TASS Practitioner Focus: The importance of nutrition support


TASS practitioners are key to supporting our performance athletes on and off the field. In the latest in a series of features highlighting their pivotal roles, we talk to Newcastle-based nutritionist Steve Marshall.

TASS: Please describe your current role – where are you based and what does the role entail?

Steve Marshall: Alongside my PhD, I lead on the performance nutrition programme at Northumbria University and TASS. As a practitioner, I deliver nutrition education to our athletes at a squad and individual level. This can range from some basic advice on diet and creating some useful resources – all the way to some physiological assessment and in-depth nutrition planning and cooking sessions. No two sessions are the same which is what makes the job so interesting.

TASS: What attracted you to the field of nutrition and have you always been interested in the discipline in a sporting context?

SM: I originally chose to specialise in nutrition after completing a module in my first year of my undergraduate degree in sport and exercise science. This was a sports nutrition module so it really shaped my interest in the area and how good nutrition could maximise performance and recovery. As a keen rugby player myself, I would always try and apply my new found knowledge to my own training and competition.

TASS: How has your career in nutrition progressed and where have you worked in the past?

SM: Following my degree, I was briefly involved in some private practitioner work, before realising I needed to upskill in certain areas. After a brief hiatus I returned to the field of nutrition, albeit in the food industry, trying out new product development. Alongside this, I started my Master’s degree at Northumbria in Nutritional Science. Upon completing my MSc, I once again started up a nutritional consultancy role working with private clients from varying backgrounds including elite athletes. I continued this until I accepted the joint role with Northumbria and TASS in the summer of 2016.

TASS: Nutrition is now a key element of the overall athlete support package – do performance sportsmen and women appreciate and understand its value?

SM: I think they do once they sink their teeth into it (pun intended) but I feel like nutrition is still more of a reactive support service rather than a proactive one. Some athletes tend to think about nutrition (and psychology) only when performance dips, recovery takes longer or body composition isn’t ideal. It is usually when things get back on track that people see the true value of good nutritional practices.

TASS: How quickly can an athlete’s performance be transformed by taking a fresh approach to nutrition?

SM: It really depends on the context but there are most definitely some instant improvements than can be made, specifically around performance and recovery. But if the athlete doesn’t form sustainable habits based on that fresh approach, those benefits won’t last long. Habits are key!

TASS: Prior to athletes/sport organisations embracing the benefits of nutritional advice what were the common side effects of a poor diet in performance sportsmen and women?

SM: Most commonly, an increased occurrence of illness and injury, poor performance and low mood – things commonly associated with overtraining. More specifically, low bone mineral density and prevalence of stress fractures. These issues, as well as disrupted or delayed menstruation in female athletes, continues to be an issue today and is something all athletes should be aware of.

TASS: How receptive are TASS athletes to nutritional advice and do they adhere to that advice?

SM: It is hard to say as sometimes as I have limited contact time with the athletes. However I certainly feel like there is always a sense of enthusiasm and receptiveness that leads to a good application of the advice. I’d like to think that the education I give and my method of delivery allows the athletes to go and make well informed choices that do have an impact.

TASS: What do you enjoy most about your role with TASS?

SM: The variety of sports that I work with and the mix of personalities. It is always a fresh challenge every time I meet a new athlete, each with their own motivations and experiences. It certainly keeps me on my toes!

TASS: What are the challenges facing dual career athletes and how can the full TASS support package help them to achieve their goals?

SM: I’d say that it is the stage of their development they are at. They are at a time of their lives when the habits they form can stick with them forever, good or bad. A full TASS support package can give the education and guidance to create their habits – habits that will stay with them throughout their career and beyond!

The right habits from an early age can make the difference between a good athlete and a great athlete!

TASS: You’re working on a PhD at Northumbria – can you tell us what area of research you are focusing on?

SM: Currently I am researching the adaptions that are present in the muscle and tendon following maximal resistance exercise. More specifically, I use ultrasound imaging to investigate whether there is a difference in the behaviour of the muscle-tendon unit between males, females using oral contraceptive pills and females who use no hormonal contraceptives.

TASS: Do you see nutrition becoming even more important within the context of performance sport during the next decade?

SM: Absolutely. Like I mentioned earlier, nutrition is largely a reactive service. As understanding around the importance of nutrition grows, I believe more and more athletes will take advantage of the nutrition services available to them. As the stakes get higher in professional sport, more athletes will be looking to maximise every area possible to be the best they can be. Nutrition will be no exception.