James Collins: Arsenal Head Nutritionist discussing career development, ‘training-low’, and online nutrition resources
James Collins is a leading Sport & Exercise Nutritionist. James has completed his Masters and The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Diploma in Sport and Exercise Nutrition, giving him some of the highest accreditations attainable. This has led to James’ career focusing on professional and Olympic athletes. This is clearly evident is his current role as Head Nutritionist for Arsenal Football Club. James is also prominent within the Great Britain Olympic Team, working in an advisory roll to all athletes. This work continues with the build up towards the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Along with working with Olympic and professional sports teams, James also advises clients at his clinic on Harley Street, London. The Centre for Health and Human Performance (CHHP) provides services that focus on weight, metabolism and performance. James’ cliental ranges from CEOs to celebrities, which demonstrates his ability to modify and adapt his vast knowledge to cater to a varying client base.
What inspired you to become a nutritionist? Was it a career you saw yourself entering into from a young age, or was your passion for nutrition sparked later in life?
My interest started when playing NCAA College sport in the US. At the time, I was extremely interested in the sports nutrition advice we received, and in applying it to performance. I then focused on my undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications at Loughborough University in the UK, due to its reputation for sports nutrition and exercise physiology.
What is your main nutritional ethos? Specifically any certain beliefs and values you carry with you in your profession and how you approach your work?
I have clear vision of how I feel nutrition should be applied within elite sport:
Firstly, I believe that a nutritionist has to be fully integrated within a high performance organisation. This will involve working as part of the multidisciplinary team – attending team meetings/case conferences, wearing the kit, full access in training ground. To affect the culture of an organisation, nutrition has to be fully integrated, not viewed as an external consultant.
Effective nutrition is goal orientated and periodised to training and competition demands. It should always be science led, and evidence-based. I believe in a food first approach, with supplementation advised on a particular need.
Nutrition is a discipline, which requires technical, but also practitioner skills to affect an athlete’s behaviour change. I believe in working with athletes and coaches to educate and up-skill, so they can make decisions under pressure (such as major championships, like Olympic Games).
What is your stance on supplements? Do you think supplements are worthwhile for all athletes?
It is an important area for clarity. Fundamentally, I believe it is important to have a supplementation policy for each sport, which clearly outlines the process to protect and educate athletes and support staff.
The key points are as follows:
1. It is important to classify supplements. For example: gels, bars, sports drinks, recovery drinks, would all be classed as supplements.
2. Specifically, what is being targeted?
– A nutrient insufficiency
– An ergogenic aid to support performance
3. Sourcing – Recent reviews have shown up to 15% of supplements contain prohibited substances. This means the practitioner needs robust frameworks in place, to protect the athletes and sports. This will include performing their own diligence on companies and using industry standard procedures – such as Informed Sport.
4. A supplement should be monitored over a given period of time (alongside performance data) and then reviewed. Too often we see athletes adding supplements to their list.
5. Finally, all decisions are made on a cost/benefit scenario
Furthermore, do you think supplements can be beneficial to people who are not competing professionally?
A food first ethos should be recommended. Too often I see recreational athletes, e.g. triathletes wasting time and money on ineffective supplements or doses, which don’t affect performance.
Supplementation can also be beneficial to non-elite athletes; the underpinning science is still the same for elite or recreational, just applied differently. For example within endurance events, such as cycling, triathlon, marathon, gels and drinks can be crucial for energy provision during the race.
Regardless of the level of athlete, I would always insist on the same rigour around supplementation.
In a field such as sports nutrition, there are often a lot of differing opinions and methods among professionals. How do you personally keep your practices and knowledge relevant? Are you weary of new developments and research?
Registration and CPD are key. If you are a registered Sport & Exercise Nutritionist in the UK, you have to submit a portfolio of evidence (and the appropriate qualifications) to be accepted. This is an important first step to improving industry standards. Organising a programme of CPD is then important to stay relevant.
I believe it’s important to have your network set up in the right way. I have my own research groups, which I collaborate with. This enables me to get the latest research quickly, but also allows me to set up applied studies with sports, to answer the ‘performance questions’ that arise in elite sport.
For example, I have taken research teams to elite environments, such as during preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2012 Olympic Games – situations where the detail can really make the difference.
One such example is ‘training low’, which focuses on training with low muscle glycogen stores. What is your opinion on this new idea in sports nutrition and achieving optimal performance?
This is a concept, which has been around for a while but has gained momentum recently, which increased research. Whilst the enhanced training adaptations (e.g. increasing fat oxidisation) have benefits in certain situations; application is critical here, so that training performance and immunity aren’t compromised. As such, this approach should be carefully planned with the athlete and coach, as part of the training programme.
There are several tactics to reduce carbohydrate availability (e.g. overnight fasting, prolonged recovery); it’s about working with the sport and athlete to determine the right fit for the individual.
What do you suggest is the optimal pre-workout meal for an athlete? How does one cater to their particular sport and are there any golden rules everyone should abide by?
No one size fits all here. The pre-workout meal will depend on the training demands and also the goals of the athlete (e.g. fuelling vs. weight management). In general, a carbohydrate-based meal is still the staple fuel for competition.
Due to the different needs, giving athletes options here is vital. Many athletes I work with are from different cultures and have food different preferences. In most elite sports, food is served buffet style to allow athletes to build their plate, and take ownership for their fuelling. In the restaurants of elite sports, educational touch points help to support this process. As previously discussed, athletes with different goals (e.g. weight management) are then able to manage intake accordingly, if following a lower carbohydrate strategy.
As eating habits can be extreme and often eccentricities can develop, what has been the weirdest dietary request you have heard of? How do you suggest nutritionists strike the balance between working with someone, and also being able to make significant change?
I’ve heard some strange ones. An obsession with cashew nuts has been a recent one! Within elite sport, I believe it’s about setting up your service in the right way: It is important to have objective markers to assess progress with each athlete; such as body composition, hydration, bloods, wellness and other performance measures to complete the picture.
Working with Track & Field and football, I have set a model for regular contact with athletes – this enables behaviour change to be made over time, essentially ‘diet coaching’ athletes. Athletes and coaches also value informal consultations around the training complex, not shut away in a consulting room.
In a field where knowledge can be a game changer, are there any unique/specific means by which you gather new information in the sports nutrition field? Are there any podcasts or other mediums by which you hear from others in your field?
The main method is collaboration with researchers from key research groups, to share information. Both GSK’s High Performance Lab and Gatorade’s Sports Science Institute provide some high level information. Conferences still remain a great option; Leaders in Performance, Sport & Exercise Nutrition Register, The Royal Society of Medicine and International Sport Exercise and Nutrition – all within the UK.