As a young athlete I always ate well.
I came from a health conscious, athletic family with a doctor mum.
Meals were home cooked, lunchboxes wholesome, food felt enjoyable, fun and abundant.
Despite all that, even from a young age, I suffered from multiple bone stress fractures and reactions, something that baffled doctors given my relatively low run kms and healthy diet.
As I moved into racing professionally this pattern continued. I’d get good stretches of training, but despite meticulous planning I was still getting injured frequently.
I knew enough from my own studies and interest in nutrition at the time that I was eating enough calcium rich food, and I was certainly getting enough Vitamin D (vital for calcium absorption) being outside, training each day.
Clearly though, something was missing.
Whether it was related to intake, absorption or something else; maybe it was simply that my requirements for some micronutrients were just much higher than the norm based on training loads.
Whatever the cause, it was never resolved.
I don’t remember if supplements were ever raised by any health professionals, but they certainly never crossed my mind. Unfortunately, at that time there were none that were available for tested athletes, so it didn’t feel like an option.
Looking back at my troubles with stress fractures, it’s interesting to now see research showing that many endurance athletes are low in vitamin D despite getting ‘adequate’ sunshine, and that calcium remains a micronutrient of concern despite wide availability in foods.
Research continues to mount that the intake of vitamin D should in fact be much higher than recommended for hard working athletes to maintain health and perform optimally.
Another issue I had to manage during my career and one all too common for female athletes – low iron.
I fell into a ‘high risk’ category on this front, as iron deficiency is most common amongst endurance athletes with females at particular risk.
As a meat eater and someone who enjoys plenty of food (calories), I didn’t tick any of the other ‘usual’ boxes though.
Regardless of the reasons for the issue, low iron is a less than optimal state for any athlete.
Supplements were recommended and were something I used to raise and maintain iron stores, whilst maintaining dietary sources and also paying attention to nutritional factors that might either boost or block absorption.
In all though, my story is far from ‘special’.
The trials and tribulations we face when pushing our physical limits is a path well travelled, and ultimately one that led me towards performance nutrition.
As an athlete, I quickly realised that what I ate played a tangible role in how I felt both on a daily basis, and how I performed across a season.
With a well-entrenched interest in the science of the human body and university qualifications in this area, I started to direct more of my own personal research and reading into nutrition – eventually going on to formalise these with degrees in Dietetics as well as Sports Performance Nutrition.
Throughout my career, I was exploring and experimenting with my nutrition, noting how changes in diet or fuelling were reflected in my performance.
This has influenced how I work with others as a dietitian, paying a great deal of respect to the process of listening and acknowledging that each person might respond differently to various foods, and have nutritional needs that don’t quite fit the ‘standard’ recommendations.
Those nuances are why I love working as a performance dietitian, understanding the world of high performance, the diversity of athletes and the optimal approach for each and every person.
Text books, formal study and research can only take you so far. The rest comes from an ability to listen, understand, and work across and around all the other demands. It’s about understanding how nutrition fits into and supports the entirety of someone’s performance and health goals.
I often find small changes make all the difference when it comes to the pointy end of sport. Professional athletes can’t afford to miss games or have their return to play post injury delayed – the ability to train, recover and perform is critical. I saw this play out first hand in my own work with professional teams and a variety of elite athletes.
As a dietitian, I am constantly guiding diligent athletes who take great care with their diet, and yet might be battling injury, illness, fatigue – whether that is ongoing or a more acute injury status.
Even with careful combing and tweaking of dietary intakes to optimise all nutrients, we are also including certain micronutrients to support health and performance in one or more ways – based on their inclusion making tangible differences.
Micronutrients – the invisible vitamins and minerals present in real food. So why would you need supplements if you are eating a whole food diet based on colour, high quality proteins, whole grains, nuts seeds, herbs and all the other goodies?
For almost every high performing athlete, it becomes very difficult to meet all your nutritional requirements from food alone.
When physical output is high, in theory a high intake, if well planned should be able to largely meet nutritional requirements, this isn’t how things play out in reality.
Athletes with a high training load for instance, or for those intense sessions, our performance goals mean that more refined food options (including sports bars or drinks etc) are a sensible choice in the immediate. While most of us pay attention to our macros and the distribution and timing around these sessions, these performance foods are void of any real micronutrients.
Micronutrients are key to supporting tissue repair and recovery, energy metabolism, oxygen delivery and immune function – both during and after that session, with all our metabolic and recovery processes in top gear, driving utilisation and requirements up.
For example, calcium and magnesium are necessary for muscular contraction, for someone training hours a day it’s easy to see how these needs would skyrocket compared to the norm (which is where standard recommendations sit). This doesn’t just apply to the elite either, in fact, many of the amateur athletes juggling training, work and family struggle to get the time to properly plan their nutrition – coupled with busy and stressful lives, nutrition gaps can quickly appear.
These gaps, even if small, start to add up over the days, weeks, months and years. Deficiencies can sometimes go unnoticed until bigger cracks appear, such as injury, recurrent illness or drops in performance.
We know that bone health requires calcium, vitamin K, magnesium, protein, vitamin D and other nutrients. All of these are found in a wide variety of foods, even for those who avoid dairy.
But can we, or are we doing this consistently?
From my experience no athlete (or non-athlete) is realistically able to eat all the variety of foods, in the quantities needed to meet recommended daily intakes. This, coupled with the fact that degrading soil quality is having a real effect on the nutrient quality and content of foods only makes things more difficult.
More and more I’m seeing a trend towards plant based eating, spurred by a variety of health, ethical and environmental choices. Many of the vegetarian athletes I work with pay very close attention to their diets, and spend considerable time planning, preparing and ensuring variety – with specific focus on nutrients more accessible in meat products.
An inevitable concern is maintaining blood levels of B12, which often makes athletes feel weak and tired. For these athletes, including consistent supplements of B12 has allowed for far greater consistency in training and racing. When you consider the science this makes total sense, B vitamins are responsible for assisting in the breakdown of carbohydrates into glucose for energy and help process fat and protein, and B12 has stand out functions linked with red blood cell production and synthesis of DNA.
Not all deficiencies are as easy to track, judgement calls are made based on symptoms, dietary intakes and other factors.
For example, an athlete battling ongoing joint and back pain, mitigated by including anti-inflammatory supplements including fish oil and curcumin.Effective doses are impossible to replicate through food alone. These micronutrients have not only replaced NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatories) which are not recommended long term, but coupled with other micronutrients that support joint and tissue repair, have facilitated a complete return to training. Again, even for fish eating athletes, many of us are simply not getting enough Omega 3 fats in. A deficiency sparks inflammation and makes recovery from injury or even regular training very difficult. Additionally, research supports omega 3 supplements promoting muscle building and preventing muscle mass loss.
These stories – working with athletes, and my own journey – it’s evident to me the need for high quality micros, and how these can be included to help support a good diet with specificity and purpose.
This is also what attracted me to PILLAR from the outset, products grounded in science and at a quality I had not seen in any previous offering.
Aside from having regular blood tests, and engaging a knowledgeable sports dietitian asking a few simple questions will help determine whether supplement might be beneficial for you:
- What does my body need? Am I sore or injured? Am I getting sick frequently?
- Am I obviously at risk of missing certain nutrients from my diet? (eg. do I avoid dairy, meat or fish?)
- Do I struggle to eat at least 7 serves of fruit and veg a day? Am I on a limited/restricted energy budget?
- Am I in a heavy training or race period where I might need some extra support? Or am I experiencing high stress at work/home or having poor sleep?