Part 2 – “As a person, not just an athlete.”
Women’s health, youth nutrition, and Leech’s top three athlete nutrition tips.
While netball reflects the diversity of modern-day society, and is open to everyone, it’s essential that nutrition suits the many females who participate, with their significantly different nutritional and performance requirements to males. Leech and her team undergo detailed evaluations to help understand what these are and how to best intervene.
“We will do a nutritional performance health evaluation which tries to make sure that we have looked at all the health perspectives that go with that. We will do things like blood tests on the athletes to ensure that iron levels are good.”
With around 50 per cent of female athletes experiencing iron deficiencies, iron levels are a major concern that Leech makes sure to closely monitor.
“Especially with things like iron, we need to be testing with enough time to be able to make a difference. It may take three months to correct a low iron level. So, we need to make sure that if the World Cup is at the end of July, by April our athletes are sitting in the right spot.
“We will ask questions now about – are they getting regular periods? Is their energy availability good? Do they have any gut issues to be compensated for? Are they menstruating regularly?”
The comprehensive approach to health and performance is also demonstrated when Leech talks about how athletes’ needs are best catered for.
“It is about assessing if there are any areas of vulnerability, and looking at the demands of the sport and the demands of the environment that our athletes are in. We are still not professional athletes.
“The girls are now in that semi-professional to professional space. They still have to study, and they might have other jobs and they still have time commitments. So, it is working through the issues and giving them practical skills that they can do, as well as the knowledge.
“We will look at them as a person, not just an athlete.”
Female athletes are also reported to be at greater risk of injuries, and nutrition can help prevent injuries from occurring.
“We will see some bone injuries like stress fractures. So, we try and make sure that we’re assessing and working on those things. We will also see some things like tendon injuries and so we specifically match the nutrition that combines with the strength program or the rehab program that we’re doing, so that that can help to mitigate some of those things as well.”
Nutrition can also enhance recovery through the maintenance of muscle mass.
“We can enhance recovery from surgery with nutrition before they go in, and then really be aggressive with nutrition while they’re unable to do anything so we can help to maintain as much muscle mass as possible.
“Sometimes an injury can cost you a lot of energy to heal as well.”
Managing pregnancy also requires specialised care and this includes catering for the increase in energy demands.
“We’ve now got some players managing pregnancy, maintaining that training still while they are pregnant, and then managing that return as well. It’s been amazing to have a baby on tour with us, and making sure that we’re meeting the requirements but that will come about with some sleep disruptions to the athlete. If you’ve got a breastfeeding athlete, they will have very high energy requirements.”
To help offset some of the impacts of iron deficiency that female athletes are at greater risk of than their male counterparts, Leech can develop a tailored nutrition program for the athlete based on the heaviness of their menstrual cycle.
“It may be that they go into a plan where they may not even be able to maintain a good iron status through just diet alone, even when we really try hard to work at it right. It could be that we need some supplementation guidelines for them, and they could be very different. They might have extra iron supplementation, say during a period when they’re menstruating.”
These programs also consider the position on the court the player usually occupies.
“But equally you might look at specific positions on the court and the energy requirements for one type of player while they’re in the court is not quite as much as other type of players. So therefore, they may not need quite as much fuel.”
Hydration is also a critical component of performance and is another piece in the puzzle of program individualisation.
“We’ll look at those individual requirements in terms of sweating as well. Some players will have greater hydration needs during the game than others because they’ll have a naturally higher sweat rate. Every athlete is an individual.
“Then if you overlay any medical conditions or anything like that, it becomes even more specific. There are general performance guidelines that we go to for netball that are going to be much the same for a lot of the athletes, but they’ll all have their own individualisation that goes with that.”
To ensure that these programs are effective, performance reviews are often conducted.
“We’ll probably have an annual performance type of check. We’ll maybe use body composition and we might use things like DEXA more frequently now than maybe we might have used something like surface anthropometry or skin folds in the past. And we’ll probably do that at performance intervals. Often at the start of pre-season and at the end of pre-season so we can see what measurement and how well we did on change.
“How well then players have been able to maintain it during the season, because during an SSN season is hard for athletes, they’re moving around a lot more, you lose time to travel and things like that, you’re in a strange environment.”
Furthering the education and specificity of programs for the needs of females, Leech is working with a group of performance staff on developing a better health evaluation tool.
“It will mean that we will ask some of the questions in conjunction with medicine. Do you have painful periods? How do you treat that? Do you have any gut issues?”
With specialization in the area from working closely with females over the years, the focus on women’s health in sport is only set to improve further with Leech a part of the team leading the way.
“Those are the type of things that are very specific to females. But I think we’ve been listening to the athlete’s voice, especially over the last few years. It is a high priority area within Australia, but for me, it’s been the life that I’ve lived all the time as a sports dietitian.
“I’ve worked with male athletes like your football codes and things like that over the years, but a lot of our work has often been working with female athletes.”
Education With The Diamonds
You may recognise Leech from YouTube where she provides cooking demonstrations using San Remo products, featured alongside superstars like Laura Geitz, Kim Green, and Natalie von Bertouch. (Another informative video that gives insight into the Diamond’s diet from 2019 can be found here).
With the main aim of education and ensuring that all athletes, whether they are a Diamond or not, are properly fueled, Leech says these videos are focused on adapting well-loved home recipes to make them more applicable for athletic performance.
“Sometimes when netball have had a sponsor like San Remo that has taken a big role, sometimes they have taken me for the ride with it. I got to do some filming videos of cooking different types of things and a little netball cookbook at one stage as well. I don’t work with them now, but it was a great learning experience.”
From Grassroots To The Elite
Leech is also passionate about educating young athletes and has done some work with Netball Australia around this with the Under 17s and 19s State Teams.
“The young netballer, that is where I love doing some of my work. Working with the younger athletes as they are coming through to make sure we don’t have problems before we reach the top.”
But the reach needs to go to athletes even younger, due to the large energy demands and developing bodies.
“There’s work to be done with young athletes. An athlete with some of the highest needs will be the young growing up with the athlete that is doing multiple sports.
“That’s when they’re really at risk of injury as well, things like bone injuries that we often see more amongst our development athletes than we see in our in our elite athletes.”
A real passion project for Leech is working with parents to help educate them on how best to feed their child for sporting events that might, for example, start at seven in the morning and finish late at night, made even more special given her personal experience with her two young girls.
“I have two girls that have gone through the netball pathways… I get to relate to what it’s like to be a parent and be the Uber driver.”
Nutrition Tips For Netballers
If you are reading this and thinking that personalised nutrition advice would be helpful, Leech advocates for you to see a sports dietitian.
“Australia has been some of the leaders in the sports dietitian space over a long period of time. And they combine great practical skills with theory as well.
“You can find them on the Sports Dietitians Australia website, and they have a ‘find a sports dietitian’ function where everyone will list what their specialties are.”
Regarding nutrition specifics, Leech gives us three hot tips to take away with us.
- Don’t fear carbs: “Carbohydrates are not your enemy. They are the fuel that we use…It is essential that you’re preparing in terms of your fueling requirements for the activities that you’re Every session that you do, you need to be able to fuel up and you need to be able to recover.”
- Eat a variety of foods: “The greater variety of things you have, the greater the chance you have of meeting your nutritional requirements. Eating the rainbow is incredibly important.”
- Food first: “Supplements, things like that, they are just a sprinkle on top of the icing on top of a really good cupcake.”