Missing the forest for the trees

Following on from Jace’s initial post about the use, or misuse of GPS, I’d also like to comment upon some of the current issues related to sports nutrition that I have seen within team sport settings lately.

Despite being the youngest of the sports science fields, sports nutrition is an absolute minefield awash with conflicting, often confusing information, and even ‘fake news’ (& 2). It’s continued to grow exponentially as search for the magic ingredient intensifies. But is that search warranted, are we looking in the right places, for the right things? More to the point, does the magic ingredient everyone is looking for even exist?

I often hear of professional teams signing huge sponsorship deals with supplement suppliers. Yet the club chef is making little more than minimum wage. I see athletes being provided multivitamins, to then skip the vegetable section. I see them avoiding carbohydrate in an attempt to reduce body fat. I see staff chasing players around the field with sports drinks, yet the same player skips breakfast.

Missing the forest for the trees is an expression used of someone who is so invested in the fine details of a problem that they fail to look at the situation as a whole. I think it sums up the current situation perfectly. Many have become lost in the details.

I often talk about the unspoken pyramid of importance with athletes. It’s nothing mind-blowing; many others use the same idea. It’s just a simple, graphic representation of the different aspects of nutrition and orders them based on importance. I’ve found it to be an extremely effective means of educating and explaining a potentially confusing topic; it’s actually formed the backbone of my Performance Nutrition Curriculum of Education used in Premier League academies.

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Nutrition is relatively simple. Each day we wake up with a set of requirements for energy, macronutrients, micronutrients and fluid. Our primary aim is to meet these requirements through the consumption adequate amounts of various foods and fluids. It’s obviously a little more complex than that, but that’s the crux of it.

Those requirements differ from person-to-person depending on a number of factors, but generally the most significant difference is the energy component. Given total daily energy intake is the most influential factor, energy forms the bottom layer of the pyramid. Of less importance than energy, but still relatively influential you have the macronutrients, carbohydrate, protein and fat, and the micronutrients.

The remainder of the pyramid comprises of meal timing and supplements. Both are relatively insignificant when compared with the aforementioned layers. The chronic effect of consistently hitting energy and macronutrient requirements will certainly outweigh the acute effects of meal timing and supplementation.

Within high-performance sport I continue to see people missing the forest for the trees when it comes to nutrition. Lost in the details they chase after the marginal gains, when in fact the fundamental aspects are crumbling. To tell the truth it’s infuriating.

I understand we can only control a certain proportion of an athletes diet, as we are limited in the contact time we have with them. I also get the theory of marginal gains and the massive potential it offers. But to chase marginal gains in the face of significant gains is ludicrous. Surely the return on investment in putting more resources into improving basic stuff such as general eating habits is greater than that of purchasing cherry juice and ensuring they consume a post-workout recovery shake?

I often hear of the term “keeping up with the Jones’s” in high-performance sport, perhaps that’s the case here. High-performance sport is a high-pressured environment; the perception is that if you’re not being innovative, creative, thinking outside the box, chasing kaizen then you’re not going to be successful. “Fear of missing out” is also common in high-performance sport, and could be at play here. I’m all for innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box and kaizen. I’m all for trialling new things and I actively promote a growth mind-set with my staff. But not before ensuring the simple stuff is covered, implemented consistently and fully understood by all.

I look at the incredible work of Dr James Morton and colleagues at Team Sky. They seem to have it figured. Continuing to push boundaries having literally invented the term marginal gains as it applies to sport performance, yet also consistently delivering the highest quality of food to the riders. The bottom up approach to nutrition has been adopted successfully by England Rugby, unsurprisingly led by Graeme Close, likewise David Dunne at Harlequins with the support of Omar Meziane. Perhaps we are getting there, slowly.

To echo the thoughts of others involved in high-performance environments such as Fergus Connolly and Martin Buchheit my advice would be to take a step back and view of the performance problem from a wider lens. Maybe then the magic ingredient will look a little different?

This trend is common across the sports science industry, where practitioners insist on investing in the latest tools and gadgets in an attempt to gain a competitive edge, yet still can’t get the basics right. More commonly than not the best interventions are the simplest, don’t cost a lot of money, and are extremely easy to implement. For example, instead of outlaying a large amount of money for technology to monitor athletes’ sleep, we would be better served investing time into educating our athletes about good sleep hygiene. It’s all about bang for your buck.”
(Jace Delaney)

 

 

  1. Wilson, J. M., Lowery, R. P., Joy, J. M., Andersen, J. C., Wilson, S. M. C., Stout, J. R., … Rathmacher, J. (2014). The effects of 12 weeks of beta-hydroxy-beta-methybutyrate free acid supplementation on muscle mass, strength, and power in resistance-trained individuals: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 114(6), 1217 – 1227.
  2. Stoppani, J., Scheet, T., Pena, J., Rudolph, C., & Charlebois, D. (2009). Consuming a supplement containing branched-chain amino acids during a resistance-traning program increases lean mass, muscle strength and fat loss. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 6, 1.