This provides an athlete with a few challenges- Motivation, fueling, and then recovery so that the athlete is able to train again efficiently the next day, especially if it is an early start.

So how can athletes best fit their preparation and recovery at this time at night in order to be able to train or compete at the best, and be able to recover quickly and effectively?

1) Be prepared- You will have a time table or schedule which will give you notice when these late sessions may be. Make sure you are aware of this, especially if its not frequent so you can get ready. Plan your day, and meals so that there is one less thing to think about.

2) Try to understand how long your body needs between a meal and training. Individuals will vary, but you should allow at least an hour between the meal and training time. If you know it will be an intense training session or match, try to have small snacks at regular intervals to top up energy levels. This would also apply to those who struggle to stomach meals before they have to train and compete, or those who suffer with nerves.

3) Be flexible with your meals. Perhaps have a larger, later lunch which is high in carbohydrate and then have smaller snacks closer to the game or training and after the match.

4) As its later, an athlete may struggle to replace their fluid needs before they go to bed. So athletes should try to ensure they start the match or training session hydrated as normal, paying more attention to taking fluid on board than they normally would. At the end of the match or training session, again attention should be paid to replacing fluid losses, taking a drink with them to bed that they can drink if they wake during the night.

5) Even though it is late, attention should be paid to a post recovery snack or meal. There may be little or no appetite, but in order to help recovery there should be something consumed immediately after which is high in carbohydrate to help restore carbohydrate used in exercise and a good source of protein to help muscle repair. This should be approximately 1g Carbohydrate per kg of body weight.

Some good choices for smaller recovery snacks before bedtime which are quick and easy:
  • Healthy Breakfast Cereal and Milk 
  • Milk and Banana
  • Yoghurt and fresh fruit
  • Wholegrain bread- as toast with jam. Or as a sandwich with a light filling
  • Jacket Potato with filling- Tuna & Sweetcorn, Chicken, Baked Beans

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Short Days and Long Nights

As the nights get longer and colder, the hours of daylight become shorter, meaning that we see less of the sun and are exposed to fewer UV rays.

This is good news for those that burn easily, but its not just sun tans and sun burn that UV rays are responsible for. They also help produce a large proportion of our Vitamin D requirement as sunlight reacts with a precursor of the vitamin on the skin. Vitamin D deficiencies are becoming more common in athletes, partially due to the precautions taken to prevent skin damage from the sun.

While there is no strong evidence to suggest that Vitamin D deficiency leads to under-performance in athletes, it will have effects on their ability to train and recover and on injury risk. Athletes who are are Vitamin D deficient could be at increased risk of minor illnesses and stress fractures, ultimately leading to interruption in training and competition.

Vitamin D, along with Calcium, Phosphorous and Protein, has a key influence on the growth and mineralisation of bones. It is involved in the absorption of calcium, meaning an athlete could have a really good intake of Calcium within their diet, but if the Vitamin D levels are low, this won't be able to have a positive effect on bone growth and strength.

Vitamin D also has a role in immune function, making it an important nutrient for athletes involved in heavy training. 

Its not all doom and gloom though! Although sunlight is the best source of Vitamin D, small amounts can be taken in through the diet, particularly through fish sources - reiterating their importance within our diet.

Good Sources include:
  • Fortified Cereals
  • Eggs
  • Margarine
  • Tuna 
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel
So why not enjoy training outside and making the most of the daylight we have at the moment, and take advantage of the sources above in our diet. Simple meal ideas include- Jacket Potato or Pasta with Tuna and Sweetcorn, or an Omelet adding lots of different vegetables for variety and added nutritional benefit. 

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Break is Over

As I sit here aching from two days of training after nearly a month layoff, I decided I should take a rest day.  In the past few years I have only taken a couple of weeks fully off, with a couple of easy weeks, but this year, due to other events, it made sense to have a complete rest for four weeks. And I am noticing the difference as I try to get fit again.

As hoped, this has given me a new motivation to train and compete, and hopefully my body, like my mind, will soon be ready to do so.  As so many athletes are also preparing to step back into winter training, I thought I would give a few hints and tips to help ease back into it.

Before I start, lets remember that it is important to take a break from training and competition. It allows both your body and mind to recover, and allows athletes to re-focus. However, when you stop exercising completely you loose aerobic fitness, lungs loose elasticity, blood vessels shrink and blood volume decreases. You use oxygen less efficiently and your heart pumps less blood per beat, not only that but you will also have lost muscles strength. Therefore, when you go back to exercise, just like a car that has been parked in a garage for several years, your body needs to be warmed up before it is taken out for hard exercise. If an athlete was to return to the same types of workouts as they were doing before the break, then the athlete risks straining inspiratory and expiratory muscles but also joints and muscles can become more stressed and increase the risk of injury.

Below are some simple tips which will help reduce the problems faced when athletes return back to exercise:
  • Have a plan - it’s easier to commit, especially when motivation drops, when you have a plan, and a plan can stop you from doing too much too quickly
  • Set attainable goals - and ease back into training, build slowly and allow momentum to grow.
  • Weight training (even if it’s just body weight) - this allows you to build strength and prevent injury. Functional exercises are great to start with. 
  • Get training partners - help to maintain motivation especially when the cold nights are coming in.
  • Stretch - improve recovery, help flexibility and prevent injury.
  • Try something new - Those athletes who are used to running and cycling on the roads could be encouraged to try cross country running or mountain biking to help gain fitness in a different environment, one which will  help challenge the core muscles too.
  • Keep warm - whilst out training and when you finish training remember you will cool down fast too.  Remember to take layers to keep warm once training is finished.
  • Stay Hydrated - Even during the winter and in the colder months you need to stay hydrated and remember to drink even when you may not feel thirsty. 
  • Plymometrics - Be aware of explosive movements. When cold these movements pose a greater risk of injury.  Always remember to warm up properly.

Preparing for the rainy day - without stressing about it

Lifestyle support is, in many ways, a form of preparation for the unknown.  How will we cope when things go wrong? What will we do with our lives when we retire from sport?    But how do we prepare for things going wrong, without stressing about it or constantly fearing the unknown?  How do we plan for the rainy day without becoming so scared of the rain that we don’t want to leave the house?
Planning for all eventualities needs to become a passive part of our being.  We need to remember to always have a raincoat or umbrella in the bottom of our kitbags, without even thinking about the rain, or how a wet day might affect our performance.  This comes with planning and practice. 
But planning can only take care of so much, and for the days that even the best planning in the world couldn’t have prepared us for, we need to develop a sense of humor and acceptance.  Beating ourselves up over something we couldn’t control won’t make things any better.  There are times when we just need let go of the control and let the adrenalin take us through.
And don’t ever look back on the rainy days and regret not having taken the opportunity to splash about in the puddles.  Because those are the days when the sun truly shines for us.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The role of lifestyle support in the professional era

In a previous post we examined what Lifestyle and Personal Development support is.  In this post, we look at why such support is vital in the modern high performance sport environment, using rugby union as an example.

Lifestyle support is the youngest of the performance support services, and it’s only in the last ten years that lifestyle or personal development advisors have become regular staff members within the high performance sport environment.  In some ways, this is not surprising.  The need for such support has increased with increased professionalism in sport.  The role of the lifestyle or personal development advisor is often to manage or counteract the negative aspects of being a full-time athlete.  The role is often a hidden safety net which allows performance directors to continue on their one-track road to success at any cost.

Encouraging athletes to consider dual careers and to prepare for life after sport is often in direct conflict to the messages portrayed by those who manage performance (encouraging centralized training and full-time sport, and recommending reduced distractions from performance) or the very environment that increased professionalism brings with it (increased time demands as an athlete; increased money and subsequent reduced need to work). 

Counteracting the effects of increased professionalism
If we take Rugby Union – a sport which has shifted from an amateur sport where players were not paid to a big business sport where players have the potential to earn enough as a player to set themselves up for life, in the space of just over a decade – as an example, we quickly see why lifestyle and personal development planning has become so important.

Rugby has traditionally been associated with private schools and third level institutes where, in the armature era, most players had well-paying jobs and secure futures when they retired from the sport.  Quickly, and refreshingly, the sport has become the sport of the masses, both in terms of participants and spectators, but unfortunately, professionalization of the sport has meant that an increasing number of players forego their education, in favor of a sports career which one injury or a bad run of form could end in an instant.

Players are being talent spotted earlier and earlier, reducing the chances that they will have naturally completed their education by the time they reach senior level.  Of course academies insist that players stay in school, and many provide additional tutoring and support to enable players to do so, but the point is that these measures have to be put in place just to maintain equilibrium.

For many players, the lure of big money contracts in France can be too great to ignore, and while living and playing in another country can be a life-changing experience for many, money can’t be the only reason to move.  Players should be encouraged to consider all factors in the decision making process and those who decide that France is for them may need to be supported through the major life change.

The celebrity status associated with being a successful player, and the accessibility of players to the fans via social media can bring about a host of other issues.  Blanket bans of social media can prevent players making stupid mistakes, but do little to increase the player’s marketability or help them develop a unique image.

While it may sound like a bit of a contradiction, professional players tend to have a lot of time on their hands.  This can bring with it a range of potential problems, including boredom, addiction, depression and anti-social behavior. 

Managing lifestyles for performance purposes
Athletes are often busy people with a number of different factors to juggle.  Athletes need to be fresh and well rested to perform at their best, and a well managed lifestyle will help them to perform in their sport and to get the most from potential opportunities that arise.  Talk management, goal setting and decision making skills can help an athlete manage their lifestyle, while managing stress and priortising demands will also have far reaching benefits. 

Preparing for life after sport
We have spoken before about the importance of preparing for life after sport, and encouraging a player/athlete to prepare for life after sport is an important part of lifestyle and personal development support.  Few athletes/players get to choose when they end their careers, particularly in a sport like rugby where career-ending injuries and deselection are common reasons for retiring.  Athletes should be encouraged to plan for life after sport from the very beginning. 

Creating the well-balanced individual
Players and athletes can potentially become trapped in a life where they eat, sleep and breath their sport, with little balance or connection with the ‘real’ world.  True, many transferable skills, including teamwork and goal setting, can be learned in the sporting environment, but players who have nothing to think about other than turning up to training on time, who are surrounded by similarly-minded teammates on a regular basis, and whose only daily decision is chicken or salmon for lunch at the club canteen, can loose touch with reality and quickly forget how to fend for themselves.  They can also quickly become bored.  As lifestyle and personal development consultants, we therefore have a responsibility to expose the players to other experiences and opportunities.  Many sportspeople value the contribution of distractions in their lives.

Recent examples include Irish 800m runner Mark English who, not long after winning the 800m bronze medal at this summer’s European Athletics Championships, stated that he was looking forward to getting back into his Medical studies at UCD:
"I love having something to distract me from all the training during the winter," English said. "You can't just be an athlete with nothing going on in your life." - See more at:
"I love having something to distract me from all the training during the winter," English said. "You can't just be an athlete with nothing going on in your life." - See more at:
"I love having something to distract me form all the training during the winter," English said.  "You can't just be an athlete with nothing going on in your life." (Irish Independent 20/8/14)
Similarly, Jo Pavey, who at 40 won 10,000m gold at the same championships, stated that being a mother to two children helped improve her performance:
The mother of two ... thinks it is her self-satisfied approach to life and flexibility that is key to the form that has finally given her the first major title of her career. (Athletics Weekly 13/8/14)
Having distractions away from sport is particularly beneficial when dealing with injury, and as mentioned previously, having an identity which is not completely dependent on sporting success can help an athlete cope with retirement. 

Social responsibility
Sport has a responsibility to look after its players and athletes and to help create well-rounded individuals who can give back to the community.  Giving athletes the skills to deal with setbacks and to manage mini transitions can help prepare them for life beyond sport.  Athletes should be encouraged to make the most of every opportunity that comes their way.  They should never see competing in sport as a sacrifice or an excuse to put their lives on hold.  They should exit the sport a better person than they entered it.  Player welfare is an important factor, and with an ever increasing number of cases of depression, eating disorders and addiction being reported among high performance sportspeople, it’s clear that even more work needs to be done on that front.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Can Pizza be Healthy?

Done right, pizza can be a great way to get your five-a-day! But all too often, the circular feast, taken straight from the freezer or dropped off by they delivery boy, contains nothing resembling a fresh vegetable and is topped with a small truck load of fat-laden cheese and peperoni.

This week's quick and simple recipe suggestion will give you some ideas of how you can enjoy the taste and convenience of a pizza without any of the guild.

1. Warberton's Square Wraps make a great base for a pizza-type snack.  They can be purchased in most large supermarkets, and cost approximately £1.30 for a pack or six.  They are cheaper than standard pizza bases, and cook much quicker.

2. Spread a generous layer of pesto or tomato puree across the base, taking care to reach right to the edges.  There is no need for fancy pizza topping sauces, and if you're feeling particularly enthusiastic you can make your own pesto.

3. Add toppings of your choice.  The pizza will only take 10-15 minutes to cook, so toppings should be chosen accordingly.  Raw chicken wouldn't be suitable, but cooked chicken leftovers would be a great addition.  Here are some other suggestions:
  • Any cooked meat
  • Smoked salmon or tinned tuna
  • Peppers
  • Courgettes, very finely chopped or thinly sliced
  • Mushrooms
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweetcorn
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Olives
  • Chilli Peppers
  • Pineapple
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Green leaves - rocket, spinach or basil
Avoid Peperoni and other high-fat, high-salt processed meats

4. Sprinkle some fresh or dried parsley, oregano or mixed herbs on top.

5. If so desired, top with a small amount of cheese.  Feta or cheddar are good choices.  Remember that the base is very thin, and the ingredients will be quite moist, so only a small amount of cheese will be required.

6. Cook in a hot oven until the base is crispy and slightly browned.

7. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Therapeutic Actions and Activities: The Key to Emotional Balance?

Too often we view therapy as something which only those with severe depression, anxiety or psychological issues undergo to 'fix' their problems.  But perhaps we can all benefit from taking part in therapeutic activities.  Maybe there are activities we can engage in on a regular basis to prevent depression, anxiety or other psychological issues, and prevent disappointments, anger and upsets from becoming long-term issues or affecting our performance.  It's only in recent years that I've noticed what I do to keep myself 'sane', and performing at my best, but having identified them allows me to keep a check on my emotions.  These are my top 4 therapeutic activities:

When I was young, I struggled with writing,  I was inadequately skilled to transfer the thoughts and images inside my head into anything resembling beautiful pros, but over time I have found joy in writing.  Simply putting words together gives me confidence and a sense of purpose, and I can't even begin to explain the sense of achievement obtained from writing and publishing a book.  And apparently I'm funnier when I write than when I talk!  But writing has a much broader benefit.  Putting my thoughts in writing can help keep me focused, reaffirm my goals, identify what is making me angry/confused/blue, and work through those issues.  Writing a blog or something which someone else is going to read, forces me to express my thoughts in a postive way.  Both myself and Rachael have written blogs that will never be published, but simply putting our thoughts on paper eradicated the confusion or anger that we were feeling, or helped us change our perspective on a particular situation.  If you are angry about something, try writing down your arguments for why you're angry, what the other person's perspective might be, and what you can do to fix it.  As you right, some of your opinions might change, and some of the anger abate.  Then you can look to sort out the real issues.  Don't underestimate the power of expressing yourself on paper!

Tidying up for someone else
If I'm feeling particularly blue, or stressed because things are slipping out of my control, something which gets me back on track, is sorting out an untidy store cupboard or an out-of-control attic for somebody else.  The more impossible the task seems, the harder I work to bring it under control, and the happier I become.  It's as if putting order on a seemingly uncontrollable mess makes my thoughts and emotions look a lot easier to manage.

Drawing up a plan
There are few things more motivational than ticking items off a to-do list, or crossing off sections of a weekly plan, but sometimes just putting the plan together in the first place can give you the kick start you need.  Putting  everything that needs to be done down on paper can help put order on chaos, and turn panic into calm.  Often we know that there's a lot to be done, but putting together a plan can help focus us. 

Running has always been my sanctury.  Many a problem or conundrum has been sorted out in my head while on a run, and many big, life-changing decisions have been made over the course of a 5 or 6 mile run.  I find it difficult to run when angry, negative or highly stressed, and I don't like not to run, so those thoughts and and emotions are quickly turned into positive ones in order to let me get on with the business of running. Running also allows me time to dream and hatch plans to take over some aspect or other of the world.  Often I later realise that my dreams are unattainable or my plans unachievable, but every once in while I come up with a grand scheme that will change my life forever.

Singing in the shower, collecting sticks for the fire and walking the dog are just some of the other activities which help me turn negative thoughts or emotions into positive ones, and allow me to gain control over my life.

Talking is one of the most popular and effective forms of therapy, and it's true that a problem shared is a problem halved.  If you are feeling stress or down, or feel that your life is spiraling out of control, talk to someone.  Just getting things off your chest can make a worry or stress disappear.  However, always talking about your problems without any bias for action or motivation to change things, can be a very ineffective form of therapy.  Talking can sometimes reaffirm negative emotions such as anger or hatred, result in you asking for advice rather than making decisions for yourself, and waste a lot of time.  Always talking to the wrong person may lead you to moan, or wallow in self pity.  This, I feel, is why I find writing far more therapeutic.  With nobody taking my side, I have to work issues out for myself.  After all, there is nobody as expert in my life as I am, and we all have capacity to solve our own problems.  Talking can help us realise that, but we shouldn't just talk to those who will take our side, or tell us what to do.  In a future post, we will look at the role of talking as a form of therapy in more detail, and examine how it can be most effective.

You don't have to be down or depressed to engage in therapeutic activities.  Regularly engaging in therapeutic activity can help prevent depression, manage stress, make decisions and refocus on what's important, and simply doing things that we enjoy can help us maintain that all important 'balance' in life.  Find the activities and situations where you can best control your thoughts and emotions and engage in them when needed. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Autumn Picking

I am lucky to be able to grow a lot of fruits and vegetables in my garden and as we start moving into the autumn months there is an abundance of blackberries to choose from and this year they seem to be much bigger than normal!

Although they are pretty simple to grow, there are also many to choose from on local hedgerows which can be just as good (although perhaps avoid those along the road side) and now is a good opportunity to take advantage of a good source of vitamins from this seasonal fruit.  

So what are the benefits of Blackberries?
Blackberries are packed with antioxidants including vitamin C and bioflavonoids like spinach, apples plums and grapes.  The dark blue not only provides another colour into your rainbow of fruits and vegetables to be eaten, but the dark colour also means it’s has one of the highest anti-oxidant levels of all fruits.

Vitamin C must be part of the everyday diet as the body can't produce it and it plays a role in exercise metabolism as well as to maintain health.

During exercise there is normally damage to muscles especially during harder workouts and this must be repaired in order for the athlete to recover and adapt. One function of Vitamin C is in the process of making collagen, and important ingredient in the repair of damaged muscles and tissue. It also reduces the amount of oxidative stress an athletes may suffer and therefor help to reduce the amount of illnesses picked up by athletes and allows them to train optimally.

As always Blackberries provide the best benefits in their natural state so an easy way to include them in your diet is as a smoothie or by adding them to cereals, I will include a simple apple and blackberry crumble recipe to this blog which provides an idea to use them for dessert.  

Tips for Blackberries:
Buying: If possible, don’t. Wild berries have a depth of flavour. Search out brambles near you avoiding roadside or polluted spots.  Even in cities you can find blackberries growing on scrubland, canal side paths and wooded areas.
Storing: Keep them cool and dry and eat within a day or two. Blackberries do freeze well and it’s a good idea to get a few bags in the freezer to use with apples throughout the winter.
Preparing: Wash thoroughly especially in they have been hand-picked. 

Simple Apple and Blackberry Crumble
(Prep 10mins, Cook 25mins and serves 4)
120g Plain Flour
60g Caster Sugar
60g unsalted butter
For the Fruit Compote:
300g Cooking Apples
30g unsalted butter
30g sugar
115g Blackberries
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  1. Heat Oven to 190C Gas Mark 5
  2. Crumble Topping: Tip the flour and sugar into a large bowl and add butter. Using your fingertips rub the butter into the flour to make a light breadcrumb texture.
  3. Compote- Peel and core the apples into small chunks. Put the sugar and butter into a saucepan and melt over a medium heat. Cook for 3mins until the mixture turns to a light caramel. Stir in the apples and cook for 3mins
  4.  Cover, remove from the heat and leave for 2-3 minutes in the pan
  5.  Add the compote to the cooking dish and add the crumble topping to the top of the mixture and also add some muesli or oats to add nutritional value and then cook in the oven for 20-30mins- until the crumble topping starts to brown.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Nutrition: Fuel for Females

Good nutrition is important for all athletes as they endeavor to fuel their sport, optimise their body composition, and remain healthy.  Nutrition is, however, often of greater concern to female athletes than their male counterparts.  Females naturally have a higher body fat percentage than males and can often become obsessed with dieting.  Societal pressure to conform to a certain appearance, irrespective of body type, as well as pressure from coaches and other support staff, can confound body image issues, and may lead to eating disorders.  Female athletes also carry a greater risk of iron-deficiency anemia than their male and sedentary female counterparts, and must ensure they have adequate calcium intake to prevent against stress fractures and osteoporosis.

Calorie Intake
Females have a slightly lower overall calorie requirement than males, due to their lower muscle mass and smaller body size (on average), but have higher demands for iron, and equal requirements for calcium and some other nutrients.  They, therefore, need to ensure that they eat a variety of nutrient dense foods.

Restriction of calories is a common practice among female athletes, particularly in endurance sports and sports such as gymnastics and diving where a lean physique is deemed desirable, but this is not the best approach to maximising performance.  Calorie restriction can directly and indirectly lead to the female athlete triad, and a lack of nutrients can confound the effect that low body fat and low hormone levels have on bone mineral density.  Women, just like men, need to fuel their bodies.

The Female Athlete Triad
In summary, the Female Athlete Triad, which was discussed in some detail in a previous post, is a trio of inter-related conditions - disordered eating, menstrual dysfunction and low bone mineral density - common in female athletes.  Low energy intake through disordered eating, along with other factors, lead to menstrual dysfunction, which in turn leads to low bone mineral density.  An inadequate diet can also directly affect bone mineral density.  In general, participation in sport and exercise has profound health benefits, but disordered eating, and the absence of menses, can reverse the positive effects of exercise on bone health and other factors.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Pregnant and lactating females have greater calorie and nutritional requirements, and those considering pregnancy should increase their intake of folic acid in advance of conception.  Those who are planning to exercise while pregnant should seek advice on both exercise and nutrition.

Iron is a very important mineral for both performance and general health.  Iron is an important component of hemoglobin which is responsible for transporting oxygen around the body.  Low iron levels will quickly result in poor performance in endurance athletes, but can lead to a number of other health and performance issues, including poor recovery, depressed mood states and reduced immune function. More information on the importance of iron can be found here.

As mentioned previously, calcium requirements are as high in females as in males, though dairy products (often the best source of calcium), are often restrict in females trying to maintain a low body weight or lean body mass.  We will cover the importance of calcium and how to ensure adequate calcium in the diet in a future post.  However, it is important to stress that vegans, or those who restrict their diary intake, risk getting adequate calcium in their diet.  Low calcium intake, together with low body weight, is a disaster for bones.

Females should take special care to ensure that all their nutritional demands are being met.  Iron and calcium intake are particularly important, and special care should be taken if the athlete is vegetarian.  In some cases supplements may be required.  Most importantly, all female athletes should develop a positive relationship with food.  Food is not the enemy.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Lifestyle, personal development and welfare support

There's more to high performance sport than training for an event, turning up, and competing.  Athletes, particularly in the professional era, have a lot to think about.  Eating healthily on a tight budget, keeping their finances in order, balancing a social life with an intense training programme, dealing with the media, keeping sponsors happy, handling the expectations of others, coping with long periods of time on the road, building functional relationships with coaches and teammates, keeping anti-doping whereabouts information up-t-date, and dealing with injury and other setbacks, are just some of the additional challenges faced by athletes.  Add to that the everyday demands of human life, work and educational commitments, personal relationships and financial concerns, and the busy life of the athlete, becomes the hectic life of the person.

With all these concerns and issues to balance, it's easy to see why an athlete might benefit from having a member of support staff to keep them on top of their 'life'.  But there is also something else that needs to be considered, and that's where the welfare, career or lifestyle support person really comes into their own.  A sporting career is like few other careers.  A lucky athletes will compete at their peak to somewhere in their early to mid thirties.  Many will finish much earlier, be it due to injury, burnout, lack of funding, or simply reaching their sporting goals.  Usually when individuals retire, they're done with work.  They've earned enough money to see them through their final years, and though a life without work can be difficult for anyone, of any age, to adjust to, the more relaxed pace of life is usually welcomed.  Retiring from a career in your early thirties is a whole different conundrum.  Goals may not have been achieved, few athletes have earned enough money to last the rest of their lives, and having lived on adrenaline and endorphines for many years previously, a massive void normally dominates the outlook of a retired sportsperson.  Retirement in the athlete has been likened to bereavement, and a particularly traumatic one in those who have not prepared for the retirement, or have not been able, for whatever reason, to retire on their terms.

The lifestyle adviser or welfare support person can help the athlete prepare for retirement in a number of ways.  Crucial to the transition is the development of other skills, and preparation for another job or career after sport.  A considerable volume of research supports the pursuit of dual careers from the early days, and though the value of dual careers is widely accepted, the reality is often very different.  Centralised training, increased professionalism, and increased social pressures on athletes makes the pursuit of education, training and employment very difficult for high performance athletes.  Furthermore, the increased money involved in sport often means that athletes don't need to work during the good years, meaning that they have less experience, and less earning potential after sport.  As professional increases, the role of lifestyle and welfare personnel becomes more important.  They are, to some extent, constantly fighting against the system.

Helping with transitions, dual careers and retirement is just part of what the lifestyle, career or welfare support person will help an athlete with.  Councelling and communication skills are important, and by helping an athlete work through their small issues, they are helping build the skills to manage and deal with issues and challenges in the future.  Development of goal setting, time management, conflict resolution and decision making skills will stand to an athlete in future sporting and non-sporting contexts, and though largely relevant to life outside of sport, some of these skills will actually help the athlete in their sporting performance.

This piece from the EIS website outlines how Performance Lifestyles helped Olympic champion rower Katherine Granger achieve sporting success. One of the greatest challenges of this whole area of support, however, is that not all strategies will help to improve performance.  Conflicting roles often exist, particularly if the lifestyle advisor or welfare officer is employed directly by the governing body or funding agency.  How do you support an potential Olympic medallist with depression would be best to spend time away from the support, when the sport as a whole, and ultimately your position, is dependent on medals won at the Olympics.  Obviously, the athlete's welfare is always top of your agenda, but measurement of your performance can be far from clear-cut.

While nutritionists are universally called nutritionists, and sports psychologists are known as sports psychologists across the board, different terms are often used to describe the people who provide the crucial lifestyle support to athletes.  UK Sport, and relevant home country sports institutes (EIS, SINI, SIS and SportWales), refer to the area as Performance Lifestyles, delivered by Performance Lifestyle advisors.  The Irish Institute of Sport run a Performance Transition Support Programme that is "designed to help [athletes] recover, refocus and re-energise" after an Olympic Games, and prepare for the next phase of their life. They refer to the area as Athlete Lifestyle.  TASS refer to the area as Education and Lifestyle Support; The Australian Institute of Sport deliver support through their Personal Excellence (PE) and Athlete Career and Education (ACE) programmes and High Performance Sport New Zealand runs an Athlete Life Programme delivered by Athlete Life Advisors. The England Cricket Board and the Professional Cricket Association run a comprehensive programme delivered by their Personal Development and Welfare Team, while the support professional rugby players receive through the RPA is delivered by Player Development Managers. Support personnel on some university scholarship programmes are simply called mentors.  The skills required by these professionals, the CPD opportunities available, and routes into this type of work will be covered in a future post.

Most professional athletes have access to lifestyle support through their national governing body or professional players association.  Athletes who are not yet at that level, and who would benefit from support, can contact us at Athlete Life Development to discuss and arrange one-to-one or small group support sessions.