COVID-19 has halted the sporting world. Games aren’t being played, training sessions aren’t happening and the staff that assists elite athletes are trying to find some sense of normalcy. In a time when athletes should be preparing their shot at Olympic gold, the athletes and staff have been left wondering what the new “normal” will be. The Games have been postponed and most still can’t begin normal training.
My job is the physical performance lead for British Swimming. It’s kind of a split role. Maybe about 40%, of my role is managing the physical performance team, which consists of the nutritionist team, the strength condition team and the physiology team. The other 60% or so of my role is direct nutrition support (one-to-one) with athletes. I work with around 30 elite swimmers across British Swimming’s world-class programme. Support mainly focuses on helping them understand where and how their diet can be manipulated in order to maximise their performance.
I’m a nutritionist that comes from a sports science background. I studied sports science as an undergrad and then went on to study at a couple of different post-grads in sports science nutrition. Following my first stint informal study, I took an internship with the English Institute of Sports, which supports a number of elite athletes and a number of world-class programmes here in the U.K. I continued to work with them for a couple of years with the GB Judo and Boxing teams up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics. I then moved on to Scottish Rugby where I was head of nutrition for about 8 years before joining British Swimming just before Rio (Olympics) 2016. Initially, I was in a full time nutritionist capacity and, as I said, my job has progressed and it is split between nutrition delivery and team management.
Obviously quite a lot. Particularly for me, because I work across multiple programmes within the British Swimming network, I’m always travelling. I live quite remotely in comparison to a number of our key performance centers. We have 3 key performance centers. The closest one is probably 30-40 miles away from me, which is great. The other two are 300-400 miles away. Typically, my week is always spent travelling and away from home, so maybe 3-4 days a week working away and 1 or 2 days a week working from home. I’ve got the working from home bit sorted out. That was an easy transition for me. Working from home 1-2 days a week versus working from home 5 days a week is quite different so it’s been a bit of a change just to make sure I have the same level of discipline, approach and understand my workflow now that I’m permanently based at home. Other than that, it’s not been too challenging. We still maintain a lot of connectivity across swimmers, staff and coaches across our programme through very regular calls on zoom and other video platforms, as well as just voice calls. So a lot of connectivity but it certainly has changed the routine.
There are practical workflow challenges that I'm experiencing. I've got a couple of young kids and they're off school at the moment. My wife has been brilliant dealing with them as far as homeschooling is concerned. Occasionally, I'll dip my hand in until I get frustrated and have to report back to the office.
In the swimming programme, lockdown came at a challenging time for us. We were preparing for British Championships, which were in mid-April. The British Championships were also our Olympic selection event so all of our guys were pretty much ready to race fast. I don’t know how much you know about swimming, but typically swimmers don’t swim that fast a lot of the year. They might only swim fast twice a year. For us, the twice a year comes in April and then again in summer at the major Olympic meet. The guys were gearing up and getting ready to put in some good times and be very competitive. Then, all of a sudden, that got taken away from us. We learned fairly quickly the British Championships were cancelled, which was absolutely the right move and, in turn, the Olympic Games have been postponed for 12 months. It was a challenging situation as far as the swimmers were concerned because immediately you had a lot of resetting of goals and expectations, as well as just uncertainty as to how long this period would be going on.
There was a huge flurry of activity at the start of lockdown, particularly from our physical performance team and making sure that the athletes had equipment and they understood what we could be doing on land. Swimming is a sport that is dominated by volume in the pool. These guys swim, on average, between 40-60 kilometers a week and some of the endurance guys will swim up to about 100 kilometers a week in the pool. When you remove the pool, you just can’t replace that volume. These guys are great in the water, they’re not that great on land so it’s not as if they can just replace that with running volume or cycling volume. It’s become incredibly difficult for those guys to reinvest their energy in land training and away from the pool.
We’ve got a number of meetings booked each week that are regularly recurring meetings. So if we take one athlete group, for example, we’ll have a weekly planning meeting at the front end of the week and at the back end of the week, we’ll have a week review meeting. I’ll host various different departmental meetings, meetings with peers and we’ll have various different project meetings that are going on intermittently. Actually, if you look at the diary before you’ve allotted any of your own activities, it’s still fairly busy with different pieces of work going on. The way that our programme is set up, with a lot of online coaching for the swimmers and a lot of led coaching sessions with the swimmers, there’s still not that many hours in the day that there’s not a great deal of activity going on. You’re both actively coaching and providing support or you’re in meetings discussing that active coaching and that support. It’s been pretty busy.
Directly with the athletes, we use WhatsApp. I have a lot of visual aids that are sent to them. Maybe I’ll see a clip on social media that I think they’ll like, I’ll send it to them in WhatsApp. I’ll leave them voice notes or video notes. We go back and forth communicating things in WhatsApp quite a lot.
A typical swimming week for our guys would incorporate about 9-10 swim sessions, 2-3 gym sessions and a couple of sessions focused around mobility, so it might be yoga or Pilates type sessions. A lot of that land work, we can keep in. We can’t get access to the pool so we replaced that volume and aerobic cardiovascular intensity with bike sessions, some running sessions, but you just can’t replicate that same volume. Immediately, we had to restructure the swimmer’s day. One swimmer made a very insightful comment to me the other day. He said “in the absence of swimming, there was just nothing to look forward to in my day so the thing I looked forward to the most was cooking and food.” Which is great, as far as I’m concerned. We can harness that enthusiasm and energy for cooking and food. What it did mean was that people’s attitudes and mindsets shifted when it came to food. I don’t know if you’ve seen the same over in the U.S., but certainly here, we’ve seen a huge increase in baking and people experimenting more in the kitchen, which is brilliant for me. It just goes to show the guys are thinking very differently about food.
My recommendations did have to change with the total volume and training load decreasing in comparison to what they would normally do. We naturally look for a slight decrease in energy intake. On top of that, there is what we call the non-exercise activity thermogenesis so that’s the energy they expend just through normal daily activity. All of that type of energy was decreasing because they just weren’t moving as much. They were training and they were largely resting because there was no other facility for them to do much beyond that. We’ve got a big drop off in energy expenditure in comparison to what we normally see so we need to facilitate that with a decrease in energy intake. We’re balancing a coin in that sense because the first focus of my nutrition interactions with these guys going into lockdown was how do we support your immune system as best as possible. For obvious reasons, the decrease infection risk and, if anybody was infected, minimise the amount of time they’re compromised by that and maximise their health throughout that process. The one thing you want to do for supporting an immune system is to make sure you’ve got ample energy going in. It was a tight line we were trying to walk in decreasing energy intake to reflect the decrease training and energy expenditure demands, but also maintain enough energy in the system so that the immune system was fully functioning and strong as possible.
The first thing to do is try to understand as quickly as you can what your athletes’ environment is. What the risks are, what the opportunities are and what are the barriers and enablers that are in place that hinder or help them from being able to eat in the way that they want to. With that sort of mindset, I got in touch with all of our priority swimmers and I said “let’s just set up a quick call and we can do that in whatever format that you want. Let me have that opportunity to try and guide you where I think there needs to be some support around your diet, but also to give you an opportunity to ask me a couple of questions and find out some things that maybe you hadn’t considered or thought about.” That was something I did very early in lockdown and it also gave us a platform to reflect upon as we progressed. The further we got into lockdown, we started to see people’s attitudes towards nutrition slightly changing because there wasn’t so much the novelty that there was at the start of the process. Motivation started to shift as well. Once you’ve established what an individual’s environment is, you can provide some support around it and continually check-in to see if things have changed and see if there are any other opportunities that might have arisen.
The other big thing, like that anecdote that I mentioned the swimmer saying that their sense of enjoyment came from food, you kind of have to give a purpose to food and nutrition in the absence of there being externally motivated performance motivation. The British Championships got removed from us and the Olympics got removed from us. Those were huge motivating factors in our athletes’ choices and decisions. As soon as those got removed, you can see naturally why there would be less attention to detail in diet. You’ve got to try and look for ways where we can embrace and where we can encourage positive dietary choices. If an athlete came to me and said I’ve been baking for my family this week, it may not be the type of things I want you to be eating all the time, but let’s see how we can integrate this into your programme.
Another swimmer said that the biggest thing they’re missing throughout this time is actually going out to eat. That has nothing to do with the food they would be exposing themselves to. It’s much more to do with that social connectivity and that psychosocial element that’s involved in going out, socializing and being in a public place. Food becomes a huge part of that. Her method of addressing that was her family sat down every Saturday night and they did what we call a “fake-away”. They each chose a theme and one night would be Mexican food and someone would be responsible for cooking. The next week was Indian food. Whatever it might well be. I think there are great opportunities and ideas there to give food a real purpose in the absence of there being externally motivated performance-based goals.
We did a bit of a push in just providing some very simple food breakdown information. Where you might go to the shop and pick up a jar of pasta sauce, for example, we just break that down into the five constituent ingredients: onions, tomatoes, some herbs, some spices and a bit of olive oil. You can make this yourself. Getting guys to take the routine products they would buy all the time and then break that down into the simple constituents and start cooking things from scratch. That’s a good opportunity to capitalize on all of this.
For me, there’s going to be a few challenges in that our return to work will still maintain social distancing measures for a fairly considerable period of time. How will my interaction look with coaches on the pool deck, how will my interaction with athletes look on the pool deck? I’m not just entirely sure how that’s going to be just now. There might be an argument for, actually until that point in which we have more relaxed social distancing measures, that people who can operate remotely will remain operating remotely. Well, wait and see in that sense.
I think there’s going to be motorization challenges. There’s going to be overcompensation in certainly some of the people who’ve got access to private pools or open water. We’re seeing a little bit of almost overcompensation in their diets. Swimming has an appetite promoting factor to it. In our guys, naturally, when they weren’t swimming, their appetites dropped. You reintroduce swimming and their appetites lift back up again. Some may find themselves subsequently overeating to overcompensate for that increase in hunger. There will be some interesting anecdotes on how we try and go about finding that fine line between sufficiency fueling and avoiding any deficiency or reduced energy.
From a pool perspective, we’ll give them a very gradual slow increase in training volume. We won’t, by any means, go back into our normal 10 pool sessions a week or 3-4 gym sessions a week. They certainly need time to swim and time to develop the capacity we just haven’t been able to expose them to over the past 10 or so weeks.
For me, it’s going to look very different. A lot of our normal strategies such as athlete one-to-ones, group workshops, presentations and monitoring body compositions might be held back for a considerable period of time. It will certainly be nice to see their faces. It will be nice to see them active again.
Nutrition is incredibly important. For me, food is far more important than nutrition. All nutritionists are going to be able to write that perfect diet. We need our diets to be much more than just fuel and numbers. We need our diets to nourish us. That should be the point where we start: that food is more than just fuel.
In a supplement context, we should supplement to correct a deficiency. If we identify that we can’t correct that deficiency through a dietary method, then yes supplementation can be considered. We should have our diets set up in a way, wherever possible, that we don’t need to rely on that supplement in order to reach our nutrient needs. We might find ourselves in a special situation, such as we do now, with an increase in training volume and integrating slight easing of social distancing. We’ll use supplements in order to mitigate some of those risks.
The other part of the diet is that consistency is key. Our training is going to go up and down. Our motivation is going to go up and down. Food will always be consistent and, therefore, always presents an opportunity. We eat multiple times a day, therefore, there are multiple opportunities to favourably affect our goals and favourably affect our mood.
We don’t use a huge number of nutrition-specific apps. We occasionally use MyFitnessPal. Our guys have access to a bespoke app that monitors their daily wellness and their training loads. I can check in on that on a regular basis and see where they’re at. They can pop little bits and pieces of nutrition notes on their as well. Otherwise, we just stay in contact using social media and connectivity apps. I’ll also look through Instagram and YouTube to see if there’s anything that I think the guys would like and would respond to.
We’re not huge on nutrition apps, but more on connectivity. Tracking through apps is always challenging and always a little bit problematic. It requires a skilled user to be able to get the most out of the app. At the moment, it’s probably the best method available in being able to get some accurate information, alongside a phone call and a bit of an interview on our food diary calls.
That’s still hugely important. As I said, our motivations and our reasons to use supplements during lockdown might have changed, but our standards haven’t. Our standards stay the same on our approach to supplement use. We work very closely with our nutrition partners, particularly Healthspan Elite who are an Informed Sport listed brand here in the U.K. They’ve all helped us out massively to ensure that what we need is able to get to our athletes, amongst a time where stock availabilities are really challenging because everybody’s in the same sort of boat. Particularly stocks of products that are associated with immune function and immune health. Healthspan has been great with us during this period to make sure that our supplement needs are covered.
Regardless of whether we’re on lockdown or whether we’re in full training, our athletes remain responsible for what’s in their body at any given time. We remain, throughout this period, accountable to U.K. Anti-Doping and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). We abide by those codes at all times. It’s still incredibly important for us that we’ve got LGC and Informed Sport on our side when it comes to our product selection.
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