With the Olympics due to kick off in London in just over a month, NutraIngredients takes a look at what it takes to be an athlete at the top - and how the right nutrition can provide the winning edge.
Even a miniscule drop in performance can be difference between winning and finishing third or fourth in some Olympic events – and getting the right nutritional balance to fuel and hydrate athletes can often play a vital role in making those all important differences, says Jeni Pearce, head of performance nutrition at the English Institute Sport.
“If you are a weight class athlete, the right nutrition can of course be critical. But even for other sports, you can lose hundredths of a second of time – which I know doesn’t sound a lot – but at the very top level can be the difference between finishing first, second or third.
“The margins are so small at the elite end that it really does make a difference.”
However, speaking with NutraIngredients, Pearce said one of her primary concerns for non-elite athletes is that people could be overdosing on supplements that they do not need.
“One of my concerns for people in gyms and playing sport at an amateur level is they see athletes using supplements and they think they use them all the time, and in large doses. And that’s not what happens,” she explains. “I’m worried there are a range of people out there who because of this may actually be getting up to or above the upper safe limit.”
“If you take a multivitamin, proteins shake, then a recovery drink and a power bar every day, it's easy to accumulate very very high levels of some of these minerals.”
Pearce believes that use of such supplements is much higher in amateur level sports and gym enthusiasts – and argues that there needs to be a joined-up approach between industry and sports nutrition experts to deal with the potential problems with taking too many supplements.
“What we need to do is to be honest and say ‘you know what, there are a lot of foods out there that we can eat to get these nutrients as well’,” she argues.
“Be mindful of taking too much, rather than too little,” says the internationally recognised expert – noting that people need to be ‘strategic’ in their use of sports supplements. “If you are doing a 20 or 30 minute run or a short session in the gym, do you really need a sports drink or will water be fine?”
The head of performance nutrition says that most her work with athletes in the build-up to the Olympics will focus on ‘fine tuning’ and ‘dealing with the unexpected’ such as injuries and illness.
“Most people who go to the gym may just do one hour long work out, and they might not do that every day of the week,” she says. “A lot of people forget that athletes will not only have specialist skills training but also weight sessions and physiotherapy sessions. All of these are quite demanding and require fuel and hydration management.”
“From our perspective, there are also a lot more benefits to be gained at the elite level by the athlete being very mindful of how they eat around their training session or event”
Role of nutrition
Pearce told us that the demands put on individual athlete’s body are very specific is to their respective sport – meaning there can be no ‘blanket’ approach to nutrition.
“Each athlete has to think differently in terms of nutrition,” she explains. “If you have a very experienced athlete then the main role of the nutrition advisor at this stage is to be helping with fine tuning. So you are doing very bespoke and specific adjustments.”
“The key thing is that this all happens as part of a multi-disciplinary team. We work closely with the doctor and physiologist as a team, but the nutritionist in that team has two roles – to try and maximise any supplementations used, but also to look at nutritional intake to see if there are dietary changes that could help to achieve what is needed.”
Whilst this can, and sometimes does, involve using a nutritional supplement, the use of sports supplements at the top level is not as high as many would imagine, explains the nutrition expert.
“We don’t know everything there is in food, and how we utilise them in the body, so we always have to watch the food first and then use any supplements where they are appropriate so that we can benefit in training or performance,”
“We use supplements as something that is complementary to the diet. Supplements are and need to be seen as supplementary,” she said.
In-fact for the most part athletes at the top of their game would generally only use a few very specific supplements that they might not be able to get in high enough levels in the diet, she says.
“There are only three or four supplements that have been shown to improve performance. That’s things like creatine, beta-alanine, bicarb [sodium bicarbonate] and caffeine.”
“You might want to throw nitrates in there too, but there’s still a lot more work to be done. They do show promise though.”
One of the key things the English Institute of Sport is interested in at the moment is how to help athletes with specific dietary requirements to achieve optimal nutrition.
“For any vegetarian athletes, we know that they will probably be low in creatine and beta-alanine because they only come from meat products,” says Pearce. “So those are situations where quite clearly they would have to use the supplement to get those performance benefits.”