Scott Littlefield MS, CN, CISSN
While I will quantify the performance and wins that collegiate and professional nutrition programs are giving up by implementing systems that lack sufficient sophistication, I could simply claim that a majority of athletes within these programs continue to miss nutrition needs and thus are performing at 96% which is yielding 94% of potential wins a season… this is part of the problem: as a program, what data do you have to refute these claims?
TLDR: All-in-all, the impact of completely optimizing athlete nutrition intake at collegiate and professional levels compared to what is currently being done would result in an average 6.5% performance improvement per athlete. Considering conservative adoption rates of 80% and also enhancement of intakes by 80%, we arrive at average potential performance improvement of 4.2%.
Athlete performance can be roughly broken down into five categories: availability, physical output, technical output, a psychological component, and tactical execution. Nutrition impacts can then be determined on those categories:
Availability - impacts on injury and illness risk
Physical output - impacts on strength/power development and performance as well as aerobic/anaerobic development and performance
Technical output - impacts on precision, decisions, and responses
Psychological influences - impacts on cognitive fatigue and mood state
Tactical execution - impacts on game strategy
We can conservatively assume that all psychological components will be realized through physical and technical outputs and that nutrition has no impacts on game strategy.
Based on available data, we can determine the impact of these categories on performance, how many athletes don’t meet nutrition needs and to what extent, and then what the performance impacts are of those deficits. (We will also recognize that different sports and positions have different weights for these inputs, for example precision skills and aerobic output may be more important for a point guard than for an O-lineman, so impacts cannot be tabulated by simple additive methods.)
Availability: extra injury and illness (overall performance impact -1.8%). Considering incidence of illness and injury in these populations, the performance and training time missed and altered because of it, the impact of nutrition factors on injury and illness risk (especially energy, protein, pre- and probiotic intake, but others as well), and the proportion of athletes missing needs in each area, we arrive at an average performance decline of 1.8% per athlete. Team sports might consider an interesting game-load tolerated metric of +/- about 40 seconds per game. (Noteworthy research: Close, 2019; Lewis, 2018; Raysmith, 2016; Von Rosen, 2016; Tipton, 2015; Ekstrand, 2011; West, 2009; Gerlach, 2008; Flakoll, 2004)
Physicality: reduction of strength/power development and performance (-2.6%), reduction of aerobic/anaerobic development and performance (-2.9%). Considering potential gains from training, output during competition (especially toward later stages), impact of nutrition factors on these variables (especially energy, carbohydrate, protein, and magnesium intake), and the proportion of athletes missing needs in each area, we arrive at average performance declines of 2.8% per athlete. Fuelogics data does in fact support these predictions where sufficient and available. For example, 71% of athletes in aerobic-emphasis sports appear to miss carbohydrate needs by 2 or more grams per kilogram: when implemented in this population, 69% of athletes altered their carbohydrate intake; in a more homogenous sub-population of elite rowers (competing at national and international levels for their country), aerobic/anaerobic output measured by 2k and 6k erg times improved by 1.7% (vs. 2.9% predicted above), and keep in mind that all athletes were in performance-impairing caloric deficits for fat mass reduction. In groups of young baseball players (NCAA DI-III, NAIA), muscle hypertrophy seen with implementation of Fuelogics over Winter training programs has been between 1.6 and 3.2 times greater (which does appear to translate to extra strength/power gains of at least 2%) and was associated with a significant increase in home runs per at bat (2.3% vs. 0.6%) and slugging percentage (0.557 vs. 0.447).
Technique: impaired precision, decisions, and response-time (-0.9%). Psychology: increased cognitive fatigue and impaired mood-state (-1.0%). Considering impacts of nutrition factors on these variables (especially energy and carbohydrate intake and what can be covered up by nutrient timing and stimulant usage), proportion of athletes missing needs in each area, and impact of missing needs, we arrive at average performance declines of 0.9% and 1.0% per athlete. (Noteworthy research: Borkoles, 2018; Badin, 2016; Smith, 2016; Smith, 2015; MacMahon, 2014; Achten, 2004)
All-in-all, the impact of completely optimizing athlete nutrition intake at collegiate and professional levels compared to what is currently being done would result in an average 6.5% performance improvement per athlete. Considering conservative adoption rates of 80% and also enhancement of intakes by 80%, we arrive at average potential performance improvement of 4.2%. In other words athletes are, on average, performing at 95.8% of what is possible. This can be extrapolated based on data to player stats/metrics and earnings (which will not be done here) and to wins (below).
Win prediction is a tough science, but based on limited publically available data (for example Lazarus, 2017) and more proprietary data within elite programs, 4.2% better athlete performance conservatively translates to 6% greater wins per season at elite levels. In line with this, Fuelogics impacts have been associated with an increase of between 5 and 11% in team wins in lower level collegiate athletes.
What can you be doing to tip the scales ahead of those tight games?
How much money are you currently spending on all nutrition-related expenses? What data-driven outcomes are you getting for that money? What are you giving up by not doing it a little better?
Explore the impacts of a more advanced approach to performance nutrition with Fuelogics.
Scott Littlefield MS, CN, CISSN
Scott co-owns a private practice - ViTL Nutrition - where he works one-on-one with athletes as well as with programs from high school to professional levels across the country. He is a founding member of Fuelogics. These days you'll likely find him testing the boundaries of strength, size, and the mile-run or the limits of human taco consumption.