The Blog

Performance Costs

I feel very fortunate to do the job I do! I get to work with elite and professional athletes, supporting them to achieve their performance goals. I'm sure this would be true of any practitioner working within performance sport.

Athletes are focused and dedicated, the desire to achieve those marginal gains is always top priority. Athletes want to be the fastest, the strongest - the need to be the best outstripping all other aspects of their life.

As a practitioner working within a team, it is easy to get caught up in this drive to be the best. But at what cost?

Some would argue, to be successful, athletes need to exhibit and possess extreme behaviours.

However lets look at some parallel extreme behaviours:

• A mountaineer ignoring the first signs of frostbite to reach his/her summit.

• An avid bird watcher trekking their way through the Amazon rain forest, ignoring the life threatening bite of snakes in order to get a sighting of a rare bird.

• An eating disorder - extreme behaviours in the form of rules and rituals around food and exercise in order to maintain their eating disorder because it makes them feel safe and secure, even though this far from the reality.

So while extreme behaviours may be important to achieve goals, how can you ensure that they don't become so extreme that they become life threatening?

I have come across many practitioners who are so fixed on the performance outcomes that they lose sight of the athlete as an individual.

Often the consult between athlete and practitioner becomes a well rehearsed script; the need to be associated with a gold medal or an athlete's personal best performance becomes the driving force and the potential to pick up on tell tale signs of stress are missed.

As a dietitian with both clinical and sports qualifications and experience, my responsibility lies with helping the athlete to achieve optimal performance; but without losing sight that an athlete is still a person. I have an important role to play in safe guarding them from potential health risks.

I'm fortunate that I have worked with some great practitioners and coaches who really do look at an athlete as a whole person - yes they want then to train hard but they also take time to listen to the athlete. If an athlete is saying I have a pain in my foot - it is not shrugged off - it is taken seriously and some additional rest days are added in. If an athlete mentions that they are sleeping badly - nutrition and training load is checked. If a female athlete discloses that she has skipped menstruation for several months, this is not just accepted as a norm - it is investigated.

Sadly this is not true of all cases - over the last 12 months I have been approached by several athletes, where the need to achieve by them and their support team has over looked signals that they were struggling. Some arrive with persistent injury; not being given enough time to heal and rehab before going straight back into training. Others have put their bodies under huge stress with large training loads but insufficient energy intake; some have adopted fads - diets, supplements in an attempt to hit those marginal gains with poor supervision by their support team.

Athletes are not just about numbers -like a plant, in order to thrive they need support, understanding and nourishment -sometimes this doesn't fit in with performance gains.

There are always going to be times when you do need to support an athlete in order to reach a target weight or body composition but it is also important to ensure that the disruption this causes is limited to the shortest time possible.

That said, as a practitioner working in elite sport, it is important to know your boundaries and there are occasions where you need to take a stand and suggest that an athlete takes some time out. This is particularly true when they are doing more harm than good, even if it means they will be missing out of a major competition. What good is a podium finish if it's the only one of your career because the stress you have put your body through has meant that it will never return to its previous form?

It's great that more and more athletes are speaking out about the pressures they have felt to train in a certain way, be a particular weight or body composition and about the lack of support they received. However, what we need is more education around this; how to listen, how to pick up on signs and then how to have that difficult discussion.

I always want to help an athlete achieve their true potential but not at the cost of their long-term health.

I'm not always popular with my approach -its never easy telling an athlete that their training or their nutritional choices are doing them more harm than good but I take pride in always seeing the human in an athlete and not just as a performance outcome!

And for the record, all those I've worked with have thanked me in the long run as it has meant they can return to training and a winning form!

More information can be found in my two new books Fast Fuel, Food For Running Success and Fast Fuel, Food for Triathlon Success.