Track Coach

Sports Nutritionist Jamie Sheahan Talks with Track Coach Editor Russ Ebbets (August 2018)

Jamie, what is your background and how did you get involved with athletic nutrition?

I am a registered dietitian at a health club and an adjunct professor of sports nutrition at the University of Vermont. I grew up playing team sports in high school and in college then transitioned to running marathons, so combining my passion for nutrition as well as athletics made sports nutrition a natural fit.

One of the problems I have always had with diet and nutrition advice is whatever one guru says is often soon contradicted by a second or third guru. Complicating this scenario is the fact that all three may have scientific research to back up their claims. How does one know who to listen to or follow?

It really comes down to delving into the science behind various recommendations. Nutrition is still a relatively new science, which means that many of our recommendations have changed even in the past few years. Recommendations should only be made based on studies that are well-designed and validated by previous or follow-up studies.

What do you see are some of the biggest challenges an athlete faces regarding diet and nutrition?

One of the biggest challenges is simply that it’s an afterthought. Most athletes invest a tremendous amount of time and effort into their training, but they forget to factor in how their diet impacts the effectiveness of their training. I often equate this to mapping out a road trip, but forgetting to put gas in the tank of your vehicle. Without proper fueling, an athlete won’t get to where they want to go, and for overscheduled and overtaxed athletes, nutrition tends to fall by the wayside.

Another significant challenge is that there is so much misinformation out there when it comes to what type of diet an athlete should be eating. Paleo, keto, high-carb, vegetarian, the list goes on and on and many famous athletes tout their dietary choices as the key to boosting performance. There are also endless products that entice athletes by offering a quick and easy way to gain muscle or boost speed, very few of which can deliver on such promises. Ultimately there is no one quick fix diet or product that can outperform a healthy, well-rounded diet that factors in an athlete’s individual needs.

What exactly are RDA’s (recommended daily allowances) everyone talks about? How are they determined? Would these numbers change if one is talking about a 14-year-old athlete, an Olympian or a sedentary individual?

RDA’s are the amount of calorie and nutrient intakes considered adequate to meet the needs of healthy people. RDA’s were established using research studies that identified the amount required to meet the needs of 97.5% of the population. However, these are not always applicable to athletes who are regularly engaging in high-volume and/or high-intensity activity, such as Olympic or professional athletes. These individuals should have individualized diet plans to account for the unique demands of their sport.

Where do processed foods fit into an athlete’s diet?

To optimize health and performance an athlete’s diet should consist of whole foods as much as possible. That being said, no one can or should be expected to eat perfectly all of the time, so athletes should strive to limit processed foods as much as possible. There are also times when processed foods can be preferable, for instance gels or gummies consumed during an endurance event.

What is the intestinal flora and why is it important?

The intestinal flora is the population of microorganisms living in the intestinal tract. It consists of over 1,000 different types of bacteria that play a role in digestion, our immune health, mental health and disease risk just to name a few. The composition of the intestinal microflora is determined by genetics, diet, lifestyle and medications.

Antibiotic therapy is one of medicine’s go-to’s. How does this therapy affect one’s intestinal flora and what steps can be taken to rectify this problem?

Unfortunately, antibiotics are not discerning in the bacteria they kill off. This means that in addition to killing off the invading bacteria they are prescribed to get rid of, they also wipe out bacteria in the intestine that are good for us. This can leave us vulnerable to unwanted bacteria colonizing our digestive tract following antibiotic treatment. The best strategy to restore a healthy gut microflora is to take a probiotic supplement and eat probiotic-rich foods immediately following antibiotic therapy.

What are probiotics and why are they important?

Probiotics are the “good” strains of bacteria that populate the intestines.

Can one get probiotics from a daily diet or do they have to come from supplementation?

Probiotics can easily be obtained in one’s daily diet from fermented foods such as yogurt, kim-chi, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and miso.

What are pre-biotics? And what is their function?

Pre-biotics are foods high in a certain type of fiber and serve as a source of food for probiotics. Just like any other living thing, probiotics need food to survive so including pre-biotic-rich foods in one’s diet helps support a healthy gut microflora. Sources include dandelion greens, garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, oats, barley and flax seeds.

It seems pretty easy to find RDA’s for proteins, carbohydrates and fats but how can one sensibly translate those numbers into serving portions, especially for a coach talking to a 14-year-old?

MyPlate is a free resource that can translate recommendations for proteins, carbohydrates and fats into suggested servings for various food groups. It is not intended for high-level athletes, but it is a great starting point for those looking to consume an overall well-rounded diet.

It seems that good diet and nutrition seems as much about what you don’t eat as much as it is about what you do eat. What are some foods or beverages that are on you “avoid list?”

I prefer to take the “everything in moderation” approach. Is a candy bar good for us? No, but it’s unrealistic to say we are never going to eat one. That being said, the one thing I would encourage everyone to avoid is trans fats. Fortunately, all trans fats have been banned by US government and by July of 2019 there will be no artificial trans fats allowed on the market.

Vitamin supplementation is a book in itself. Are there any basic recommendations you have here?

Supplements are not regulated by the FDA so my number one recommendation when it comes to supplements is to ensure safety by purchasing supplements that have been certified by US Pharmacopeia, NSF International or Individuals can and should obtain what they need nutritionally by eating a whole food diet, but if allergies or other food restrictions result in a deficiency then supplements can be beneficial. Just remember that more doesn’t mean better when it comes to vitamins and minerals so mega-dosing with vitamins or minerals is not beneficial and in fact can be detrimental to one’s health.

Why is fiber so important?

Fiber is important in normalizing bowel movements, lowering cholesterol, preventing colon cancer, regulating blood sugar and maintaining a healthy weight.

Track & field is divided into endurance type events (800m+), speed and power events (100m, jumps, throws) and hybrid events that combine both (heptathlon, decathlon). Would your recommendations change for the different disciplines?

Yes, these events place very different demands on the body physically, and thus nutritionally, so recommendations would need to be specific to each event.

What are your recommendations regarding pre-event meals? And does this change from the endurance events to the speed and power events? Are there any foods you would definitely include or definitely avoid?

The most important thing when it comes to a pre-event meal is to avoid complications. The wrong pre-event meal is more detrimental than the right one so trial and error is key. Meals prior to shorter duration events should differ from those consumed prior to endurance events. In general, athletes should avoid trying anything new prior to an event and avoid high fiber and high fat foods that can lead to gastrointestinal issues.

What about post-recovery meals? Is there a timing issue here? Any particular foods you inclined to recommend or are you more based on carbohydrate-protein rations?

The goal for recovery meals is to provide carbohydrate to resynthesize muscle glycogen and to provide protein to build and repair muscle. The sooner athletes are able to consume a recovery meal after activity the better because cell sensitivity and permeability is high and thus allow for optimal glycogen resynthesis and muscle repair. Recovery meals/snacks should consist of simple carbohydrates and protein in a ratio of 4:1 to 2:1.

While America’s obesity crisis continues to spiral out of control weight gains for certain events can prove to be a benefit, especially in the throws. Do you have any recommendations here that promote lean muscle mass?

Certain events favor body types that contain a higher body weight and ideally this weight would be mostly in the form of lean muscle mass. Building lean muscle mass requires athletes to consume 400-500 additional calories per day and an additional 14 grams of protein per day combined with a periodized strength training routine.

Competition and team travel can lead to some less than desirable eating strategies from fast food diets to late night meals. Any thoughts here?

Sometimes you just have to make the best of a bad situation. While most fast food restaurants don’t offer the healthiest fare, with some planning and sometimes creativity it’s still possible to make reasonably healthy selections. When traveling, I recommend that coaches research area restaurants ahead of time and identify those with some healthy menu options.

Many nutritionists recommend not eating past 8PM but meet scheduling and time zone travel can disrupt this schedule particularly for athletes traveling west to east. Any strategies here that can keep one on schedule or must one simply “make do?”

For an athlete, it is far better to eat late than to not eat at all. Athletes should do their best to eat according to the time zone that they are in, which may mean relying more on small, frequent meals and snacks instead of larger meals that they may not be as hungry for when it doesn’t line up with their usual routine.

I’ve seen it recommended that high-level athletes eat up to five meals a day. Is there any value in this? Do you have any suggestions on what one should eat at a particular time?

This strategy is usually preferred because higher-level athletes need to consume so many calories to keep up with the demands of their training that it can be very difficult to fit those into three meals.

What about eating during an event? Marathoners have gels and goop-type foods, but what about the heptathlete or decathlete, or even an Olympic pole vaulter whose competition can last 6+ hours. Any recommendations to maintain energy levels?

I would recommend that athletes who have competitions lasting longer than 5 or 6 hours consume foods with small amounts of fat and protein. Relying on gels or other fueling products typically used by marathoners will provide energy, but will not provide satiety, which can become an issue that impacts performance. It’s hard to perform when your stomach is growling!

Dehydration can significantly decrease performance and even contribute to the different grades of heat injury. What hydration strategy do you subscribe to?

There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to hydration strategies. Hydration status is impacted by environmental factors like temperature and humidity as well as exertion level, clothing and individual sweat rates. The best way for athletes to evaluate their hydration status is to monitor their urine color and adjust intake accordingly.

Conversely, marathoners and ultra-marathoners are susceptible to hyponatremia, essentially water intoxication. How can this be prevented and what would be some of the signs and symptoms that it is occurring?

I have found this situation to be more and more common now that so many athletes are worried about dehydration. Many runners take it to the extreme by overdoing it on water intake during races and the consequences can be dangerous and even fatal. Signs and symptoms include dizziness, disorientation, headache, nausea, vomiting and a feeling of fullness in the stomach. Unfortunately, many athletes become too confused and disoriented to recognize these symptoms while they are occurring, which is why it’s so important to have well-trained support crews and medical teams to help athletes who may be hyponatremic. The best way to prevent hyponatremia is to consume small amounts of water at a time and include electrolytes in beverages and/or in fueling products. This is especially important when racing in extremely hot conditions when one’s sweat rate is higher than normal and thus sodium losses are high as well.

Electrolyte replacement drinks get plenty of hype and have become almost a staple of all sports participation from the “weekend warrior” to the most elite athletes. What makes for a “good” replacement drink, when should it be used and in what quantities? Is there any value in diluting a commercially prepared electrolyte drink?

More often than not electrolyte replacement drinks are not necessary. The average American consumes more than enough sodium in his/her diet making electrolyte beverages obsolete for those “weekend warriors” who are not exercising in extremely hot conditions or for extended periods of time. The other concern when it comes to these beverages is their high sugar content. Designed for endurance sports, these added sugars are not necessary for most recreational athletes and can contribute to weight gain in those not expending a large number of calories during their activity.

Motivated and dedicated athletes are usually the traits also seen in athletes with eating disorders. The basic training methods of track & field (high caloric expenditure and relentless training) lend itself to complicating these behaviors. What can a coach, parent or athlete do to insure an athlete stays on an “even keel” throughout a career?

The most important thing a coach can do is to avoid setting weight or body composition goals for their athletes. Putting too much emphasis on these measures may trigger disorder eating behaviors in athletes and result in a lifelong struggle that negatively impacts an athlete’s performance and health. Coaches and parents can have a positive influence by encouraging athletes to see food as fuel for their body to perform and feel their best. Additionally, eating disorders often develop on a continuum, which means that coaches and parents should be watchful for warning signs so that they can intervene before the problem becomes a serious medical condition. Fear of gaining weight, distorted body image, preoccupation with food, self-imposed food restrictions, lack of flexibility with exercise and diet, avoiding eating in front of others and weight loss are all red flags that an athlete may be struggling with an eating disorder. It is important that coaches and parents refer the athlete to a doctor, registered dietitian and therapist to address the issue as soon as possible.

Athletic females present with a host of potential challenges with the monthly cycle and the threat of early osteoporosis via the Female Triad. For the athletic woman what are some general recommendations to keep one’s life healthy and balanced?

The hallmark feature of the Female Athlete Triad is a significant energy deficit. This may be due to restrictive eating and/or high energy expenditure from activity. As this energy deficit becomes long term, hormones are affected resulting in amenorrhea and loss of bone mineral density. Female athletes can prevent this by ensuring they are consuming enough calories to meet the demands of their training.

What role does iron supplementation play for both the male and female athlete? At what dose level?

Iron-deficiency anemia is more common in female athletes and can negatively impact performance as oxygen delivery to muscles is reduced. However, too much iron in the form of supplements can lead to oxidative damage, therefore supplementation should only be used when a deficiency has been established through testing. Dosage will vary and iron levels should be rechecked to determine if supplementation can be discontinued. Athletes can then focus on incorporating iron-rich foods to maintain normal iron levels.

What is the safest way to lose weight? And for keeping it off?

The safest way to lose weight is probably the most frustrating way; slowly. I regularly work with athletes and non-athletes attempting to lose weight and as much as I would like to whisper in their ear the secret to quick and lasting weight loss, no such miracle diet or pill exists. Any diet or pill that promises such things may deliver in the short term, but I can all but guarantee that any weight lost through drastic diets or cleanses will be regained in short order. Focusing on small, manageable dietary changes such as switching from creamer and sugar in one’s morning coffee to just a splash of milk can pay dividends long-term. Athletes in particular have to be careful not to lose weight too rapidly as they will put themselves at risk for injury with a body that is under-fueled and losing muscle tissue. 1-2 pounds of weight loss per week is the maximum amount of weight that I recommend athletes lose unless they are in the off-season. Keeping weight off means maintaining the dietary and lifestyle changes that allowed an individual to lose the weight in the first place. It can be hard to do so when the thrill of seeing the scale go down each week is no more so athletes should set new goals around behaviors to stay motivated.

Alcohol is a cellular dehydrator and from a health perspective alcohol makes little contribution to one’s general health. What role does alcohol play in an athlete’s life?

I categorize alcohol under the umbrella of “discretionary calories.” An athlete has certain nutritional needs they must meet through their diet when it comes to quality carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats in order to optimize their performance. When these needs are met there are usually a couple of hundred calories that an athlete can consume that can just serve the purpose of supply calories and little else. For some this might be chips, candy, ice cream or the like. For others, alcohol is how they choose to spend these calories. However, if alcohol intake becomes too high and begins displacing nutrient-dense foods then it can become problematic. I run into this issue all of the time with college athletes who struggle to balance the demands of their sport with a desire to engage in normal social activities that typically involve alcohol consumption.

Gluten seems to be getting much press over the last few years. Exactly what is gluten, why can it be a problem and how does one know if a “gluten free” diet would benefit them?

Poor gluten has certainly seemed to have taken on the title of public enemy number one in recent years. Gluten is a family of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye that gives dough its elasticity and provides structure to baked products. For the vast majority of the population gluten is not problematic, however, more and more people are seeking out gluten-free products. While this is necessary for the small portion of the population (about 1%) with celiac disease—an auto-immune condition in which the immune system treats gluten as a foreign invader leading to damage of the gut wall, digestive issues and nutrient deficiencies—many without a celiac disease diagnosis claim they feel better when they eliminate gluten from their diet. There are individuals who test negative for celiac disease, but have what is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The number of people with this condition has not been established as there is no test to diagnose it. Studies show that most individuals who think they have non-celiac gluten sensitivity have other causes for their symptoms. Studies have also shown that athletes without celiac disease do not experience an improvement in performance when following a gluten-free diet.

Caffeine is the most widely used drug worldwide. Countless studies have detailed its enhancing effect on performance, but how does a coach broach this issue with a highly motivated 14-year-old (or his/her parent) who is dead set on gaining a possible “advantage” with this additive? And when does enough caffeine become too much?

It’s true that caffeine has been proven time and again to enhance performance. Although we can’t say for certain, it seems that this “edge” can be attributed to a reduction in perceived exertion level. Coaches should emphasize with their athletes that caffeine and similar products that claim to boost performance are no replacement for training hard and eating a well-balanced diet. If athletes are determined to use caffeine to give themselves an advantage then it should be used in the proper dosage (3-6 mg/kg of body weight) and exceeding this dosage can have negative side effects like jitteriness, anxiety, headache, irritability and diarrhea. Athletes can even consume toxic doses by ingesting excess energy drinks or caffeine pills. Fortunately most products geared towards athletes like gels and gummies provide caffeine in very low doses (less than an average cup of coffee) and can be consumed safely.

Chronic low-grade inflammation in the body has been linked to everything from arthritis to diabetes to heart disease. It is well known that some foods contribute to inflammation in the body that can slow healing or delay recovery. What are your recommendations here?

The biggest offenders when it comes to pro-inflammatory foods are sugar, vegetable oils, refined grains and fried foods. Fortunately there are also plenty of foods that fight inflammation in the body too. Green leafy vegetables, blueberries, fatty fish, tart cherries and turmeric all work to fight inflammation in the body. For both overall health and performance, individuals should try to limit pro-inflammatory foods as much as possible and instead have a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats.

The side stitch can be one of those periodic problems that haunts the newer runner but it can also be the result of intestinal disturbances. What are your thoughts on prevention and treatment?

It can be difficult to say what the actual cause of a side stitch is as they can be brought on by everything from not allowing enough time to digest a meal before running to improper breathing. To avoid any nutrition-related side stitches, athletes should eat meals 2-3 hours prior to the start of their event or training session. That being said, everyone is different and I’ve worked with plenty of athletes with “iron guts” who could consume a cheeseburger and fries right before a 20-mile run with no issue (not that this would be recommended). Athletes should experiment during training to determine what foods are well tolerated and the ideal timing of these foods. Those with especially sensitive stomachs may want to consume liquid calories in the form of a sports drink prior to competition to avoid any issues.

If you had a crystal ball and you could see into the future, what are some of the challenges or innovations you expect to see in the next 3-5 years?

A challenge I currently see in the area of sports nutrition and nutrition in general and that will continue to be an issue in the years to come is information overload. It seems that everyday there is a new product, diet or nutrition philosophy that draws followers despite a lack of evidence supporting the health or performance outcomes. It can be hard for consumers to know who to trust and where they can get evidenced-based, unbiased information.

Jamie Sheahan was born and raised in Vermont. She graduated summa cum laude in 2011 from the University of Vermont with a Bachelor of Science degree in dietetics and then went on to complete her Master of Science degree in dietetics in 2013. An avid runner, Jamie has completed over 40 marathons and three ultramarathons. Jamie currently works as Director of Nutrition at The EDGE in South Burlington and serves as an adjunct professor teaching sports nutrition at the University of Vermont.