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Nutrition, Health & Performance - why can it be so confusing?

Updated: Apr 10

Performance nutrition is considered a scientific process with the aim of improving performance through the use of nutritional practices. It can be traced back to a series of seminal studies in the 1960's - still for a lot of people, it's a confusing topic to apply!

People are unique and what works for one may not be suitable for others - still this doesn't mean any intervention is sensible or valid, and while we should always use an evidence-based approach, people are unique individuals, in unique environments and need individual treatment.

While we should always use an evidence-based approach, people are unique individuals and need individual treatment.

Many athletes (and the average person) benefit from evidence-based advice when it comes to nutrition, health and performance. In contrast, others prefer experimenting under the guidance of experienced coaches (leaving scientists to explain how specific practices may have been of benefit to performance).

What works in a scientific trial may not work in daily practice.

Although the athlete or practitioner should aim to use a scientific goal, the general view is that the translation of research to practice is poor.

The conflicting worlds of "fast" practitioner and "slow" research collide daily, and a big obtacle is an increasing gap between scientific knowledge and the practical translation (and use) of relevant knowledge into daily practice.

Following the London Olympic Games, a House of Lords Report was produced which included a question asked: "How robust is the research and evidence base for improving the performance of elite athletes"? The report indicated that

"Much of the research presented was observational and anecdotal, so the results of such research must be viewed as no more than provisional. Observational research needs to be followed up with rigorous testing of hypotheses in controlled experiments with sufficient sample sizes for statistical analysis.”

To be competent one must be able to make sense of the current science and its potential for daily use relevant to the person. To breakdown the science, i.e., context, design, validity, analytics, participants, dietary and exercise controls, and reliability, feasibility, results and reliability, risk/reward, dietary controls, and timings.

A further complication is that high-performance athletes are unlike those in many studies; experiments which tell us what interventions are effective larger groups on average but, not which single athlete should receive them, under which unique environmental and system constraints and at which cycle/time of their training or competition.

Each person has unique constraints which are defined as borders that shape behaviour from a movement system to a stable state organisation. Newall (1986) proposed three categories:

Performer constraints

Including physical and mental factors such as height, weight, attentional control, intrinsic motivation, and individual preferences. All of which may influence decision-making behaviours.

Environmental constraints

Include constraints from the physical environment such as weather, altitude, track conditions, quality of the facilities and cultural constraints including family, teammates, culture and the quality of coaching.

Task constraints

Include the goal of the task such as rules of the game, equipment at disposal and the relative state of the game. Moreover, the physiological demands of elite sports are varied and complex with events lasting seconds, for instance, high jump, shot put and Olympic Lifting, to multiple weeks such as Grand Tour cycling.

Performance outcomes culminate from deliberate and specific practices aimed at maximising changes towards individual potential.

Finding the correct solution, at the moment, for the unique individual is the challenging "art" of application.

We must also consider new knowledge vs established.

  • Blending existing knowledge (which we know works),

  • Transferable knowledge (which has worked elsewhere)

  • Anecdotal observations (which we have seen work)

  • Innovation (where the risk: reward of it working at all is high (Ross et al., 2018).

Knowledge blend in Performance Nutrition

While recent guidelines (for example carbohydrate recommendations - a major foundation of performance – training and competition) have evolved and recognised the need for flexibility and individual differences focussing on the right areas at the right time that give the biggest impact with the least risk for the correct individual is the tricky art of application.

Further reading:


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