A Roadmap for Working with Nutritionists

Coach Ryan Kohler talks with Joe Friel about how to help athletes navigate the misinformation around nutrition by partnering with the right experts.

Nutritionists commonly help athletes improve their daily diet, implement a fueling plan in the lead-up to race day, or address more significant lifestyle issues. The team effort is likely to pay off, both in terms of the athlete’s performance and the coach’s business.

“One if the biggest benefits of working with a nutritionist is getting that new perspective.”

– Ryan kohler

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Video Transcript

Joe Friel  00:06

Hello everyone. Today we’re gonna be talking about nutrition in terms of how your coaching team can help your business and your clients. We’ve got with us nutritionist, Ryan Kohler. He’s also a coach, so he’s got a dual background here in working with both athletes in terms of their coaching, and also in terms of nutrition. So we’re going to talk with Ryan, a bit about some of the things you can do to make sure you get the right person working for you in your team of experts.

Joe Friel  00:39

Several questions I have for you today have to do with picking out the right nutritionist to work with your company. One of things I’ve noticed is that there are companies who have nutritionists and there are companies who avoid having nutritionists, and there seems to be some, I don’t quite fully understand the coaching company that doesn’t want a nutritionist working with them. Would there be any reason why that should be a concern for the company or the athletes?

Addressing the fear factor around nutrition

Ryan Kohler  01:04

I don’t think so. I think though, with nutrition, it’s sort of just a scary place to be, because there’s so much information and so much misinformation out there. Also, a lot of coaches have a lot of good information knowledge. I think sometimes they feel like they need to be able to be that person who delivers it to their athletes. Also, I think there’s sometimes a bit of this expectation that they feel they have. But, I think if [as a coach] you can realize where your your experience or your knowledge ends, and what can be built into your existing knowledge base by providing nutrition for those athletes, it can be a good collaboration and ultimately a benefit to the athlete.

Joe Friel  01:45

Let’s say my coaching company, I decide I want to bring somebody in as nutritionist, how do I go about picking out a person to work with?

What to look for in a nutritionist

Ryan Kohler  01:52

That’s a good question. Nutrition is it’s kind of the “Wild West” a little bit, where you have licensed credentialed individuals that have gone through rigorous academic programs, dietetic internships, taken exams, and gotten licensure through their state. That’s going to be your registered dietician, and we know they have a certain a certain knowledge level and a certain curriculum that’s associated with that.

Ryan Kohler  02:18

Then, we have nutrition certifications that I would need more than two hands to count. They’re kind of a dime a dozen. There’s some good ones out there, there’s some not so good ones. But, I think you have to have an understanding of what type of person do you need for your athletes? I often refer my athletes out to registered dieticians because I’m not one myself, but I have a few that I go to here in Boulder.

Ryan Kohler  02:41

If it’s a little bit more of a clinical issue, then I’ll refer out to that business or that individual, because it’s outside of my scope. If it’s something more applied, and maybe raceday specific, then that’s more in my wheelhouse, so I’ll work with my athletes on that and work with other coaches athletes in that area, too.

Joe Friel  03:03

Obviously, we can look for people who have have degrees in nutrition, who have some educational background, or they’ve learned from especially in a university setting, or some sort of an organization that provides training for sport nutritionist, is there anything else besides education and degrees that we should be looking for in hiring a nutritionist?

Ryan Kohler  03:27

We could also look try to get a sense for their philosophy, their biases, where where they stand in terms of the information that’s out there. Like I said, there’s so much information and misinformation available that some nutritionists may come with some pretty steep biases to say like, “I only coach people to eat this way, or this is my one belief.” I think we have to have an understanding of, are they are they open minded to all of the potential ways that people may go about fueling themselves as athletes? Or are they a little bit more rigid with their mindset to say, “No, I really only feel comfortable working with people if they do it this way.”

Joe Friel  04:06

If I’m a coach, and I’ve got a way of seeing the world in nutrition, should that play a role in trying to find the right person to work with my company?

Ryan Kohler  04:18

I think you want to have some alignment there for sure. But, I also think that with nutrition, there’s so many ways of doing this, that bringing someone in who has different perspective and has a different way of working with athletes can be pretty helpful. That’s the thing, we take one athlete 10 different coaches will probably write 10 different training programs for them. Same thing with nutrition, is that you can probably get there in the end, but there’s probably at least 10 different ways to do it. So having those different perspectives I think can be a benefit.

Joe Friel  04:50

Okay, that would be something that would work for me if I know I should be looking for somebody who I at least agree with. We may not agree on everything, but we should probably agree on an awful lot of things, some very basic things we should agree on.

Joe Friel  05:05

Let’s say I found that person who’s got the background I’m looking for who’s got a way of looking at nutrition in a very similar to my way of looking at it. I thought that I want to turn them loose on my athletes. What sort of things should the athletes be gaining? What kind of benefit are my athletes going to get from having worked with a nutritionist?

Ryan Kohler  05:32

So definitely a different perspective. Yeah, like I said, as coaches, we have a certain level of nutrition knowledge that we will all bring to that relationship. But one of the biggest benefits I think is getting that new perspective and if there’s specific problems that the athlete has, maybe it’s low energy, or maybe they’re bunking during a race, that’s where if you have someone that can assist with that, you can start to address very specific problems.

How do athletes benefit?

Joe Friel  05:59

Is there anything in particular that really stands out as something that most athletes need assistance with in terms of nutrition?

Ryan Kohler  06:06

A big one that I hear a lot is, the question of, how do I eat? It’s basically a “tell me what to do” sort of approach. What it boils down to is everybody knows that they can do better with their nutrition, they know that as athletes, they have this engine that needs to be fueled, and they’re not always certain how to go about that.

Ryan Kohler  06:27

The nutritionist becomes a really a nutrition coach, to help them just look at their their daily habits and say, “Okay, can we do better? What’s working well? Let’s keep these things but what can we work on improving?” I think that’s a huge benefit where they can come into play.

Joe Friel  06:41

It’s amazing. I’ve been through so many experiences with athletes, and even coaches, who have very unusual ways of looking at nutrition, which can be really detrimental to the to the athlete.

Joe Friel  06:53

Are there any strange situations you’ve seen along that line where athletes really needed a great deal of assistance with trying to get their nutrition? Especially with race day nutrition, that seems to be the critical one for athletes.

Joe Friel  06:53

One of my assistant coaches, one time this assistant coach, realize this is somebody now who’s trained in coaching, was doing an Ironman. He decided the day of the race, what he was going to do with nutrition. This figured out how many calories had to take in for the entire race, and eaten before the race. They kind of saw this as being like an automobile, you just fill the tank, and you go race. But that’s obviously not the way nutrition works, it’s much more complex than putting gas in your car. I can see where athletes would have lots of reasons why they need somebody to help them with the trying to get their diet correct.

Ryan Kohler  07:45

To your point, I think the race day is a pretty big one. In one of my old positions over at CU sports medicine, we would do all kinds of marketing early in the year to try and promote race day nutrition. When it came around to like late May, early June, getting close to the summer events particularly when we had the boulder Ironman here, we would be flooded with requests for Race Day plans.

Ryan Kohler  08:10

Really the problem was they’re asking for these two, three weeks out from a race when they’ve had no time to practice with it, no time to work on executing it. That’s something where if you as a coach, if you can have a nutritionist on staff to help with the timing of that to say, “Hey, let’s start this process four months out,” so you have time to develop a plan, refine it, implement it in some B race or C level races of practice. Then execute on race day, then that’s a really effective approach rather than the “gas tank” approach.

Joe Friel  08:39

That’s a very good comment. I see that all the time in training an athlete for a priority race. There are all kinds of things that have to be done for race tactics, race strategy, and get all these things pulled together. One of the biggies is, how do I treat nutrition? Especially for the longer distance races. How do I get nutrition right? Saving that until the very end is kind of a gigantic mistake, because the athletes should be trying this out in race like workouts in preparation for the race for weeks, if not months, to make sure we’ve got this narrowed down to the right things to do.

Joe Friel  09:18

I’ve hired a nutritionist to work with my athletes. Is there any benefit that my company might receive from having brought in someone who’s an expert on nutrition? How does that gonna benefit my company?

Ryan Kohler  09:31

We talked a little bit about the race day nutrition already, and that’s of course, a new revenue stream that you can bring on for those those performance oriented athletes. If you have individuals that are looking for more of like a diet overhaul or just or weight loss and more health benefits, then that opens up another potential stream where a nutritionist can come into play.

Ryan Kohler  09:52

I really enjoy working with those athletes because it’s a lot of what I think we miss these days in nutrition, which is just changing habits and adjusting lifestyle. Which really, we’re doing that in coaching as it is where we try to motivate athletes and help them complete the workouts that they have set for themselves. If we can do that with nutrition as well, that allows us to broaden our scope from just like masters, competitive athlete, for example, to now anyone and everyone who wants to just improve their health.

Joe Friel  10:23

What we’re essentially talking about is actually expanding your business to a larger market. There are far more people out there who need help with their diet, who are not athletes, then who are athletes. You got this potential gigantic market that you can also bring into your company. It requires a [different] mindset on your side of the whole issue.

Joe Friel  10:46

In looking back at working with, with athletes over the years, is there something that really stands out for you, as something which is common that nutritionists can really help the athlete, get back on the path to having good performances in races by making some small change?

Addressing specific nutrition challenges

Ryan Kohler  11:02

One big one that I’ve noticed over the years is athletes that overall, the problem becomes, they have low energy. They’re not able to perform and recover as well as they could. That’s something that they may miss, their coach may miss, because it’s just additional bandwidth that’s required to help troubleshoot that.

Ryan Kohler  11:20

When I talk to those athletes, I often hear them, when I ask them to describe their their habits to me, they’ll say that they eat really clean. That immediately sends up a red flag, because from what I’ve seen, that usually means they’re under-eating. They’re eating really healthy foods, but they may not be getting enough. That’s something that’s easy to miss because you feel good about the foods you’re eating, but then you start to wonder, well, why am I not performing as expected? So, having worked with athletes over over there, in that realm, over the years, we can we can help identify, “Okay, you’re eating really well, let’s keep a lot of these habits. But now we just need to make some small changes, to make sure that you’re getting enough total energy to meet the demands that your body is putting out.”

Joe Friel  11:59

Good point. Ryan, you mentioned athletes tell you they eat a “clean” diet? What does that mean? What can a nutritionists do about that type of answer from an athlete?

Ryan Kohler  12:11

With endurance athletes, historically, when I hear the word “clean,” and then we actually go and look at what they’re eating, I find that it usually means they’re restricting carbohydrates, sometimes quite significantly. We know carbohydrates get demonized in the society today. Many times, they’re just pushing them almost completely away. What we do is look at, what are the good things they are eating.

Ryan Kohler  12:32

Let’s say they have a lot of salad through the day, and there’s not many calories in that. What we’re trying to fix, is really to bridge that gap between what they’re actually consuming, and what their body needs. So then we look at fuels in terms of what do you need as an athlete? Carbohydrates provide energy, so can we now take the existing foods that you have that are great choices, and just add some carbohydrate to that, add some protein to it, if they’re missing that, and just try to boost what they’re already doing. On the other hand, we may just say, “Hey, you’re doing a lot of great things. You’re just not getting enough. So let’s see how we can work on just turning up those serving sizes.”

Joe Friel  13:03

Thanks, Ryan. Good information. This is the sort of thing that I think that we as coaches can really benefit from. Our coaching companies can grow and become much more profitable, much more prosperous. If we look at all the considerations of all the possibilities, of ways you can you can grow your business by providing services, perhaps beyond what you normally provide. So looking for somebody that’s got a background in nutrition, I think is one key way of doing this. I would highly recommend that you give that some thought.