Athletes’ training regimes extend far beyond the pitch, track or ski run. They have a unique relationship with food, too. This is not just a matter of loading up on pasta and protein shakes. For those at the top of their game, every morsel is carefully balanced to optimise performance.
But while you may think that athletes are among the healthiest of humans, certain factors actually make them more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
We know that regular moderate exercise is associated with a reduced risk of catching infections, including the common cold. But continuous, prolonged, and high intensity training, or strenuous exercise, can cause a temporary post-exercise immune dysfunction. This “open window” can last for up to 24 hours after exercise, and makes athletes susceptible to all kinds of infections.
Other areas of an athlete’s lifestyle can impact their health in a similar way. They may be exposed to new pathogens during foreign travel, for example. Lack of sleep and mental stress can also impact the functioning of their immune systems.
Combine these factors with a bout of food poisoning and the results have the potential to be devastating. Although symptoms are often limited to the stomach and intestines, there can be severe neurological, immunological and gynaecological complications as well.
At best, gastrointestinal infections can be troublesome and debilitating, making them lose a few days’ training. At worst, infections at sporting events can have a significant effect on the performance of whole teams. In the summer of 2017, for example, headlines told of competitors being struck down with food poisoning at the World Athletics Championships, with some being forced to withdraw entirely.
But why, if athletes are so focused on what they are putting into their bodies, are foodborne illnesses even an issue at all?
During sporting events, food is carefully managed to ensure the nutrition and health of all participants. At the Pyeongchang Olympic village in South Korea, officials declared that food safety would be of the “utmost importance” ahead of the 2018 winter games. So much so that plans were in place for a mobile clinic to be on hand to provide immediate check-ups outside the dining area.
Though there is a lack of recorded data on the incidence of foodborne illnesses among athletes – most reports are anecdotal from the athletes themselves – this high priority shows it is of serious concern.
But athletes don’t always have this kind of catering management in place. During off-seasons and training, they are responsible for preparing and managing their own food, with some relying on specialists to coach them on nutrition.
Sports nutritionists are a trusted source of food-related information for athletes. But we have found that the focus tends to be on maximising nutrition for optimum training and performance. Food safety practices fall by the wayside – despite the fact that food poisoning has the potential to end an athlete’s career. Good hygiene in the kitchen is essential in preventing illness for all. And in sports, researchers have found it is a fundamental part of team effectiveness and helping athletes avoid illness.
Both UK and US health bodies have identified cross-contamination, insufficient heating, inadequate fridge storage, poor hand washing and improper cleaning of surfaces as the most common factors associated with foodborne infection.
But for athletes, this is a team effort, and teammates, coaches, officials and healthcare providers should actively participate in efforts to prevent these factors occurring. In particular, we feel that performance nutritionists have an important role to play in educating athletes on food safety and hygiene.
We have recently launched a new study to find out what food safety information athletes need, and how performance nutritionists can help in this regard. We want to find out how nutritionists can help athletes prevent foodborne illnesses, and teach them how to mitigate the risk of food poisoning.
We hope to use our research to support sports nutritionists to help athletes consider food safety in a new light, and realise it is just as important as the nutritional value of what is on their plate.