skip to content

Sport nutrition: 5 important considerations for dietitians working with athletes

Last November, I attended a 4-day intensive sport nutrition course in Calgary, held jointly by the Dietitians of Canada Sport Nutrition Network and Sports Dietitians Australia. Many dietitians flew in from across the country for the event.

The course was packed with practical knowledge from some of the top experts in the field, as well as many opportunities to get hands-on with the information and network with other dietitians. You can read tweets from the event by searching the #DCSNN hashtag on Twitter.

There were many exceptional learning experiences and memorable moments throughout the course, but I have narrowed these down to my top five takeaways:

1. I should have paid attention in biochem…

The first day helped to lay the theoretical groundwork for the practical knowledge we would learn over the next few days. As we went through the different energy systems that different types of athletes tend to employ, the diagrams of the lactic acid cycle and the TCA cycle brought flashbacks of all the drawings I had pinned up in my dorm during second-year university.

Despite the fact that fat produces more energy than carbohydrates in the TCA cycle, we learned that carbohydrates are still the most efficient form of energy for endurance athletes. This is notable considering the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets. Carbohydrate needs for strength/power athletes are comparatively less than endurance athletes. However, they still need more carbohydrates than they would get on a typical Paleo diet!

2. Think long-term

Sport nutrition is not as simple as what to eat before and after a workout. Elite athletes will often have a yearly training plan (YTP) that takes into account their tournament dates and off-season. Just as their training will be periodized, their nutrition plan will need to change depending on the level of training and desired body composition for that time of year as well.

3. There’s more to supplements than efficacy

Usually, when my clients ask me about supplements that they want to try, I tend to focus on the evidence behind their efficacy. For elite athletes, however, there is more at stake. For example, a doping allegation can cost an athlete a medal, or possibly his or her career. Athletes looking for an edge may try a supplement even if they are told not to. Before looking at efficacy, the first step for athletes should be screening for possible banned substances. Here are some helpful resources:
  • Supplement 411 – The United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) dietary supplement safety education and awareness resource. They have some great video clips for increasing consumer awareness, as well as a list of high-risk products.
  • Informed Choice – LGC is an independent laboratory that tests products for banned substances and marks approved products with their private “Informed Choice” label. This is a directory of some of the LGC-approved products.
  • NSF Certified for Sport – NSF is another independent laboratory that tests products for banned substances and whether the product contains what is indicated on the label. Because LGC and NSF are both independent, supplement companies may or may not submit their products to both companies.

4. Go beyond the theory

Being an effective sports dietitian goes far beyond simply knowing sport nutrition theory. Putting it into practice requires building rapport with athletes, parents, coaches, and other training staff, coming up with creative solutions for remote training camps or tight competition schedules, and sometimes being a “parent” when travelling with a team.

It was interesting to hear about how Team Canada dietitian Kelly-Anne Erdman handled limited food supply and unfinished venues during the Sochi Olympics. She even set up a kitchenette in her hotel bathroom!

5. Athletes are people too

On the last day of the course, four local athletes were invited to answer questions about their experience with sports nutrition and how it has impacted their training and careers.

For me, it was an important reminder that athletes are regular people too. In addition to their sport, they still have busy schedules, forget to take their supplements, and get curious about the latest fad diets.

Though not every dietitian has the opportunity or desire to work with athletes, as more people adopt increasingly active lifestyles, there is a need for dietitians to help support them. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to gain knowledge from a panel of experts on such a specialized topic.

Editor's note: 
Want to learn more about sport nutrition? Check out DC’s Learning On Demand!

Did you attend the intensive 4-day sport nutrition course in Calgary? What were your takeaways? Please share below.
Back to top