Our interview with Mike Naylor
Mike Naylor is the Head of Performance Nutrition at the English Institute of Sport (EIS), where he provides support to several of Team GB’s Olympic and Paralympic sports. Mike spoke at Yakult’s 2019 Study Day about some of the nutrition related challenges faced by athletes, so we caught up with him to find out more about his career and his talk…
1. Can you tell us about your career path, and how you got to your current position as the Head of Performance Nutrition for the EIS?
When I realised I wasn’t good enough to be an athlete I decided to do a Sport Science degree at Sheffield Hallam University and quickly became very fond of nutrition. I then continued on at Sheffield Hallam to complete a Masters in Sport and Exercise Science with a nutrition specific pathway route. This led to my registration with the Sports and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENR), which I am now a board member of. I also completed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) diploma in Sports Nutrition.
I was then lucky that the English Institute of Sport (EIS) were running internships prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where I managed to provide nutrition support for the Paralympics swimming team. I worked with the British Paralympic Swimming until around 2011, before moving to work with the London Wasps rugby club, Southampton football club (FC) and the women’s England rugby team. I had some great experiences with them including working with the Southampton team and the England women’s rugby team that won the world cup in 2014. I then moved across to the men’s England rugby teams for the last two World Cup campaigns.
I left Southampton FC to go to England football, and was lucky to attend the World Cup with them in Russia, which was a fantastic experience. Somewhere during this time I transferred to the EIS within a technical leadership role, and then onto Head of service around three years ago. The EIS now have a team of 24 nutritionists working across over 25 Olympic and professional sports.
2. What led to your interest in Sports Nutrition?
Naturally I have a very competitive nature, and I saw food as an important part of sports throughout school. My mum used to tell me stories about how I used to question my friends for eating the wrong food at lunchtime before playing playground football as I thought it might affect our performance. I then became very interested in the science behind this, as I wanted to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the biochemistry of different nutrients and how they work.
The difference nutrition can have on performance became very appealing to me.
3. What does a typical working day look like for you?
I could be anywhere in the country or world with my job.
A lot of my role is setting the strategy for the EIS Performance and Nutrition Team. I also do a lot of work with practitioners on a technical level to help solve the problems and questions they have, and how we can help support them to improve an athletes performance through nutrition, but also by working collaboratively with the other disciplines, such as physiology, psychology, performance lifestyle, performance analysis, medics, strength and conditioning.
If I am working with a multi-disciplinary team on a performance question, we will work together to come up with a performance plan or solution. We work in an interdisciplinary fashion with the people who can make the biggest difference. If it is an injury related issue, it often requires working with a physio, strength and conditioning coach, and a doctor.
A lot of problems that athletes face can’t be solved by a nutritionist alone, however working in a collaborative team means we can make a difference.
4. You have led nutrition support for a number of big sports teams, including Team GB at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and worked with athletes across more than 20 sports. What would you say are the most common health challenges that athletes face, and how has nutrition been used to help?
During the Rio Olympic games in 2016, one of the largest challenges I faced, which is a common challenge, was going into a different and unfamiliar environment. We need to prepare athletes to be able to deal with this challenge by giving them a fundamental level of nutrition education that they can adapt in this different environment. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ nutrition plan. For elite athletes there is, usually, a lot of travel required of them, so we are trying to help athletes prepare for that as best as possible.
One of the big challenges with international travel, that we will have had to plan for when the Tokyo Olympics goes ahead, is the climate. Athletes often have to compete and perform in a temperature and humidity that they are not used to. We have to work with a multi-disciplinary team to plan how we are going to deal with the heat. For instance athletes will have a higher sweat rate, and as a consequence we will have to refine our hydration strategies to accommodate for this. There may also be strategies we can put in place from a cooling perspective, for example implementing ice slushies to help cool down athletes when competing may be beneficial.
There are also large cultural differences that need to be consider when travelling internationally. When athletes are competing in the UK it can be easier to put a menu together that includes dishes we know the athletes like. However, in Japan the chefs there would prepare very different meals to those the athletes would be used to. We need to find ways to work with the chefs to create practical solutions that are familiar to the athletes and that they like.
One of the ways we overcame this in the lead-up to the Rio Olympic games was that the EIS nutritionists collaborated with Gordon Ramsey plane food restaurant; the athletes had tailored food which they could take on the planes with them.
5. How important is gut health for your athletes, and how relevant is all of the research into the role of the gut microbiota in your day to day work?
The role of the gut microbiota in an athletic population is becoming massive and we are learning so much more about it. We have had many Continuing Professional Development (CPD) session on it within the Institute. Like in many areas of science the more that we hear and learn, the more questions we have. There is so much to learn…
It is often during periods of travel, the stresses of competitions and changes in the environment, when we see an increase in gut-related symptoms, and we are trying to come up with the strategies to overcome this. Hence why the relationship between Yakult and the EIS has grown and is still growing because we are so interested in probiotics and gut health and we are curious to learn more about the potential difference it can make for our athletes.
We work closely with the medical and health team where we see a number of gut-related symptoms within athletes, such as bloating or reactions to certain foods. The EIS Performance and Nutrition Team are very quick to know when symptoms may be clinical and therefore when we need to refer an athlete. If the symptoms are sub-clinical we will still get supervision from dietitians, especially during travel, when we can often see travellers’ diarrhoea and similar symptoms.
Upper respiratory tract infections are another condition we see within the athletic population. We have incorporated some of Prof Michael Gleeson’s research, from the University of Loughborough, into our strategies.
6. Have you noticed any nutritional interventions that work particularly well amongst the athletes? Can you give examples of some?
When working with elite athletes it’s hard to quantify which strategies are making a difference, due to solving problems as part of a multi-disciplinary team.
There are some things which are relatively easy to monitor such as body composition, if an athlete may need to reduce their body fat in order to increase their functional mass or power to weight ratio. We know that strategically finding a way to create an energy deficit amongst their training and nutrition can reduce their level of body fat. This is something that is easy to monitor.
Whereas if we have an athlete who has an issue with the amount of upper respiratory tract infections that they are having, or gut health symptoms, it is common that we work with a multi-disciplinary team to put in a number of interventions to combat this. Therefore, it can be harder to measure the interventions that have made a difference; one of the challenges we are constantly facing in the elite world.
There is an individual approach that needs to be taken to understand both the individual athlete and the individual problem.
7. Nutrition is undoubtedly essential to ensure optimum performance in elite athletes. Do you therefore find that athletes actually have a genuine interest in learning more about nutrition? Or do they tend to rely on nutritionists and dietitians to give them an exact meal plan to follow?
I think this is changing and athletes, especially professional athletes, often really enjoy the education, and the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of nutrition. Simply giving them a nutrition plan doesn’t seem to help long-term. We need to find a way to support and educate athletes around nutrition, how nutrients work, and how they support their performance with more longevity than just giving them a meal plan, which they may have a limited understanding of.
As a nutritionist I have a bias towards looking at ways to change the behaviours of athletes towards nutrition in the long-term.
Not all athletes are perfect, it’s very dependent on the individual. Some take their nutrition a lot more seriously than others, and this becomes one of the challenges of being a sports nutritionist. I remember working with one of the best rugby players in the country, and he would have an Indian takeaway the night before every game and that was his strategy, which from a nutritionist’s point-of view isn’t optimal, however who am I to tell a World Cup winner what’s right and wrong. So you have to develop a way to educate athletes that gets both the nutritional messages across but also that the athletes can relate to; you need to listen to them and understand what matters to them.
Certain athletes may not have the most optimal diets, however they may want to improve this to enhance their performance or extend their careers, and nutrition may play a role in that.
8. What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love fishing; me and my brother recently purchased a fishing lake in Essex. I enjoy spending time relaxing and working-out with my girlfriend. I also enjoy playing 5-a-side football, which growing up was my main sport, reaching a semi-professional standard.
9. What is the most fun place you have ever visited for work and why?
The most fun place I have ever visited with work was Rio for the 2016 Olympic games. I found the history of the country unbelievable, especially as a massive football fan. Seeing everyone playing football along Copacabana beach was just amazing. I loved seeing how different people live and how day-to-day lifestyles can be so different and diverse in one country.
10. If you could give one tip to aspiring students, what would it be?
I would definitely encourage students to find their passion in a discipline that they really enjoy. Work really hard to get the underpinning knowledge of the science and then find a way to get experience, something universities are really good at helping students with.
There is a big difference between going out and getting your own work experience, and getting supervised experience; I would advise working with mentors to help grow and support you as you come into your career.