Industry-Presented Q&A: How to Effectively Communicate the Science Behind Performance with your Athletes

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Industry-Presented Q&A: How to Effectively Communicate the Science Behind Performance with your Athletes

Kevin Luhrs |  April 21, 2022


Thank you to everyone who attended the March 10, 2022 Gatorade Sports Science Institute webinar on "How to Effectively Communicate the Science Behind Performance With Your Athletes."

Below is a series of follow-up questions and answers provided by presenter Kevin Luhrs.

The course is still available here along with 1 CEC. Save up to 50% on CEC quizzes by  joining ACSM today.

Q: Would too many messages be a barrier as well? Ex. giving too many messages without enough time for them to process or implement?

Yes. Having multiple messages as well as too much information is one of the many barriers in communicating the science. In keeping your message simple, this also includes not including too many points, messages, and information. Less is definitely more.

Q: If you can just get your athlete to believe in you and your instruction and then they see results on the football field for example do you find them to engage better going forward more than the initial meeting? Results are the best way to get them to engage in my past experience.

Yes. This goes along with appealing to how they feel instead OR in addition to the science and is a success story in and of itself. The athlete can then be a spokesperson for you as well. Other athletes will then be able to see the proof of your messaging that is back by science.

Q: What are favorite sources of nutrition for athletes? What do they read, friends? Does the source set the level you respond at?

There are great nutrition resources for athletes coming from AND’s Sports and Human Performance Nutrition DPG (formerly SCAN) and the Collegiate and Professional Dietitians Association. In addition, Gatorade Performance Partner is an excellent resource that is fairly new and brings a lot of different realms of sports performance together (sports nutrition, athletic training, strength & conditioning, etc). GSSI web has some tools for athletes that can give them an idea of how their current habits are sufficient or not.

Q: Apologies if I missed this (I had to drop off due to bedtime story duties) but how do you bridge the gap in applying sports nutrition research findings from one sport to another? 

Fortunately for some, but unfortunately for others, there are certain sports that garner more research than others partly to due to the very black and white performance indicators. A good example of this are endurance sports (running, cycling, swimming, triathletes, etc) since performance indicators are more objective (i.e. time trials) and can somewhat able to be replicated in the lab and studied in the field. Team sports are a little more difficult in that it is a little more difficult to pinpoint performance indicators (especially objective ones) and is a complicated research project both in the lab and in the field. However, certain team sports like soccer and rugby are a little more widely studied and therefore there may be some conclusions from these sports that can be extrapolated into other sports given the anaerobic nature of these sports under an aerobic umbrella. Overall, you have to be realistic and practical, however, and know that it will probably be difficult to get a 300 lb team sport athlete to consume 7g/kg carbohydrate on competition day.

Q: Are there certain sports where athletes are more knowledgeable on nutrition than others?

I don’t like to categorize an entire group based on some or even many. And I definitely don’t want to create any stereotypes. There are certainly some athletes within each sport/team that think they know more than they actually do. But I do believe but not necessarily be able to prove quantifiably that endurance athletes are a little more in-tune with their bodies on physiological level and therefore focus on what they to do on a more in-depth level. This could be because their sports are definitely more objective than other sports with regards to performance which makes it more black and white. If what goes into an athlete’s body directly correlates to my performance plus able to be measured, then they are more apt to pay attention to those sorts of details.

Q: What platform do you use for your videos?

When I worked full-time in sports I used a team communication platform called Teamworks. This was great since anyone that was on our team had an account with all of their contact information within. You could directly reach out to specific athletes or groups of athletes (i.e. position groups) or the entire team without having to collect any contact information. With this platform, I had the capability of posting my videos within the platform along with a notification that would go directly to their phones for them to watch the videos. I could also tell how much traffic there was for each video so as to let me know which videos/topics were more interesting than others for feedback. I have also posted other videos on YouTube that were unrelated to my work but that also talk about nutrition.

Q: Many of the exercise and nutrition research done by the academic institutes only use a small number of study subjects and lack in statistical power. Do you find it disappointing to have not enough good data which are statistically powered?

I don’t necessarily find it disappointing in the sense that we all know that research takes time and that both sports nutrition and exercise science are relatively young fields. I do feel there has been a lot of statistical power in many studies but maybe not as much in others. But over time the more and more research that comes out on a particular topic the more fine tuned we become in acquiring knowledge on that topic. This is evident in the reviews and meta-analytics of several original research studies that may/may not have statistically powered findings but within those consolidated studies they gather more and more power to them the more research that comes out. For instance, carbohydrate in endurance sports was never predicated on one particular statistically powered study but many studies throughout years of research. Do I find it frustrating when I get to the end of an article and it says, “findings are inconclusive at this time and more research is needed”? Of course. But at the same time you can’t chop down a tree with one swing. It takes many, many, many swings before that tree falls. But the other question is, when is research in a particular topic considered finished?

Q: How is age a factor in athletes being open? Are older athletes more or less open?

I don’t think the question necessarily is if older/younger athletes are more open to education but what are they open to? Meaning- the younger athletes seem to be more open to education and messages that are directly tailored towards enhancing performance. So the questions they ask are- “Kevin, what can I do to get better on the field/court/rink/pitch/etc?” Whereas, older athletes are more focused on recovery plus overall health. So with these athletes, education is a little more tailored to how they can feel better which may indirectly/inherently affect performance. Overall, I don’t think age plays a factor in whether they are open or not as I think this motivation is mixed within age groups. But I think the focus on direct performance outcomes tends to take a back seat to health and recovery as one ages. This could be tied indirectly to performance but could also be tied to an adjustment in priorities (long term health for self, family, kids, life after sports, etc.).

Q: What are some of your favorite tips to share with everyday people?

I like to focus on principles such as balance of foods, variation of foods, meeting energy needs, meeting hydration needs, meal frequency and snacking, food first and supplements to supplement, as well as pre/refueling if they are an avid exerciser. A huge battle with many is that even though they may know what to eat, there are still a couple of challenges that lay ahead before they can actually eat those foods. And that is- grocery shopping and cooking. These are often overlooked but are key teaching points to focus on since if you don’t know how to shop and don’t know how to cook, then how are you going to be able to follow through with proper nutrition without spending a lot of money on restaurants/food delivery/etc.?

Q: How does your approach change when working with different levels of athletes? e.g. high school vs. professional

For younger athletes, I believe it’s safe to assume that they know absolutely nothing about nutrition from certain foods to broader foods groups and especially specific nutrients. So you may start out talking about foods and their respective food groups particularly and how important it is to eat all meals with snacks throughout the day. However, you might be surprised about how many professionals need this elementary advice as well and need to build their foundation. I think it’s always best to start with the basics regardless of the level but with the professional athlete probably preface with the fact that you will build more on the basics and get more into the details.

The professional athlete has evolved in their awareness and knowledge/education of the different variables that go into performance and recovery. Plus sports science/ athlete monitoring is taking shape to where personalization is becoming more common. So you have to take this into consideration as well. Again, you still need to build a solid foundation before you can focus on more advanced focal points. You can’t graduate college before passing kindergarten.

Q: Do you have any tips if you only have a small amount of time with a client? Say 2-3 minutes and you can't communicate as deeply as you would like?

I would definitely develop an elevator pitch and be clear if there are specific points you want them to remember. Be clear in the differentiation of those points (“point A, point B, point C,…etc” or “1,2,3, etc) then come back to those points and repeat them (maybe a third time as well). After that have them repeat what you said. Repetition is very valuable in any case.

Q: You spoke about starting with the WHAT with athletes, how would you approach the conversation if speaking with a Doctor?

You might be surprised about how little doctors know about nutrition. And those who are big proponents of nutrition may/may not promote specific diets and supplements. Nevertheless, it is important to approach this conversation with the most backed-by-science information as possible since doctors are familiar and hopefully reliant on peer-reviewed research. Therefore, sharing the science and references are appropriate even early in the conversation. Doctors may listen to a Registered Dietitian before it gets to that point of bringing in credible research but some may not. Also, it is important to remember not to be defensive if there is a debate since this can turn the doctor off completely from listening to you. This is ultimately because doctors disseminate information to many patients, clients, and potential athletes so ethically you want to try and persuade the doctor as much as possible to change this act of disseminating false information. This is especially important if you are a Registered Dietitian for a team to make sure that everyone on staff (including doctors) are communicating the same message as you.

Q: How do you prioritize what information to highlight when simplifying complex info for athletes?

What I like to do is create my own foundations or principles of nutrition (or whatever the specialty/expertise may be). This may be 3, 5, or 10 principles that may set the foundation and can fully outline your topic and even your “curriculum” so to speak. These are the essentials. Then from there create subunits within each principle and separate topics. You can go as deep as you would like. Mapping it out on your own can be a great exercise for yourself and allow you to simplify the complexity of your topic. For instance, one of the principles of nutrition for me is nutritional balance. From there, I can go into food groups, then I can talk about macronutrients, then I can talk about carbohydrate, then carbohydrate and sports, glycogen, foods that have carbohydrate, etc. You can keep splicing until you get into more complex subtopics such as metabolism which would be probably more advanced than you would need, especially for athletes.

Q: What do you find is the best nutrition knowledge assessment tool you have found when onboarding new athletes?

I personally like the new 49 Item Sports Nutrition Knowledge Instrument (49-SNKI). This should be used ideally with adult athletes but could be adapted for youth athletes by selecting certain questions over others. Also, even though slightly different than a knowledge survey, I would also urge the use of the GSSI’s Fuel Habits Survey since it is a very quick and comprehensive tool that provides an objective measure of your athletes current habits that may reflect their knowledge.

Q: What do you recommend for active older adults who remember feeling great in their lifetime but now are experiencing injuries maybe even age related and chronic conditions. What is the goal body composition for those active older adults to reduce those injuries? Do you change the sports nutrition requirements for those individuals?

I think with older athletes there is a balance between adjusting expectations of how they should compare oneself to what they used to be able to do compared to what they can do now AND also realizing that just because they are older doesn’t mean they need to stop doing the things they love to do. I don’t necessarily think improving body composition will directly affect injuries but may reduce the risk very indirectly. Since RMR may be affected through lower mass/metabolic rate of individual organs having an overall decrease in metabolic rate resulting in lower fat-free mass, maintaining or at least slowing the loss of fat-free mass may be a focus. So monitoring of overall calorie intake, protein intake, and resistance training are a must in ensuring best results for fat-free mass retention. Therefore, body composition will be personalized to the individual based on typical fat-free mass measurements.

Q: When you have a disconnect with a person, how do you get them to listen to you again?

Unfortunately, they may have to fail in order to get them to start listening. In addition, peer pressure is also valuable especially for younger athletes. You may have to shift your efforts to other athletes who are listening since efforts focused on those who are not listening is a disservice to those who are seeking your help. In other words, sometimes you have to let the non-listeners go only to be ready if they do end up returning to you with a more open mind.

Q: Weight loss vs performance nutrition. Would you agree some populations should steer towards going lower carbohydrate for weight loss purposes if they have trouble losing weight due to increased appetite when eating a performance-based diet in the normal to high zone for carbohydrate intake?

First of all, it is extremely important to conduct a food recall for any fat loss or fat-free mass gain athletes. The reason being- to highlight any macronutrient intakes that may be over in abundance (fat, carbohydrate, protein). Often times, we focus on carbohydrate intake from the very start when the problem could be coming from too much from any of the other two macronutrients or all macronutrients. So I would definitely start with this and see what macronutrients you can decrease. In addition, if there is a needed reduction in macronutrient/energy intake, do this very slowly and preferably in the offseason so the concomitant training can allow for adaptations of joints, muscles, and other tissues. So to answer your question, if carbohydrate is the only macronutrient that is consumed in unnecessarily excessive amounts then reduce carbohydrate steadily overtime to support fat loss while retaining as much fat-free mass as possible.