Guest: Sophie Conroy
In this discussion with Sophie & the daveynutrition team we explore:
- The factors that either enable or hinder an athlete’s adherence to nutritional guidelines in the context of high-performance sports.
- How to add value to performance nutrition to make athletes understand the significant benefits associated with adherence – establishing trust in the process of achieving the outcome you are looking for.
This research paper aimed to understand the enablers and barriers that athletes’ perceive in relation to adhering to nutritional guidelines, researchers examined the perspectives of athletes from various sports and competitive levels. The paper highlights the complexity of establishing why some athletes lack adherence to nutritional advice given. The most common interventions used to improve athletes’ dietary behaviour is the delivery of education workshops. However, an argument raised in this paper is that increased knowledge does not always translate into improved dietary practices.
The underlying factors (i.e., barriers and enablers) influencing athletes’ varied adherence to nutritional guidance:
Professional athlete identity is discussed as both a barrier and an enabler. For some, adhering to performance nutrition is “just part of being an athlete” and embodying these behaviours is shown to increase one’s confidence in their performance which motivates and encourages the individual to adhere to nutrition advice given. On the contrary, several athletes linked athlete identity with body image. It is important to remember that nutrition plays a crucial role in optimising athletic performance beyond just body composition. Performance nutrition promotes energy availability, proper hydration, and carbohydrate and protein needs. When advice is followed adequately, naturally the byproduct that we see consistently is improved body composition.
Planning paradox: Planning and structuring meal plans can be time-consuming and this paper highlights that many athletes’ become overly fixated on counting calories, which may lead to negative impacts on an athlete’s relationship with food. Performance nutrition not only provides the body with the necessary nutrients to support optimal athletic performance, but it also improves strategic planning and organisation of meals and nutrient timing. These are life skills that are essential in striking a balance between optimising nutrition for performance and maintaining a healthy, positive approach to eating.
Emotional well-being: Athletes described a cyclic relationship between performance, emotions, and food. There are intense expectations of being an athlete and performing well, and when an athlete does not perform, research suggests that it can negatively influence an athlete’s emotions and stimulate poor food choices.
The value and practice of nutrition are crucial for athletes to optimise their performance. Building trust in the process, sharing success stories, and seeing improvements in others can motivate athletes to prioritise proper nutrition. Working with performance nutritionists positively influences athletes’ nutritional adherence, encouraging openness and honesty about dietary behaviour. Athletes recognise the long-term benefits of performance nutrition, including sustained energy levels, reduced risk of injuries, improved recovery, and extended sports careers.
COM- B model: The COM-B Model for Behavior Change – The Decision Lab
The COM-B model is a theoretical framework used in behavioural science and public health to understand behaviour change. It provides a comprehensive understanding of behaviour by integrating three key components: Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation (COM-B).
- Capability: Capability refers to an individual’s psychological and physical ability to engage in a particular behaviour. It recognises that individuals must have the necessary knowledge, skills, physical and psychological capability, and resources to perform the desired behaviour.
- Opportunity: Opportunity refers to the external social and physical factors (e.g. support from others, physical access, time, and resources) that can either enable or hinder behaviour.
- Motivation: Motivation refers to the conscious and unconscious processes that drive behaviour. It includes reflective and automatic motivations. Reflective motivations involve goal setting, conscious decision-making, and weighing pros and cons. Automatic motivations involve habits, emotional responses, and impulses that guide behaviour.
The COM-B model suggests that for behaviour change to occur, all three components need to align. If any component is lacking, it becomes a potential target for intervention to promote behaviour change. By understanding the interplay between capability, opportunity, and motivation, researchers and practitioners can design effective behaviour change interventions.
How to measure the effectiveness of Performance Nutrition?
To demonstrate the effectiveness of performance nutrition beyond body composition, it’s important to use objective measures that are relevant to an athlete’s individual performance and recovery goals (i.e. focus on progress over body composition). Ways in which subjective measures can be converted into objective data include;
- Measuring how well an individual performs (understand what an individual level of performance looks like, what optimal energy feels like depending on the time of day/ whether you have trained or not etc.. )
- Measuring how well an individual recovers (hydration status, do they meet CHO & Protein requirements following a match/ intense training session).
- Measuring how educated an individual feels about the role of nutrition in performance. Does the individual understand how specific nutrients impact energy levels, muscle function, recovery, and overall well-being?
- Measuring how competent an individual feels in the kitchen. Having basic cooking skills is crucial as an athlete. By developing these skills, athletes can take more control over their nutrition, ensuring they have access to nutrient-dense meals and maintaining optimal energy, carbohydrate (CHO), and protein levels even during times when meals are not provided to them.
Understanding the needs of the individual – by understanding them, their personal challenges and behaviours beyond sport, and the level of knowledge they currently have will inform you how to establish how to design their plan (e.g. if they require cooking lessons, education, planning skills etc.). It is important to recognise that every athlete is unique, and a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition may not be suitable. Tailoring nutrition plans to an individual’s preferences, dietary restrictions, and lifestyle can make it more enjoyable and sustainable for athletes.
By focusing solely on body composition, the broader benefits of performance nutrition may be overlooked. It is important to shift the narrative around performance nutrition to emphasise its value in supporting overall athletic performance, health, and well-being, rather than solely focusing on aesthetic goals. Optimal nutrition can enhance strength, endurance, cognitive function, and overall well-being, leading to improved performance. By shifting this focus, athletes can also develop a healthier relationship with food, prioritise their nutritional needs, and maximise their potential in their respective sports.
Improve the culture associated with performance nutrition by:
1) Creating a sense of the value and practice of nutrition. The discipline of nutrition is critical to excel in your performance and yet it is still undervalued by many athletes. By demonstrating good nutritional habits, sharing success stories, and encouraging athletes to be role models for each other creates a positive atmosphere that encourages adherence.
2) Establish a more realistic and healthy culture surrounding aesthetics and body composition. This is a complex issue and must have a multidimensional approach. The ideology that ‘body composition = performance’ is so strongly ingrained in many disciplines in high performing sports, current research does not support this hypothesis and rather encourages that a focus on an athletes performance over body composition is applied.
Sophie Conroy is a performance nutritionist for the Leinster Academy and sub-academy rugby teams.
Linkedin- Sophie Conroy
Bentley, Meghan & Patterson, Laurie & Mitchell, Nigel & Backhouse, Susan. (2020). Athlete perspectives on the enablers and barriers to nutritional adherence in high-performance sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 52. 10.1016/j.psychsport.2020.101831.
The COM-B model for behavior change (n.d) The Decision Lab. Available at: https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/organizational-behavior/the-com-b-model-for-behavior-change (Accessed: 20 July 2023).