Nutrition the ‘extra man’ in the sporting quest for a mental cutting edge

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/Huseyin Onur Cicekci
©iStock/Huseyin Onur Cicekci
The mental aspect of sport is a crucial yet overlooked aspect of athletic performance, according to a performance nutritionist, who believes nutrition tweaks can aid in making match-winning decisions.

Daniel Davey, a senior performance nutritionist, thinks it is an area that only now is revealing just how much nutrition impacts on an athlete’s mental state of mind.

“It’s an area that I feel athletes can get the greatest performance benefits and edge,”​ he explained.

Daniel Davey
Daniel Davey, senior performance nutritionist, Dublin Senior Football and Leinster Rugby.©Daniel Davey

“Nutrition has evolved into a key area that athletes are focusing on and has become part of their performance routine.   

“Over the past couple of years, I feel that I have gained more in this particular space with athletes than any other.

It isn’t just from a physiological perspective, where you’re talking about athletes having a sufficient carbohydrate supply, or are not dehydrated or using caffeine. It’s also about athletes really feeling the confidence from knowing they have prepared thoroughly for their game.

Sports Nutrition Congress 

His insights form part of a discussion that he will present at NutraIngredients’ Sports Nutrition Congress in Brussels later this month.

Davey, whose work with elite athletes extends to those playing for Dublin Senior Football and Leinster Rugby, speaks of an overlap that is developing between the areas of sports psychology and mental skills with physiotherapy, fitness and strength and other performance aspects.

“The lifestyle element and how nutrition fits into people’s goals is a critical element,”​ he added.

Want to attend our Sports Nutrition Congress in September this year? 

Organised by NutraIngredients and hosted in partnership with the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), the SNC will offer a one stop shop for the latest must-have insights in the worlds of sports and active nutrition - including the use of ketones in sports.

Register now to make you are there!

Top levels speakers already confirmed to join us in Brussels include:

  • Florina-Andreea Pantazi, European Commission
  • Daniel Davy, Leinster Rugby
  • Orla O’Sullivan, APC Microbiome Institute
  • Robert Walker, SCI-MX Nutrition
  • Professor Kieran Clarke, University of Oxford
  • João Gonçalo Cunha, KickUP Sports Innovation
  • Pia Ostermann, Euromonitor International
  • Katia Merten-Lentz, Keller and Heckman LLP
  • Adam Carey, ESSNA Chair
  • Alex Zurita, London Sport
  • Professor John Brewer, St Mary’s University
  • Tom Morgan, Lumina Intelligence
  • Luca Bucchini, Hylobates Consulting & ESSNA Vice-Chair

Click this link find out more about what’s on the agenda for the congress.

The mental skills coaches are leaning on me and I’m leaning on them. We’re working together to really fine tune what an athlete needs to do in preparation to perform.

As well as the mental aspect, Davey’s upcoming presentation entitled 'When tough guys get hurt. The strategic and practical role of nutrition for recovery from injury in professional rugby' will look to discuss evolving nutritional strategies that better support an elite athlete.

Based on his work with some of the game’s toughest players, Daniel explains how nutrition is keeping up with the increasing demands of professional sport and what is most effective before, during and after a sporting performance.

“Recovery is the key element in rugby,”​ Davey explained. “The turnaround between matches is very shortwith periods of six days depending on the competition and whether they are overlapping.”

“Nutrition really fits into the element of recovery. Within the first 30 minutes of recovery, athletes have to be taking in enough calories and fluids as well as getting enough protein to aid the repair process. 

“Another aspect of recovery that has evolved is knowledge of natural anti-inflammatory benefits of certain foods. This has been a controversial area. The use of anti-oxidants has been shown to be a potentially limiting factor or suppress some of the signalling responses that aid full recovery or physical adaptations.

“If you have a six-day turnaround things like using cherry extract, or placing an emphasis on using ginger, turmeric, or another natural ingredient may offer some potential recovery benefits.    

“Even if they don’t an athlete will always feel better for having tried these things and having them as part of their recovery routine.”

The gut and the performance phase

Davey points to the impact of gastrointestinal health as one with particular relevance to professional athletes. Recent research​ points to an increase in diversity amongst athletes opening up theories as to a possible influence in performance and decision-making.

“I think we haven’t placed enough emphasis on gut health,” Davey said. “I think what we are going to see in years to come is nutrition becoming even more personalised.

“It’s not just about hitting your macronutrients, carbing up or getting your protein intake after training. It is really about understanding what specific foods that really seem to benefit people’s gut and improve the gut flora.

“So it could be things like Kombucha, sourkraut or salads. It could even be as simple as identifying foods like kidney beans or broccoli that don’t work on one professional athlete but could benefit another.”

Davey identifies the performance phase as one where athletes can really identify with this adding, “If I’m telling an athlete that your tummy is nice and settled, you feel energetic and you’re not having any bowel trouble”.

“These are areas that athletes need to know, when stepping onto the field that they’re as well as they can possible feel and can give their best performance.

“The way that I look at this is if you can improve gut health that has a knock on effect on wellbeing and immune function.

“An athlete might miss a couple of weeks training throughout the year and may not feel as well as they would like going into a game. Gut health really seems like an area to chase and go after and is a tangible factor that athletes can make that connection.”

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