Certificate of Integrative Sports Nutrition - module 1 musings

I landed back with a bump onto South African soil two days ago, exhausted from no sleep on the flight, plus just a few days of intense lecturing: reflection number 1 - don’t teach for three days straight! 

It was my turn to write a blog this week and now that my brain fog is starting to clear, I thought that it would be a great opportunity to share some of the key points from the live teaching of Module 1 in London last week.

Module 1 of the Certificate of Integrative Sports Nutrition course lays the foundation to think about an athletic body within the context of individuality, integrative health and effective practitioner intervention. It includes the following topics: integrative thinking, genetics and individuality, gastrointestinal health, detox and biotransformation, communication via the endocrine and nervous systems, exercise immunology, bioenergetics and mitochondrial function, functional medicine in practice, plus a live classroom consultation.

My first musing of the course was in the first five minutes of teaching; I shared the album cover of one of my favourite South African bands, which displays the image of a person with their head in the clouds. I told the class that either I had my head in the clouds for thinking that I could make an integrative sports nutrition course fly in this day and age OR that I actually needed my head in the clouds to possess the creativeness and tenacity to push ahead with such fresh thinking, despite my fears. I vouch for the later, although there is probably a hint of madness in there too….

Still on the first morning of the course, I soon launched into research limitations, which I believe in many ways are hindering our progressions of understanding within the field of sports nutrition. I cited a couple of books written by incredible researchers - the first was The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake and the second was Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. In the words of Kahneman: “This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” Heuristics, by the way, refers to problem solving and what his research pointed out to me was that when a system is too complex to comfortably understand (i.e. the human body), we will simplify the original question so that we can now answer it within our current constraints of thinking. This observation makes me think of the current carb-fat debate going on: “too simple” I call out in frustration…. “what about all our micros, phytos, neurochemicals, toxicity, stress and genetic individuality - do these not affect how the body responds to a training load?” We need more complex methods to research the human body, but above all else, we need more out-of-the-box thinkers to move our profession onwards.

To finish my notes about research, I refer to a quote by Dr Ross Tucker, former student to Prof Tim Noakes - he’s referring to the low-carb high-fat rhetoric shared by Noakes: “if our intentions are genuine, and we want the best possible outcome for the highest possible number of people….. we’ll see that some people benefit more from X, and others from Y. If we are rigid, and defensive, and if we own our own position too strongly, then we make it LESS LIKELY that this ever happens.” I couldn’t have said it any better!!

Considering also research methods, let’s just pause for a second on an N of 1. More and more informed thinkers are insisting that we consider individuality in the way that we conduct research and also within health and performance interventions. The research trial that I often use as an example of this, considered the effects of a low-carb high-fat diet versus a high-carb low-fat diet on 100km cycling time trial performance. Six out of the eight subjects faired better with the high-carb diet, so the researchers concluded in favour of this dietary approach for such an athletic population. However, what about the two riders (25% of the subject group) who did better on a high-fat diet - if they follow the generalised recommendations of the researchers, they most certainly will miss out on their performance potential.

From Days 2 to 4 of the course, we systematically went through physiological systems and shared what we understand from an integrative perspective and the nutritional interventions that could benefit athletes. I’ll mention detoxification as an example. When I was digging up research for the 1/2 day lecture, I didn’t expect to find much information within a sporting context, so I assumed (like I often do) that I would need to join up physiological thinking within a normal population with some sport-specific observations of various types of stress placed on an athlete’s body (e.g. oxidative stress, which is an important part of detoxification). How amazed was I when I started finding specific research studies that not only found improvements in detoxification by eating certain foods and nutrients, but many that also demonstrated performance benefits….? For example; ergogenic benefits of citrulline, arginine, N-acetylcysteine, quercetin, garlic, broccoli and Tibetan turnips!!

This is a big course, so I could quite easily go on for a number of pages, but I’ll stop for now so you can reflect on what I’ve said. Before I go, though, I’ll leave you with one of my big points from the week: considering that this is very much an educational course for practitioners to become even better practitioners, I feel that we need to become great psychologists even more than nutritionists. This was especially apparent in our live consultation on Day 5, carried out by Pete Williams. Pete and our class members actually gave our client quite simple dietary changes to start with. However, the tough part of this consultation was that she needed to work her head around the fact that the same training strategies that had given her sporting success in the past, had now driven her into an extremely health-comprised state. In order to achieve sporting success again, she will need to learn to be extremely gentle with herself. This one lesson is an extremely powerful one, especially within my experience in the stress-cultured city of Johannesburg, but which is also mirrored in most Westernised thinking societies these days.