Athletic Ethics: Why Balance is Needed in Training and Nutrition
Professional Dietitian Dave Ellis Discusses Best Practices in Athletic Training
October 10, 2017
Food is an essential part of everyone’s day, but what we put in our bodies differs greatly. At school, even though we are all given the same options in the dining hall, we make very different choices based on our lifestyles.
Student preferences differ widely: some students hoard nuts, Easy Mac, and dry snacks in their rooms, and still others order Ling’s more than two nights a week. Walk into any boys’ dorm room and you’ll probably find a large plastic tub of protein powder.
Here at Kimball Union Academy, sports play an essential part in the daily routines of the students. After a long day of classes, KUA students head to their sport activity as a way to not only release stress from academic pressures, but also to maintain a healthy physique. Many varsity sports athletes are frequently involved in intense training on a daily basis in order for them to be well-prepared for their games. As a result, they need to have a balance between training, nutrition, and recovery to stay energized throughout the entire season.
On Thursday, September 21, the school welcomed Dave Ellis, a certified nutritionist and sport professional, to be the guest speaker at All School Meeting. His well-crafted speech provided the community with knowledge about how important healthy eating and rest are for student sports performance.
After All School Meeting, Mr. Ellis agreed to have a sit-down-conversation to discuss some questions regarding sport health. He also offered to provide some helpful advice for athletic training practices.
When asked about his specialized field within the realm of health science, Mr. Ellis revealed that his profession is more than just regulating and creating healthy routines for sport teams. “There [is] a lot that you [you have to develop] on your own that [is] not part of any dietitian training,” he explained, “we also have to know about adulterants within foods.” Especially for processed foods, learning about the chemical compositions within those foods is vital in being able to distinguish between what is “real” food and what is nutritionally empty food.
As the processed food industry soared in the recent decades, it has become harder to know about the “secrets” behind foods that are quickly becoming dangerously addictive.
The job of Mr. Ellis as a professional dietitian is to construct diet plans that strictly avoid foods that contain “empty calories”, a phrase used to describe processed products that have little to no nutritional value, and strongly encourage consuming healthy, organic foods.
According to Mr. Ellis, focusing solely on ingredients is still a limiting dietary exercise; each athlete is different and has a different exercise regiment. It follows, then, that student athletes should take into account other aspects of their lives when deciding what to put on their plate: “just understand[ing] nutrients and not understand[ing] how to apply it to the individual would only be half the battle.” After every practice, muscles in the body are not in good shape because they experience minor tears in order for them to recover better and stronger. As a result, eating a balanced diet of primarily “real” foods, such as vegetables, lean meat, whole grains, to name a few, is the best way to supply the muscles with essential nutrients for recovery.
If the nutrients are not there for the muscles to use, the body will eventually sink into a “starvation mode,” where it will conserve energy, mostly fat, in order to keep the body’s organs function normally; athletes going through this mode will be more likely to be injured during their next high intense workout.
Besides nutrition, Mr. Ellis also emphasized the importance of rest and recovery, and he explained the danger of over training. “Athletics is all about having this wonderful confidence that comes from being prepared to endure [rigorous training], without breaking [the athlete] during the process,” he continued.
Speaking from both a coach’s and a dietitian’s perspective, Mr. Ellis explained that the key to boost the team’s performance is that the coach has to “figure out when it would be smarter to have a quality, not a quantity training.” By identifying and articulating each team member’s threshold, the coach can set individual bars for the team that do not exceed any member’s individual ability. As long as every member of the team is trying her or his best, then the team is reaching its maximum potential. A coach’s lack of understanding about the team may potentially lead some team members to risk over training on their own.
Mr. Timothy Whitehead, the head coach for boys’ varsity hockey at Kimball Union, also gave his opinion regarding self-over training that often goes undiagnosed in the athletic world. “I find the culture is, you will always want to push [yourself], you know, [I just need to do] one more. But the tough part is when a student athlete does not know where to finish and return, and that extra work now is actually detrimental,” he explained.
Over training happens on account of not only the team coach but also the individual athletes themselves. An athlete may feel left out of the team’s progress because he or she may have been injured and benched for part or all of the season. Yet, when that athlete recovers and comes back to see that the team has been making great progress, it is likely that he or she may feel pressured to catch up to the team’s performance level, leading to overtraining. “In [the athlete’s] own minds, they may be not well connected with how much is too much. When you look around [at] your teammate[s], you can tell when you are behind the group,” Mr. Ellis added.
Fortunately, nowadays, health professionals can employ scientific ways to determine if the athlete is training more than he or she is capable. Mr. Ellis suggested that some methods which include “blood, urine, saliva and breaths [tests].” All are examples of “non-invasive ways to tell [whether] an athlete [is] functionally overreaching or dysfunctionally over training.”
The responsibility lies with the coach to not only slowly build up the intensity for the team’s workout but also “smartly compensate for an intentional push by then tapering back, letting their immune system rebound.” Additionally, the individuals athletes themselves needs to be constantly alert both physically and mentally in order to avoid injury and potential stress, leading them to over train.
At the end of the interview, Mr. Ellis gave his last remarks to the athletes and coaches. He said the keys to athletic success are “smart training, smart adaptations, smart skills acquisitions, without burning out mentally and without hurting physically. That is truly where high performance is heading.”