Sports nutritionist and professional triathlete Pip Taylor provides tips on how to further educate yourself in sports nutrition.
Q: I am a triathlete and soon-to-be coach. Like you, I have a passion for food and nutrition and I want to further my education in nutrition science. Do you have any suggestions on the best way to give nutrition advice?
A: As a coach, you need to have a good understanding of nutrition for optimal training and race performance, but some particulars are best left to the experts. The challenge of being a good coach is to know your limitations and know when to seek outside help.
You will find that some athletes view nutritional guidance as an integral part of their coach/athlete relationship, while others will perceive their physical training and nutrition as separate entities. They might, at least at first, find it unnecessary or inappropriate to approach their coach for nutritional advice.
With more than 20 years from the athlete’s point of view, along with my experience as a nutritionist, I have formed some opinions on coaching styles, methods and approaches. However, I’ve never been on the other side of the fence, so I asked coaches Matt Dixon and Barb Lindquist for some tips. Both have extensive experience with elite and age-group athletes, and the added perspective of having been professional athletes themselves.
Although both coaches have their own unique coaching philosophies, they agree that nutrition is essential to performance and optimal health. Dixon stresses that a strong knowledge and understanding of the “four main pillars of performance”—the core sports (swim, bike, run), functional strength, recovery and nutrition—is needed by any coach. Lindquist shares these sentiments in regard to sports nutrition knowledge: “Inadequate fueling for training sessions, not to mention races, can completely undermine the perfect training program a coach creates.”
In triathlon, where performance is linked with body weight, issues can become complex. “A coach needs to be able to educate, guide and assist, but also has a responsibility to know his or her limits,” Dixon says. “I would never try to intervene on an eating disorder or specific disease-based nutrition issues—that’s for the trained specialists.” Lindquist also cautions coaches to tread carefully: “Addressing weight issues is always an uncomfortable discussion to have. If the topic is raised, it has to be discussed with love, and also needs to be discussed analytically in its relation to race success and overall general health, not self-worth.”
Another key consideration is the level of the athletes with whom you are working, and their particular goals. Lindquist believes in talking to new athletes about nutrition in the first conversation. “I make sure that their fundamental knowledge of nutrition, as it relates to athletics and life, is solid.”
For a professional or top-level age-grouper, nutritional needs may revolve around small changes to optimize performance. He or she may be looking at modifying race nutrition or manipulating body composition for different parts of the season, or making decisions based on weather or a specific race. For pros, these small tweaks might make a big difference in their paychecks. However, for the majority of age-group athletes who have entered the sport to get (or stay) fit, basic nutrition is the complement to their exercise.
Leading by example through your own eating habits is the best way to display integrity and instill confidence. Healthy eating in general should always come before eating for sports performance. After all, without the first you cannot have the platform for the latter.