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.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Milk and Eggs: Nature's Best Recovery Foods

Over the coming months, as part of our nutrition theme, we'll be featuring some main food groups, outlining their role in sports nutrition, and sharing ideas of how they can be added to the diet. To kick us off, this week we cover milk and eggs, two of the best (and cheapest) sources of protein available.

Nature's best
Both milk and eggs contain all the essential amino acids in the correct proportions.  As the main food to sustain animal life before birth (eggs) and after birth (milk), it is unsurprising that both foods are nutrient rich.  In addition to protein, eggs are also a good source of vitamins B2, B12, D, E, folic acid, iron and a substance called choline which is involved in fat transport and in the production of phospholipids, an important component of cell membranes.  With a perfect blend of amino acids, as well as high levels of calcium (essential for bone health and the prevention of stress fractures), and other nutrients involved in metabolism and tissue growth, milk is the perfect recovery drink.

Unfortunately, despite their nutritional value, both eggs and milk have received bad press.  Eggs are high in cholesterol, though there is little evidence, if any, to link consumption of eggs with heart disease.  Milk is often advised against because of its high fat content, though a glass of full fat milk contains less saturated fat than a couple of biscuits.  Cow's milk is also, unfortunately, not tolerable by all, and dairy allergies and lactose intolerance is common.  Both foods do have important roles to play in the diet, and below we suggest some alternatives.

The eggs of almost all birds, reptiles and turtles are edible, and most are eaten somewhere in the world.  Indeed, many are a delicacy.  The egg of the common hen, however, is by far the mostly widely available and commonly eaten egg in the West, and it is hen eggs that we will focus on in this piece.

The majority of the egg's nutritional value is found in the yolk, though the white is also a good source of protein, has no cholesterol, and contains very little fat.

Cholesterol and eggs
Eggs are high in cholesterol, but eating eggs doesn't usually contribute significantly to blood cholesterol levels; foods high in saturated fat have a much greater affect.  Egg are low in saturated fat, and egg whites don't contain any cholesterol, and can be used unsparingly in the diet.

Checking for freshness
Shops should only sell eggs less than 21 days old.  They are safe to eat up to 28 days, if kept in the correct conditions, though fresher eggs are better for certain dishes.  If you are unsure about the age of an egg, there are a number of ways of checking its freshness.  The simplest way is to place an unbroken egg in a glass of water.  Fresh eggs will sink straight to the bottom; older, but still safe to eat eggs will sit in the middle of the water, and old eggs, which should be thrown away, will float to the top.  The appearance of the yolk and white of the egg will change with age.  When broken onto a plate, a fresh egg will have two distinct layers to its white, and a rounded yolk.  The layers of the white merge and the yolk flattens with age.  The final test for freshness is the smell test.  Bad eggs have an unmistakable, unpleasant, sulphorus smell.

Storing eggs
The shell of the egg is porous, making it vulnerable to bacteria and odour contamination.  Storing eggs in their box, or in a special egg compartment in the fridge, away from fish, will help protect them from smells.  Fresh eggs can be stored in a well ventilated place, at less than 20°, for up to a week, or in the fridge for 3 to 4 weeks.  Refrigerated eggs should be brought back to room temperature before cooking.

Beaten eggs, in a container loosely covered with cling film, can be stored in the fridge for 1 to 2 days.  Whole, shelled eggs can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 1-2 days.  Egg whites can be frozen in an airtight container.  They should be defrosted in the fridge and used immediately.  Cooked eggs can only be stored if they are fully cooked.  Shelled eggs can be loosly wrapped in cling film and stored in the fridge for 1-2 days.  Hard boiled eggs which are left in their shells will develop an unappetising blue-grey ring around the yolk.

Egg safety
Some eggs may contain the salmonella bacteria, which, if not completely cooked or pasturised, can cause serious illness resulting in abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Mayonnaise, ice cream and mousse are based on raw eggs.  While commercial versions of these product use pasturised eggs, home-made versions may carry a salmonella risk. At-risk individuals (children, pregnant women, the elderly), as well as athletes in the run-up to an important competition, should minimise their salmonella risk, and avoid raw or undercooked eggs.

Cooking eggs
Eggs' real value comes in their versatility.  They can be boiled, fried, poached or even baked on their own, mixed with some milk and seasoning (and optional other ingredients) and scrambled, or simply turned into an omelet.  They can be eaten hot or cold, and used to increase the protein content of a number of dishes.  They also form the basis of quiches, frittatas and tarts.  Egg-based recipes such as quiches and omelets are also a great way to use up leftovers, though beware of the high saturated fat content of any recipe using pastry.

While frying is the simplest way to cook an egg, it's also the least healthy option, because of the fat involved in the cooking process.  Poaching or boiling are much better options.  Poached egg on toast makes a simple, cheap and nutritious recovery snack, while cooked hard boiled eggs are a great addition to salads and sandwiches.

The Bord Bia (Irish Food Board) website has a range of great egg recipes that you might like to try.

Cow's milk, with its slightly sweet, mild and subtle flavour is the most popular form of milk used for human consumption, though the milk of other animals, including goats and sheep, and milk made from plants such as soya, rice and almonds can also be consumed.  Commercially available milk usually comes from Frisian cows, though the milk of Jersey and Guernsey cows, richer in flavour, higher in fat and darker in colour, is also popular.

Recovery food
As mentioned previously, milk's perfect balance of protein makes it an ideal recovery drink.  It also contains some sugars for refueling, and a lot of water and the electrolytes sodium and potassium to help with rehydration.

Milk makes a tasty recovery drink on it's own, as part of a banana or chocolate milk-shake, or added to a fruit smoothie.

Milk and saturated fat
Full fat milk has gained a lot of bad press, particularly in relation to it's saturated fat content.  While it is true that whole or full-fat milk contains just over twice the fat content of semi-skimmed milk, it's worth putting the fat values into context.  A 200ml glass of full fat milk contains 7.8 g of fat; approximately the same as two chocolate digestive biscuits.  Semi-skimmed milk is a good choice, as it has approximately the same protein, carbohydrate, vitamin and mineral content as whole milk, with half the fat, but those who prefer the taste of full fat milk shouldn't get hung up on it's fat content - just skip one of the chocolate digestives instead!

Skimmed milk typically has half  the calories, a fraction of the fat and most of the vitamins and calcium of full fat milk, but is low in the fat-soluable vitamins A and D.  It is therefore not suitable for young children.

Goat's milk is a good alternative for those with a diary alergy.  It has a stronger flavour and is less widely available, but has a similar nutritional content, is easier to digest and contains less lactose than cow's milk.  Soya milk, made from pulverized soya beans, is suitable for vegans and those with lactose intolerance.  It has a thicker consistency than cow's milk, and has a slightly nutty flavour.  It curdles in very hot coffee and tea.

Buttermilk, traditionally made from the thin, unstable liquid left over after making butter, but more recently made from fermented skimmed milk and milk solids, is particularly low in fat.  It is, however, not to everyone's taste.

Storing milk
Milk should be stored in the fridge.  It usually lasts no more than 3-4 days in the fridge after opening, irrespective of its use-by date, and can quickly sour when the weather is very warm.

Calcium and iron - not the perfect mix
Calcium is one of the substances which can affect iron absorption.  To maximise absorption, avoid drinking milk at the same time as you take iron supplements or eat iron rich foods.

Do you have any milk or egg-based recipes that you'd like to share?  We'd love to hear from you.  Just add suggestions as comments below.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Nutritional Practices for Ultra-Endurance Events

Following on from last week’s blog about the demands of ultra endurance events, this week I will start to look at some of the nutritional practices that athletes can apply when training and competing in ultra-distance events.  

Appropriate and consistent training is one of the key factors in ensuring a successful performance in an ultra- distance event and supporting this training with the appropriate nutrition will also ensure that the athlete is ready to give their best performance on race day.

Preparation is also vital for race day success and  thorough planning and organisation when it comes to nutrition will ensure that a compromise is reached between achieving a light pack weight and carrying sufficient and effective fuel for the race.


Staying hydrated and replacing fluid lost through sweat is important for not only performance but also for health reasons. Minor levels of dehydration will affect both physical and mental output whilst training and competing. Significant dehydration creates a significant risk of heat stroke and severe dehydration could lead to death.

During the week prior to the competition, the athlete should drink the recommended 2L per day and replace fluids lost through sweat in training to make sure that hydration levels are optimum levels before the start of the race.   

On race day, the athlete should start drinking as soon as they have woken up, and try to consume approximately 500ml before the start of the race.  This will ensure that any small fluid losses overnight are replaced.

During the race, the athlete should aim to replace the fluid lost through dehydration. This will be difficult, as most athletes cannot tolerate large fluid intake, especially in hot conditions.  A good compromise is to limit dehydration levels to less than 2% of the body weight. Measuring sweat rates during training and build-up races, as mentioned in an earlier blog, will help estimate how much they will need to drink.

Athletes should choose a drink which is palatable, not fizzy and, for these events, fluid which provides carbohydrate and electrolytes. This doesn't need to be a branded sports drink; in fact, a home made squash drink with a pinch of salt can be as effective and, for some, more tolerable than a sports drink. 


A lot of focus was previously been put on carbohydrate loading in preparing glycogen stores for the race. However, this will occur naturally providing that high carbohydrate intake is consumed alongside a pre-race taper and the focus which was previously suggested is not necessary.

Ultra endurance events often have early starts with minimal time on the morning of the race to get the appropriate nutrition on board. High Carbohydrate, low fat and low fibre foods should be on the list for athletes to eat and at least 100g of carbohydrate is a good amount to aim for to top up glycogen stores. Good examples include white bread jam sandwiches, cereal bars, breakfast cereals, bananas and fluids such as fruit juices, soft drinks and sports drinks. To facilitate rapid gastric emptying and nutritional absorption food should ideally be consumed 3-4 hours before race start.  Closer to the start of the race (1hr), a further carbohydrate snack will help prevent decreases in blood sugar levels during the early section of the race.

During the race, muscle and glycogen levels will normally last between 60-90 minutes, before the body needs to turn to other energy sources. At this point, the athlete is unlikely to maintain the same output and is sometimes known as hitting the wall. Maintaining carbohydrate levels during the competition will help the athlete to maintain output for longer.

The recommended intake is 1g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per hour, and can be consumed in a variety of forms. For most athletes this will mean an intake of at least 50gms of carbohydrate every hour. Common sources include sports drinks, gels and bananas, but, during the latter stages of longer distance events, sandwiches and more savory snacks are common choices.  The following foods contain 30-60g of carbohydrate:
  • 500ml fruit juice or soft drink 
  • 500ml Sports Drink  
  • Sports or Energy Bar
  • 2 handful of sweets or dried fruit
  • 4-6 Jaffa Cakes
  • Cereal Bar
  • 2 Carbohydrate Gels
Food choices will often depend on the race provisions, athlete preferences and the ability to transport them during the event, all of which should be researched and practiced during training, and preferably a test race. Athletes must also have a 'plan b' just in case things don't go to plan on race day, or the athlete suffers stomach discomfort.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Nutritional Considerations for Ultra-Endurance Events

Participation in ultra-endurance events has been increasing as cycling, Ironman triathlons and running events are all becoming popular challenges for people to test their physical limits. So when my partner asked for nutrition advice for his 12hr Time Trial event, I thought this could be a good topic to blog about.  I have split the topic into two sections - the first will look at the physical challenges the body faces when being put through ultra-endurance events and the second will look at the nutritional strategies that athletes can use to ensure they achieve their goals.

By definition, an ultra-endurance is an event which last over 6hrs in duration, and the athletes who are successful are those who have the ability to sustain higher absolute speed for a given distance than the other competitors. The three main demands which are placed on the body during this time are:
  • Meeting energy demands
  • Maintaining body temperature
  • Replacing fluid and electrolyte loss
Alongside that, there are increased injury and immune function risk after the event has taken place, and these have to be managed.

Hyperthermia - Maintaining Core Body Temperature

As well as supplying oxygen-rich blood to the body, the heart helps control body temperature by pumping warm blood to the skin where body heat is lost through the evaporation of sweat. During prolonged periods of exercise, heat is produced and increased heat loss needs to occur through sweating to maintain a constant body temperature and body functions.

There are certain factors which can prevent or reduce sweating and heat loss - high humidity can reduce evaporation and dehydration can impair the ability to transfer heat from muscles to the skin. In both situations, the increase in the core body temperature will increase the risk of heat problems. Muscle weakness and disorientation can develop with smaller increases in body temperatures with more serious effects occurring as the body temperature rises. Ways in which an athlete can maintain a constant body temperature will be looked at in the next blog.

Hyponatremia - Fluid and Electrolyte Loss

In recent years, it has been suggested that dehydration in marathon runners is over emphasised and results in some runners suffering with hyponatremia. During exercise, electrolytes, as well as fluids, are also lost in sweat.  Sodium and potassium are the main two electrolytes lost and need to be replaced at some point, depending on the duration and intensity of the event. 

Hyponatremia is the dilution of sodium levels in the blood often caused by the consumption of too much fluid and not replacing the lost electrolytes in sweat. This eventually causes swelling of the brain which can be fatal and has been reported during marathon events in recent years.  This is more common in slower runners who have more time to drink, and are often encouraged to do so. Ways in which athletes can maintain their electrolyte levels will be discussed in the next blog. 

Glycogen Depletion

Carbohydrates are the main energy source during endurance events and provide energy to the muscles at a rate which can sustain a fast pace optimal for performance. Carbohydrates are found as glycogen in the muscles and liver and as blood glucose. As blood glucose is used up, the body converts glycogen into glucose and releases it into the bloodstream to maintain a constant supply of energy. However, glycogen stores are and can only sustain a high work rate for about 60-90mins. If carbohydrates are not replaced at or before the point of glycogen depletion, the body must turn to other energy sources to maintain this work rate. The main alternative source is fats which can sustain exercise for much longer than glycogen, but at a much slower rate. It is much harder to maintain the same pace following the shift in fuel source, a point which is often known as ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall.’ It is important to maintain levels of muscle glycogen and blood glucose for as long as possible. Ways to do this will be discussed in the next blog.

Injury and the Immune System

Due to the length of time an athlete will be performing the same activity and the same action over and over again, there is going to be a considerable amount of stress placed on certain muscles, bones and other soft tissues. Muscle damage and inflammation can remain for several days after completion of the event, and tissues can take much longer than normal to fully repair. Even while the athlete may be celebrating completing the event or achieving their goal, there are a number of things which they can do to aid recovery and prepare for the next training session or event.

As well as the muscle damage, as part of the repair process, cytokines are released from the injured area to promote an influx of white blood cells from the immune system, and these remain elevated following prolonged exercise.  However, there are other markers of immune function which are lower after completing an endurance event, leaving the immune system less able to protect the body from infections. This is why many athletes become ill after endurance events or high intensity training. There are certain practices athletes can do to ensure that both injury and muscle soreness can be reduced and this will be looked at next time.