Why Pro Athletes Have Terrible Nutrition

Why Pro Athletes Have Terrible Nutrition

You would imagine any athlete at the top of their game, particularly in endurance sports, would have everything spot on. Training, rest, kit, mindset and of course, nutrition. We've heard so much about 'marginal gains' in today's sports arena it seems impossible to believe elite athletes and teams would leave any stone unturned in the quest for glory. Yet the truth is pro athletes often have terrible nutrition

From crappy energy gels loaded with maltodextrin, sodium benzoate and worse, to buckets of whey protein packed with sweeteners, elite runners, cyclists and triathletes worldwide are eating a lot of crap.

The negative side effects are noticeable. 

As just one example, in many cases their teeth are falling out. According to a recent study:

Around half of Britain’s elite sports men and women have dental problems bad enough to affect their performance.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) found high levels of gum disease and other oral health problems among athletes.

“Nutrition in sports is heavily reliant on frequent carbohydrate intakes, which are known to increase inflammation in the body and gum tissues,” said Ian Needleman, a professor at the center for oral health and performance at UCL’s Eastman Dental Institute, who co-led the study.

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These dental problems are just the tip of the iceberg

As Needleman points out, ordinary sports nutrition increases inflammation in the body, which in turn increases recovery time, increases injury risk, reduces immune function, damages gut health and, longterm, can lead to chronic disease

This is hardly new information, so why the blazes would any pro - or their team for that matter - decide that actively ingesting this stuff is a good idea?

Here, the painful ironies of professional sport kick in and despite mounting evidence that what they're doing is both hampering performance, while also shortening careers and damaging athletes' health, the tipping point for great nutrition in the pro ranks is still some way off. 

So why are elite athletes eating cr*p?

1 Fear

As humans we're far more motivated to avoid risk than we are to gain pleasure - in a battle between the two, avoiding risk will always win.

So in professional sport a new nutritional approach may yield a significant benefit, but the perceived loss if it doesn't work will always be bigger. 

There's the time taken to trial the new methods, the time to perfect the new strategy, and if it all goes pear-shaped and you're actually slower after all that, there's the time taken just to get back to square one. 

2 The clock is against them (and their career)

'Short time to live, long time to stay dead' howled the Stray Cats in their classic 'Gonna Ball'. This applies even more to professional athletes and their career windows, which leaves little space to test new ideas

Compounding this, endurance sports careers are limited to the natural window where the body can achieve true peak performance. 

It takes a lifetime's work to get there, while the chances of peaking at the right time and matching that with a successful career are tiny. With only a few years to achieve your life's dreams, time to try something new is fractional to non-existent.

Add the risk that it could even set your performance (and career) back if it all goes wrong (see 'risk aversion' above) and a frightening prospect just got terrifying.

So terrifying you avoid it altogether. 

3 The poor lambs don't know any different

Any professional endurance athlete will naturally have spent years coming up through the ranks and will have been part of that sport's system for a decade or more. 

Pro cyclists for example do not simply arrive, fully-formed out of nowhere to hop on a bike at a Grand Tour. They're spotted, developed, and nurtured through youth programmes, racing leagues and feeder systems in their respective countries so the best can reach the top. 

As performance chef to Orica-Scott (now Michelton-Scott) and best-selling author Hannah Grant said in her interview with us, pro cyclists a). have no choice in the matter or b). aren't educated / care enough:


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Throughout, their nutrition, and nutrition advice, is based on established protocols which can be heavily-influenced by the sports nutrition industry. Risk averse teams and athletes necessarily breed risk averse advisors and researchers, which perpetuates a 'stick with what you know' approach.

4 There's a lack of true innovation in their environment

Innovation rarely comes from within an industry after all.

It requires the outsider's wider view and 'nothing to lose' mentality to hammer it home instead. 

Elon Musk is a prime example - he had never worked in finance, yet co-founded Paypal; had never worked for NASA, yet leads the charge to space with SpaceX; had never worked in the car industry, yet is building a pioneering electric car company in Tesla.

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SpaceX - busting space travel records wide open everywhere on a fraction of NASA's costs. Not a bad effort from a bloke who knew nothing about the space industry and had never worked in it

Change is unlikely to come from within the elite sports system for the same reason. 

Going back to 'risk aversion' above, the glory for anyone introducing something new may be peachy, but the downside if it blows up in their face can be career-ending. Not a fertile mindset for innovation.

Even if a maverick coach or nutritionist did want to try something new, he'd struggle to find it. 

Ordinary sports nutrition dominates the professional landscape after all, and needs the oxygen of its endorsement to stay alive. One reason why basic gel, drink and protein formulas haven't changed in over 30 years

So no surprise the two biggest elite athletes who use 33 - multiple Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington and Olympic and Grand Tour cycling legend Bradley Wiggins - are both mavericks who have consistently (and very successfully) swum against the tide their entire careers. 

Conclusion - good news for the rest of us

The irony of all this (and the awesome news for the rest of us) is that the pioneering charge to a better way with sports nutrition will be lead not by the pro ranks, but by us amateurs at all levels. 

We have the luxury to try new alternatives, the freedom to think differently based on our own experiences. Put simply, we have the space to experiment.

As we've always said, extreme performance and extreme health are the same thing. You can't have one without the other. 

Pro sport will wake up eventually, until then the party's all ours - brace yourselves for takeoff folks. Oh and if you bump into any elites let them know what they're missing eh?

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