Proper nutrition is essential to the health and performance of any athlete. As many young athletes start new training programs, their coaches and trainers nutritional strategies to ensure their athletes are properly fueled.
Coaches, trainers, and athletes alike can benefit from better understanding the role of nutrition in maximizing performance, reducing injury risk, and aiding healing and recovery. This was the focus of our recent sports nutrition roundtable, hosted by Concordia University Chicago as part of the Return to Play webinar series.
The free series brought together experts in sports science, athletic training, and nutrition to share evidence-based strategies for coaches, trainers, and athletes to use as they return to competition post-pandemic.
Recordings are available via the Return to Play website.
The nutrition strategies roundtable was hosted by two expert sports dieticians:
- Tavis Piattoly, MS, RN, LDN has over 15 years of experience as a sports dietician working with athletes from high school to professional level. He consults on diet and nutrition for numerous organizations and is also the co-founder and Director of Sports Nutrition Education for My Sports Dietitian.
- Joanne Villaflor, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD is a sports dietician who specializes in tactical performance enhancement for the military. She is an active member of the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) and the Professionals in Nutrition for Exercise and Sport (PINES).
Both are faculty in Concordia University Chicago’s Master of Science in Applied Exercise Science, which offers a range of programs to help coaches, trainers, nutritionists, and other sports professionals get the qualifications they need to take the next step in their careers.
As expert sports dieticians, Joanne Villaflor and Tavis Piattoly both take a food-first approach to supporting young athletes. Drawing on their experience, the two dieticians shared some essential nutritional principles to help coaches, trainers, and other sports professionals support their athletes as they return to competition after Covid-19.
In this webinar, they answered audience members’ questions on the role of nutrition in performance, how to assess nutritional needs, vegan diets, and how to build good nutritional habits in younger athletes.
What role does nutrition play in helping athletes optimize performance?
Many factors can impact performance. Sleep, strength training, access to equipment, genetics, skill – all of these will have an effect. But nutrition is where it all starts. Athletes who are underfueled can’t perform at their best.
As athletes start new training programs to prepare for the upcoming season, they are often going from sport to sport with little time to rest or fuel their bodies properly. They then struggle to achieve their weight and performance goals, especially when they are cross-training for different sports.
Fortunately, there is a growing understanding of the importance of nutrition for athletes. From the professional level down, teams are investing in nutritional programs to support their athletes in optimizing their performance.
Our starting point should always be to establish the health and wellness of the athlete as a baseline. We do this by making sure they have a balanced diet, get the fluids they need, and are meeting their macronutrient and micronutrient needs. If necessary, we might then look at bringing in sports foods.
Only when these things are in place would we consider supplementation and only if it is really needed. Food and good eating habits always come first.
Can nutrition prevent injury and illness?
We need to be wary of the word ‘prevent’, cautions Piattoly. There’s always a risk that athletes will fall ill or injure themselves. However, there is evidence that certain nutritional strategies can help reduce this risk.
For example, some studies suggest higher vitamin D levels help to protect against the risk of stress fractures in NFL players.
Other nutrients have a vital role to play in tissue recovery and reducing inflammation. So, nutrition is an essential consideration in injury prevention.
Athletes require adequate calories and adequate nutrients, especially protein and minerals, to support recovery. Underfueling is one of the biggest contributors to poor athlete health and recovery.
Many athletes have the mindset that lighter means faster, especially in sports like cross-country running. Depending on the situation and the sport, underfueling and inappropriate weight loss can lead to an increased risk of stress fractures.
It is like not putting enough fuel in your car and trying to drive a long distance. It simply won’t work.
Not meeting their calorie requirements and nutritional needs also impact athletes’ immune systems, increasing the risk of getting ill. Poor sleep, depression, stress, and a high training load can all contribute too.
Of course, food and eating often come with a lot of emotional and mental issues for people, including athletes. There is so much misleading advice out there, especially online. This can be a real problem for athletes and is something that professionals need to bear in mind when working with them to establish a proper nutritional plan.
How do you assess the nutritional needs of athletes?
Nutrition is very individualized and needs a personalized approach. Ideally, aim to sit down one-on-one with every athlete. This can be a challenge when you are working with larger teams but is necessary because each athlete has their own needs.
There are three main things to look at when you start working with an athlete.
What, when, and how much do they eat currently?
Are there any allergies? Any other medical history that you need to be aware of? When do they feel hungriest throughout the day? Do they eat when they aren’t hungry and what triggers this? How many meals do they typically eat per day?
Activity and Sleep Log
How much activity do they do currently and how does this vary across the week?
Additionally, coaches and trainers should always ask their athletes about their sleep. It is vital for recovery, but many find it difficult to make getting enough sleep a priority.
You must consider an athlete’s varying activity levels across the week when coming up with a nutritional plan. They won’t need the same number of calories every day. An intensive training day has very different requirements to a rest day, so your plan will need to take this into account.
What strategies work with younger athletes?
Both Piattoly and Villaflor work with younger athletes – Piattoly with high school students and Villaflor with military recruits in the 18-24 age bracket.
For these age groups, they recommend keeping things simple. They use the information they’ve gathered from the food and activity logs to identify healthy habits that are missing from their athletes’ current routines. Examples include eating breakfast every day, going to bed earlier at the weekends, and making sure protein needs are met.
To make changes sustainable, work on changing one habit at a time. People often think they need to behave perfectly and try to make too many changes in one go. However, no one follows a perfect nutrition plan all the time. Aim for good nutrition and consistency, not perfection.
Do nutritional needs change depending on the type of sport?
Some sports will burn more calories than others, but there aren’t set nutritional guidelines based on the type of sport because other factors are more important.
Nutritional needs are mainly affected by the individual athlete’s weight, height, age, and activity levels.
For example, if a 300-pound athlete and an athlete who weighs 150 pounds do the same workout, the heavier athlete will need more calories because they are moving an extra 150 pounds of mass.
Training intensity is also an important consideration. A hard session will burn more calories than an easy session. If an athlete has participated in a two-hour practice but has spent most of that time inactive, they won’t need the same calories as if they had been moving for the full two hours.
How can athletes following a vegan or plant-based diet meet their protein needs?
Plant-based diets are becoming more common, and these preferences can certainly be incorporated into an athlete’s nutritional plan. There are some challenges to consider, such as the availability of suitable foods and knowing what to buy.
Protein is always a factor with these kinds of diets. Fortunately, there is now a much greater range of products available. Good sources of plant-based protein include nuts, seeds, tofu, legumes, meat substitutes, etc.
Sometimes people worry about the processed nature of meat alternatives like the impossible burger. However, these can have their merits for those wanting to follow a plant-based diet. When we make recommendations to athletes, we need to take their tastes into account. If they don’t enjoy the flavor of the foods we tell them to eat, they will struggle to follow their nutritional plan.
Getting adequate vitamin B12 and iron are also considerations for vegan athletes, as are vitamin D and omega 3. These last two are an issue for non-vegan athletes too.
What are some common misconceptions regarding nutrition for athletes?
Unfortunately, there is plenty of misinformation out there, especially on social media. Sometimes it seems that the people with the biggest followings spread the most dangerously incorrect advice. This is one of the problems with the lack of regulation.
Low-carb diets are one very popular trend. This idea that carbs are bad is terrible advice for athletes. Yes, there are different categories of carbs. Sustainable energy carbs like potatoes, rice, whole grains, fruits, some vegetables are an essential part of a balanced diet.
On the other hand, there are some carbs you want to minimize, such as sugary foods – cookies, doughnuts, etc. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid them altogether. They have their place and demonizing foods is unhelpful. Instead, we want to help athletes understand which foods fuel them best and then limit other foods to a minimum.
Excessive protein intake is another common trend. In truth, the body can only absorb a certain amount of protein, so eating more is simply wasteful. As a rule of thumb, 1 gram of protein for every pound of body weight is the maximum we can absorb per day.
A third trend is over-reliance on supplements. They aren’t a substitute for a balanced diet and there is no legal supplement that will drastically change performance, especially if the basic nutrition isn’t in place.
Some people suggest avoiding gluten as a blanket recommendation. There is no basis for this. The percentage of people who are coeliac or have a gluten intolerance is small and is usually established through tests. For most, eating gluten won’t cause issues.
Plus, there is nothing inherently better about gluten-free alternatives. They are appropriate and necessary for anyone who is coeliac or has a gluten intolerance, but others don’t need to choose these substitutes.
How can you motivate young athletes to make dietary changes?
Young athletes rarely take advice from their parents well. They need to see that the strategies we recommend work for their peers, or for well-known athletes they respect.
What often works best is to start with the most motivated athletes on a team. They already have the drive they need to make changes. When others see these nutritional strategies working for them, they are more likely to be open to adopting similar habits.
Sadly, it is rare for a young athlete to successfully change their nutritional habits if they don’t have the support of their parents. They need people at home who can assist with meal prep, encourage them to bring food to school, and remind them to eat breakfast.
For those interested in nutrition, we have a free webinar, “Nutrition Strategies to Reduce Injuries and Facilitate Healing,” where nutrition experts Joanne Villaflor, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, and Tavis Piattoly, MS, RD, LDN discuss nutrition strategies to facilitate healing, prevent injury, and improve health. Watch on-demand now.