SSA Blog: The diet of a champion

The Formula 1 season kicks off today in Australia with all eyes on World Champion and pole sitter Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is, without doubt, the sports biggest draw and maybe it’s only true crossover star. He goes into the season chasing a 5th world title, which if he achieves it would move him up to joint second on the all time list.

Midway through last season, a different spotlight was shone on Hamilton after he announced his decision to follow a vegan diet. Many questioned the wisdom of this lifestyle change at such a time, but any criticism was soon overshadowed by his imperious form following the mid-season break, which saw him storm to the driver’s crown with two races remaining.

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Hamilton is by no means the first major sports star to promote the virtues of a vegan diet. Perhaps the most famous advocate of a vegan, or predominantly vegan diet, is NFL star, Tom Brady. Brady, at the age of 40 has the most super bowl wins of any current NFL player. His longevity and continued success have created considerable attention around his diet and training practices. Brady’s diet is reportedly vegan throughout the year except during the winter playing period when he introduces limited lean meat to help with protein intake.

But are there performance benefits to such a diet for athletes?  

In a 2010 paper, Drs Fuhrman and Ferreri suggest potential training and recovery benefits linked to a vegan diet. They attributed this to high antioxidant, micronutrient and carbohydrate rich foods that a plant-based diet would provide. A recent review by David Rogerson, based at the Academy of Sport and Physical Activity at Sheffield Hallam University, also highlighted evidence a vegan diet could promote health in non athletics populations. To substantiate the claim, he points to lower rates of obesity and reduced incidence of heart disease and cancer among vegetarians and vegans. However, the same review outlines that individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets tend to be more health-conscious and therefore other lifestyle factors (e.g. exercise) may confound these effects. Rogerson concludes that currently when examining athletes, there is a lack quality scientific evidence to support any major performance benefit linked to a vegan diet.

There can be no doubt, however, that veganism is becoming more visible. It’s not only Hamilton and Brady that feel they are benefiting from a shift in traditional nutritional strategy, David Haye and Venus Williams have also moved to a plant based diet. Often this is linked to a desire to extend their careers and an increased focus on health. With all of them now past their 30th birthday it provides a new avenue for commercial partnerships beyond sport.

The growing influencer trend across social media has left sport stars with fewer traditional endorsements opportunities in the later stages of their careers. This is due, in part, to their lack of relevance among digital natives who look to people like them for product reviews, lifestyle tips and day to day information about health, diet, exercise and fitness.

However, major dietary changes and health based transitions focused on conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer are the domain of the middle aged. These audiences are looking for role models to support a change in their behaviour rather than, in the case of generation Z, a behaviour to follow in the first place.

This trend opens the door to athletes maintaining a career into their late 30’s and even early 40’s who can create an opportunity for themselves by highlighting their switch to vegan or plant based diets. Moving away from their sporting glories, instead showcasing their story of change, the process of adoption and the shift in behaviour, adapting to a new lifestyle for health and performance reasons.

Now 33, Lewis Hamilton’s status within Formula 1 and across the globe as a sporting icon is secure. The narrative surrounding his two year transition to veganism creates a new, less performance focused story providing the extra ingredient that maintains his relevance to fans and even opens the doors to a new, older and more affluent target audience away from the track. Watch this space for the Lewis Hamilton cookbook and range of vegan ready meals!

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How does he still do it?

On Saturday I was called by a researcher from BBC Radio 5 Live. He was interested in how Roger Federer is still able to perform at the top of tennis despite his age.

Since that conversation, Federer has become the second oldest Grand Slam winner in the open era (Ken Rosewall won titles at 35, 36 and 37). However, since 2000, only Sampras (31), Agassi (32), and Federer himself have won grand slams while being on the plus side of 30.

At 35, Federer’s latest win at the Australian Open is exceptional.

So how is he still able to compete in such a competitive professional sport?

The ageing process begins to induce a decline in male physical ability around the early 30’s. Borgest and a team of researchers in Australia highlighted the naturally occurring declines in metabolic, cardiovascular and hormonal systems as the precursors for performance decrements in their review study of 2015. These genetic factors cannot be escaped. And while, in well trained populations, the performance effects often do not become significant until their early 40’s, In the tiny margins of elite sport any decline can become evident very quickly.

What makes Federer’s achievement even more impressive is the nature of tennis as a sport. Whilst endurance capacity has been shown to stand up well via training in athletes in their 30’s, the ability to produce power due to the speed of muscle contraction can begin to significantly decrease in your 30’s (Kostka 2005). As tennis moves towards the power end of the sporting spectrum (we have previously talked about its shift), any drop in this key component would surely impact performance.

There is also a psychological element to ageing. For many, accepting you are no longer capable of the same levels of athleticism is difficult. Others are able to adjust their performances to rely on greater experience and knowledge of the various facets of the game. In this case adjustments, rather than relying on experience or knowledge, are probably the key. I would argue experience and knowledge can have an impact in team sport or against lesser players, but in the upper reaches of tennis, against players with similar levels of mastery, it is difficult to argue that Federer’s ‘experience’ would somehow plug a physical performance gap.

A more plausible explanation is that at 35, Federer is just below the cusp at which focused training, nutrition and other adjustments are no longer sufficient to maintain and manage the inevitable age-related declines. This would fit with Borgest et al (2015) who said “performance has been shown to be maintained until approximately the age of 35 years after which it declines slowly”.

Remember Federer’s well-publicised change of racket size in 2014? The new racket gave him a bigger sweet spot, allowing more room for error. Equipment changes are often a response to physical changes. Was this the first sign that his movement was slowing (which could have been linked to the power insight we spoke of earlier). Did other changes occur in his training and lifestyle to maintain his place inside the world elite? 

In the 5 years prior to 2016, Federer had played an average of 76 matches across 19 tournaments. Due to injury and the need to recover properly, he played only 28 matches across 7 tournaments in 2016. The decision to recover and take the time to develop a fitness programme that could address the specific needs of an ageing body have to be key factors in his victory - that and the early departure of Andy Murray who he was due to play in the quarter-finals.

Federer is clearly exceptional. His Grand Slam win at the age of 35 helps cement his legendary status within the game. To maintain his performance levels takes dedication to a lifestyle many of us couldn’t cope with. To recognise the need to adapt his training and preparation displays a psychological maturity, often missing in others.

Add to this the luck of excellent genetics and you have a 35-year-old Grand Slam Champion.

Roger Federer………..The Greatest of all Time. 

Life after sport - how athletes handle the transition to retirement

Retirement happens to every athlete in every sport. At the end of each season or Olympic cycle, countless athletes are faced with the most difficult decision of their careers. And those in a position to make that decision for themselves are the lucky ones.