Dr Richard Allison became a nutritionist twenty years ago when he left the Royal Marines.
After training to be a registered dietitian with the British Dietetic Association, the ex Commandos’ new career saw him work for big organizations such as Scottish rugby before moving to Qatar to take up a position at a sports medicine hospital. Six years later, he returned to the UK to take up the role of Head of Performance Nutrition at Arsenal.
Whilst at the Gunners she worked primarily with the men’s first team, with some overlap with the women’s team, but it wasn’t until the end of 2020, when she began a new role with Tottenham Hotspur Ladies’ official nutrition partner Herbalife, that she began to focus on women’s sports nutrition full-time.
With all eyes on the Women’s World Cup, which kicks off in Sydney on Thursday night, there has never been more interest in women’s football. And, as you’ll see from the insights shared by Dr. Allison Women’s healthincreased attention, awareness and funding, will go a long way in bringing the industry up to speed with the man’s game.
It’s a money game
The biggest differences are certainly related to the resources – money, funds – available to the women’s teams, compared to the men’s ones.
For example, with Premier League men’s football, blood tests are carried out regularly throughout the year. I could ask the team doctor to check a player’s blood, and it’s done there and then, the results the same day. But, with the women’s team, we are not at that point yet.
They have blood tests, and we can look for deficiencies in those blood tests, like iron or vitamin D. But they’re not done that frequently, and there has to be a good reason to give that blood test.
But, with the money generated from broadcasting WSL games, things like this have definitely started to improve and I see changes and things becoming more readily available, but it all boils down to funding and money.
We are certainly seeing a huge and monumental shift in support for women’s sports, not just football. I have colleagues who work in women’s rugby and they too are seeing the change in that.
Just two years ago there was no restaurant service for the women’s team. So my role and Herbalife’s involvement is another demonstration of how things are moving forward.
Each player is treated as an individual – for one very important reason
There is a higher prevalence of diagnosed eating disorders in women’s sport than in men’s, which is why we always treat each player as an individual. I’m a clinical dietitian and specialize in that area, so it’s always at the forefront of my mind. Furthermore, it is an important part of any type of dietary and nutritional strategy.
We use body composition analysis as an indicator to see if a player is adhering to a training and/or nutritional plan, body composition itself is not the driver. External pressures on a player are obviously there, but we talk to them to really emphasize that the focus is on performance over everything else, maintaining and nurturing on-pitch skills is paramount.
Obviously we’re a little more sensitive with gamers, who we know have higher risk and more vulnerabilities or triggers, but discussions about their nutrition are driven solely by their performance.
Supplements are vital to fill the gaps
Nutritionally, at Tottenham Hotspur we first build the team meal plan from real food and then fill in the gaps with nutritional supplements. The team are very lucky to have breakfast and lunch provided at the training ground, and then we discuss what their evening meal will be like.
Each morning and afternoon, the team gets to choose what to eat from a huge buffet, and players are given individual advice on what to choose. In general, the burritos and wraps are very, very popular, and in the cooler months, players love the soups.
In the buffet there will always be two different starchy carbohydrates, two different proteins and also a vegan protein. Pasta is always a popular item and will be on the menu pretty much all the time, but there will also be quinoa, or bulgur wheat or rice, depending on the menu we’ve put on each week.
The dishes available ensure that they meet nutritional needs in terms of macro and micronutrients as much as possible, but this is where the partnership with Herbalife proves to be very useful. We can fill in some nutritional gaps such as electrolytes and other nutrients and vitamins that are difficult, or impossible, to get in the right amounts just by eating real foods.
We look for high quality protein without increasing the additional energy intake, so usually this has to be done through protein supplements, so Herbalife Tri Blend for our vegan athletes and Rebuild Strength for non vegans.
From a micronutrient perspective, female athletes’ iron requirements are higher than male athletes, and we also look at calcium and vitamin D, because you can’t get adequate vitamin D from diet alone – you need sunlight and six months of the year we don’t get it in the UK.
In terms of a more performance point of view, as we get into the warm-up, hydration and sweat loss are very important, so we use a product called Hydrate, which allows players to get electrolytes on board with their fluids before training or playing games.
New quests will change the game
There is currently a lot of research into women’s sports nutrition and menstrual cycles, but it can take two or three years before this is published in scientific journals.
So as we look at iron, intake and supplementation, it’s not exactly tailored to an individual player’s cycle. Unfortunately, existing research does not support this at this stage.
Sometimes we may be looking for differences that don’t exist, but we have to do scientific research to be able to say, in reality, that there is no difference between the carbohydrate requirement for 90 minutes of calcium between men and women.
Nutrition is different when preparing for a tournament, such as the World Cup
When we review a team as a whole, we take a periodic approach, also called replenishment for required work. So basically, your protein and fat intake stays the same every day, but your carb intake changes depending on your activity level. So whether it’s a rest or recovery day, carbohydrate availability is low, then moderate and high, when preparing for matches and on game days.
The 24 hours leading up to the game are as important or more important than a pre-game meal. We will make sure that players have adequate amounts of carbohydrates, that they have stored carbohydrates in their muscles and liver while their glycogen is full. Obviously, they will have slept through the night, so some of that carbohydrate or glycogen will have been used up while they slept, so we top it up, typically with fruit.
If it’s kickoff at lunchtime, they’ll maybe eat just one meal between waking up and that game. So again, it would be moderate, or high carb, low fat, moderate protein. And the reason I think it’s important to address this is why it’s low-fat is that high-fat or moderate-fat meals stay in the stomach longer, we call it delayed gastric emptying. And at that point, we don’t want players to feel obviously full or bloated before playing football. So that’s a reason to have a low-fat meal.
Herbal life is a leading health and wellness company with more than 40 years of experience creating science-backed nutritional products for consumers in more than 90 markets.
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