A pathway into performance nutrition

What you will learn:

  • My recommendations and suggestions for anyone looking toward a career in performance nutrition
  • My experiences
  • My challenges & how I overcame them

Who this is applicable to:

  • Anyone looking towards a career within performance nutrition

Who should not read this:

  • Anyone not looking towards a career in performance nutrition

Enjoy, and please leave feedback. Unlike many, I am open to critique; it is the only way I will ever improve as a practitioner, coach and as a person.


I recently spoke at the 2014 Biological, Clinical and Nutrition Sciences Employability Conference about my pathway into Performance Nutrition and about my experiences pursuing a career I am so passionate about, so I thought I’d share my thoughts and the brief content of that presentation with the wider, worldwide audience.

So as you begin to read this, and for me to feel the need to write this in the first place may appear as though I have ‘made it’ within the performance nutrition industry. Well that is not the case. I have by no means ‘made it’ within the performance nutrition industry. In fact I am still a long way away from my achieving my goals as a performance nutritionist, and I still have a long way to go to become one of the leading performance nutritionists. But, at the age of 23 I feel like I have overcome the first hurdle, which is actually getting into and being recognised within the industry. So I thought I would share my experiences, and my recommendations to anyone else considering this pathway. Hopefully in an effort to ease the way for others to follow me, because I can tell you it has been tough!

Qualifications

Most, if not all professions require a certain set of academic credentials. Now I’m not a massive fan of qualifications, but I now realise just how important they are. I can honestly say that if I hadn’t completed my MSc I would definitely not have been given the opportunities that have since come my way. So whilst qualifications are not essential, they definitely help. I know a few extremely intelligent, and successful practitioners who have achieved recognition with the nutrition industry with just undergraduate degrees, some not even that.

Just as another example of how qualifications can be overestimated, I am a qualified Olympic Lifting instructor. Back in 2011, I received this qualification and proceeded to do absolutely diddly squat with it. Honestly, if I tried to teach someone the Olympic Lifts today there would be some serious injuries. Looking back, I have no idea why I even decided to do this qualification? I already knew that I wanted to become a performance nutritionist – the things you do when you’re young and dumb! But that doesn’t change the fact that I am still qualified. That is the extremely frustrating thing about qualifications – unless you apply what you have learnt then the qualification becomes a useless, and there is no real way to differentiate.

A piece of paper with my name on that suggests I am qualified to teach the Olympic lifts,

A piece of paper with my name on that suggests I am qualified to teach the Olympic lifts.

Fundamental knowledge

A foundation of fundamental knowledge and understanding is of critical importance. I see a number of people involved in the health and fitness industry that appear to have read into the more complex aspects of nutrition before getting a firm grasp of the basics. The basics being energy balance, the macronutrients, and macronutrient metabolism, micronutrients and water. My recommendation would be to focus on one topic each month, and research, read and read some more within that area, ask questions and take notes until you feel comfortable within that area. Then move onto the next. I used that systematic approach successfully, and I still utilise it now.

Whether this fundamental knowledge is gained in an academic environment or through personal reading and learning there is little difference in my opinion. At least not at undergraduate level, there is probably a difference at MSc. One will obviously gain piece of paper with a name, crest, date and stamp on, and the other won’t. Apart from that there is little else different other than the all to frequent hangovers and student debt.

That said however, I think now more than ever, academic credentials are extremely important. I can think of a number of occasions where my MSc and credentials have opened up opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available. My work with Warrington Wolves Rugby League and performance nutrition workshops with the athletes at Loughborough University for example. So I would recommend the academic route.

Books & fundamental knowledge

Fundamental knowledge is not necessarily gained from lectures it is gained through reading and researching away form the lectures. The lectures merely open the door for you to then explore.

A question I am often asked is which book(s) would you recommend?

My answer is always the same; I much prefer journal articles. Journal articles have to undergo a peer-review process, which generally ensures the content is accurate and scientifically sound. Just about anyone can write and publish a book – just take a trip to the ‘Health & Fitness’ section in any bookstore. Plus a book could take anywhere between 12-months and 3-years to write and publish, by which time it is already out-dated, whilst new research is published in journals far more frequently.

That said, I did read and gain some fundamental knowledge form a handful of books while in university, most of which I still own. They are as follows:

That is not to say there are not any other good books out there but these are going to provide you with that fundamental understanding from which you can advance with confidence knowing that the foundations have been set.

From a journal perspective I would definitely recommend you get familiar with PubMed, and frequent PubMed surfing is a necessity. When looking at individual journals there are too many to list, but a few to consider are:

Journals are generally recognised by their impact factor, which is essentially the amount of current citations to articles that the journal published in the previous two years. The current impact factor of journals within sports science & medicine can be found here. As a student you will be given free access to the most relevant journals, make the most of this! Otherwise just abuse PubMed & possibly Science Direct.

Beyond this I would also recommend attending some industry related conferences, International Sport & Exercise Nutrition Conference springs to mind, although personally I have never attended although I have heard good reports. I would not suggest that conferences are necessary however, especially if you stay up to date with the most significant journals within the field. Although speakers often refer to unpublished data, ahead of print, but again just read and read and you’ll be fine.

I can also recommend some extremely beneficial sources of information in the form of blogs, and publications. They include:

My route

My interest in nutrition began following a series of unfortunate knee injuries when I was 18 from which I spent 12-months rehabilitating myself and my body, I spent time with renowned physiotherapists, knee surgeons, and strength conditioning coaches however nutrition was never even considered nor addressed. As I began to gain weight my interest in food increased and I took it upon myself to begin exploring the field to develop a basic understanding.

What I found was an absolute minefield.

Littered with contradiction and extremely confusing, misleading information being touted frequently by apparent ‘experts’ and marketing, marketing everywhere. I presume like most people, I had tried most things, based on the latest trend, media coverage and fad diet.

This ignited my initial interest and passion for nutrition.

In a way I was quite fortunate that I knew exactly what I wanted to do before I left 6th form. I then set about making the dream happen.

My route involved A Levels in biology, PE and geography, then onto a BSc in Sports Science and an MSc in Nutrition Science. This provided me with the invaluable fundamental knowledge of the human body, the sports sciences, physiology, psychology and nutrition. In the final year of my BSc I became specialised in sports nutrition. My undergraduate dissertation looked at the effects of sodium bicarbonate supplementation during simulated rugby performance, something I went on to research further at MSc.

I then went on to do an MSc in Exercise & Nutrition Science, although I did not do any of the exercise modules. In truth the MSc was fantastic, and above all taught me to how to be critical and how to properly and comprehensively critique research. This has been invaluable in my applied work since, and something that is becoming more and more popular within the lay realm.

From an academic perspective if I were to do it again I would not do much if anything differently. My undergraduate degree provided me with a great insight into the sports sciences, particularly important was the introduction to the various energy systems and pathways during exercise of varying intensities. My MSc taught me to be critical, and the sheer number of research papers I read – and continue to read – led to a significant increase in knowledge.

The book that helped me most through my MSc & beyond.

The book that helped me most through my MSc & beyond.

My recommended route:

Please bare in mind that their is no one way into performance nutrition, in truth there are a variety of pathways, this is simply my recommended pathway based upon my experiences.

A-level: Biology, Physical Education, and something easy to ensure you get the grades to allow you into one of the top universities.

Undergraduate: Sports Science

Post-graduate: Sports Nutrition

Other qualifications could include the IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition or the ISSN taught Diploma, although I don’t have much experience or knowledge of how they work so cannot really comment. They do appear to offer a great deal in regards knowledge, but are lacking from a practical perspective, which is an issue. Either way I would still favour a university postgraduate degree.

The obvious question is do you stop there?

Well, that’s where I am right now and in truth I can’t answer that question. But I do feel that there are enough opportunities out there for performance nutritionists with just an MSc although a PhD would be pretty cool wouldn’t it? It also offers more credibility and probably, at a young age, more respect from some? It’s also a massive differentiating factor when competing for a job. I may be able to answer that question better in 5 or so years.

Recommended universities? I would recommend Loughborough, University of Bath, Leeds, Chester, Liverpool John Moores and Birmingham. I particularly like the MSc being developed my Graeme Close at Liverpool John Moores. Although there are many more, and at undergraduate I would imagine most are very similar. The university is a secondary factor in my opinion, if you work hard enough to develop your knowledge and practices it doesn’t really matter where you achieve your qualifications.

The missing link

No matter how talented a student is, there is always going to be a great divide between the academic research setting and practice. Practice with clients, with athletes or the general public requires more than just knowledge of energy balance, macronutrients, micronutrients and water. What works in the lab doesn’t always work in practice, how you deal with that and manipulate the prescription in order to resolve it is not taught in any qualification, at least not to my knowledge.

For that reason I would recommend gaining as much applied experience as you can whilst you are in university. I was fortunate in that I did an internship with the Welsh Rugby Union while I was at university. The time I spent with then Lead Performance Nutritionist, Dr Adam Carey was invaluable. I would recommend anyone looking towards a career in performance nutrition seek a similar role. Simply approach your local club, academy sides or associations and volunteer your services or alternatively ask an existing performance nutritionist if you can shadow him/her for a week, month, or year. I know of a few performance nutritionists in elite sport who would accommodate you in such a way. I take interns and I offer mentorship programmes (book a consultation if interested), as does Martin MacDonald. I am sure others do too – you just need to ask.

That brings me onto questions: do not be afraid to ask them! Lots of them, question everything and everyone. That way you will learn how and why.

 He who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.

 Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.

 He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.

Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.

Success leaves clues

One of the most compelling things I have been told this year is that ‘success leaves clues’. How true?

To be successful in any industry often rocket science is not required – simply copy and paste. Perhaps not literally however, as that may end in a law suit against you! There are a handful of people within performance nutrition that I look up to, admire and aspire to be like. I study their practices, I read their research, I also critique their work, allowing me to one day be as good if not better – hopefully.

Success leaves clues. Simply find your aspirational figure and study what and how they work and how they got there, then copy and paste, and add your own influence following a degree of critical thinking.

Conclusion

I can’t stress enough the importance of getting the fundamentals instilled and automated before you even think of moving forward. Energy balance, the macronutrients, micronutrition and water. Focus all of your initial energy and attention on these basic principles then, and only then move on. Doing it the other way around just doesn’t work. It may be cool to talk about hormonal function and inflammatory profile, but in many cases the people that talk about these things do not have a grasp of the basics. This is much like building a house on a hill without sufficient foundations – not much use?

In short, take the academic route, gain as much experience as possible through internships, placements or simply volunteer, attend conferences, ask questions and study the practices of those that you aspire to be.

Be patient and work hard, it is not easy I can assure you of that. There are desperate days where your head is turned by potentially easier, more lucrative paths. But if you are anything like me, working in sport, with elite athletes was my lifetime goal. All you need to do is commit to making that dream a reality. Remember, nothing in life that is worth anything to anyone is easy.

I hope this has been helpful to someone? Please leave feedback, and share on social media if you feel anyone else you know may benefit from reading this.

And if you are interested in learning more about my services then please contact me via phone: (+44)07912624022 or matt@mjnutrition.co.uk or book a FREE consultation using the link at the bottom of the COACHING page.