Adam Russell


July 10, 2019

The Big Secret to Sports Nutrition

Pssst.  Hey, kid. Yeah, you.  Over here. No, over here. No, not in the portapotty, that’s just weird. Who hides in a portapotty? Over here, by the Nespresso machine. Yeah, there you go. You wanna know a secret? How would you like to know the most powerful, legal, performance-enhancer that exists today for rugby?  Or any sport for that matter?

No, I’m serious.  And don’t worry – I’m not trying to sell you anything. Now I gotta tell you, it took me a long time to find this one, so I’m also not just going to hand it over. How long? How about literally decades of doing and funding library and experimental research, conducting observational studies, trying it out on myself and those around me, taking copious notes, volumes of data, and spending hours in conversation with other, far more intelligent people who were coming to the same conclusion.

You know what – you look like somebody who knows their way around sports supplements. Why don’t you guess? No? Ok, let me guess for you. Caffeine? Hoo boy. GREAT guess, because caffeine is WAY up there in terms of its established track record of robust and replicable research and application – from pro sports to the military to NASA to pretty much anyone who ever accomplished anything worth a damn (I can’t speak for Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, but I suspect they had some Nespresso machines, too) or worth reading. That includes – ironically - Michael Lewis’ book, “Caffeine,” in which the genius who brought you The Blind Side, Moneyball, and The Big Short literally goes OFF of caffeine to figure out how important it is to human innovation. So great guess. But…no.

Creatine? Again, a solid guess. I mean, when that stuff exploded on the scene in the 90s, nobody had seen anything like it from a legal substance. 5-10 pounds of body mass, 25% increases in your big lifts, turns out it may even improve working memory under stress, enhance aerobic endurance, potentially even help mitigate mild trauma to the brain.  Big wins. But…also, no.

You see where this is going. To this list of potentially most powerful legal performance-enhancer, you might also add fish oil, vitamin D, beta-alanine, curcumin, beet juice, whey hydrolysate, micellar casein, zinc and magnesium, and sodium bicarbonate; or maybe you’re a big “gut health” fan, so you’d add specific strains of probiotics, tons of prebiotics, intermittent fasting, and digestive enzymes; or you realize how important sleep is, so you’re going to vote for melatonin, 5-HTP, l-theanine, gamma-amino butyric acid, or something more mechanical, like ear plugs, weighted cold sheets, and specific frequency “pink” noise; or you like your “toys”, so you’d be pissed if we didn’t put infrared saunas, cryogenic (or just painfully cold) baths, vibration plates, compression garments, blood flow restriction cuffs, Vktry insoles, ArmourBite mouthguard, Nike Maxsight (if you can still find those…), POWERBreathe, the ol’ foam roller, massage guns, weighted vests, and “hypoxia masks”; or you realize that the most important muscle in sport is the one between your ears, so you’ve got to add alpha-GPC, phosphatidylcholine, Citicoline, nicotine, and maybe even transcranial electrical stimulation devices like Halo and mindfulness apps like HeartMath or Headspace. Or, perhaps you’re old enough to be cynically-inclined, and you wouldn’t dream of not heading up that list with “placebo.”

Nope, nope, nope. Because any of these will do…if it is given to you by someone who is trustworthy. Many consultants and TED talk gurus will say that trust is the most powerful legal performance-enhancer, but I think that’s wrong too.  Because trust is a behavior – and it can be abused – and it can come and go for reasons that neuroscience, psychophysiology, cognitive psychology, and even sociology is struggling to still understand.  And the literature isn’t very helpful, given failures to replicate what we thought we knew.  We barely know how to measure it.  Hell, trust isn’t even a single thing – saying you trust your coach, you trust your airline pilot, you trust your doctor, and you trust your granny are very different things.  

But what IS powerful is knowing that your coach, your airline pilot, your doctor, and your granny are TRUSTWORTHY.  Trustworthiness is the most powerful legal performance-enhancer, because a) it breaks down to things we can actually measure, b) it is contagious to others, and c) it creates the conditions for trust, whereas just trusting does not lead to trustworthiness. How do you know someone is trustworthy? It comes down to three main factors: their competence, their integrity, and their commitment to a bigger cause.  

Competence means, obviously, that they CAN do the thing they promised they would do. If I say I’m going to put together a nutrition plan for an athlete that is going to help them, I have to know something about a lot of things – I have to be competent enough to do that (and this is often why socially we require licenses and certifications as a start). But less obviously, competence also means that someone acknowledges when they CAN’T do something. Further, competent folks are always learning, which means re-evaluating what they think they already know, and as we’ve found with the best performers in areas as diverse as military strategy, geopolitical forecasting, and financial markets, they are always updating their information. They are generally what the political scientist Phil Tetlock calls “foxes,” vs “hedgehogs.” Foxes know many things, whereas hedgehogs know one big thing.  It turns out that people who know one big thing – the hedgehogs – tend to be more confident in asserting that what they know is right, no matter the new evidence, and hence worse at updating their information – leading them to be frequently wrong, but never in doubt. The most competent people are rarely the most confident, and confusing competence and confidence – while very common - can impact your ability to  surround yourself with trustworthy people – missing out on the most powerful legal performance-enhancer.

Likewise, with integrity – trustworthy people will keep their promises even when the incentives for them change.  So it’s not just whether they CAN keep their promise, but also whether they WILL, even if the rewards change such that they stand to benefit personally more by not keeping their promise.  Society tries to promote integrity through contracts, legal action, and various documents that give people a chance to punish those who lack integrity.  But for us, we need folks

The last component of trustworthiness is a little “squishier,” but just as important as competence and integrity. It is sometimes called “benevolence,” but I prefer the term “commitment > 1” (commitment greater than one).  That is, trustworthy people actually CARE about keeping their promises, because they care about something bigger than themselves.  They should care about others.  And the bigger their horizon of commitment grows, the more trustworthy they become – and the more powerful a performance-enhancer.

Someone who is competent, has integrity, and cares about a bigger cause, which includes you, should presumably know when to wrap up a blog post. I’m trying. But I can’t end without noting that – even as I lay out the science over the next months and years, and detail how YOU can use it to reach your very best performance going forward – the best way to build up your trustworthy tribe is to be trustworthy yourself. So while you came to the AC and our blogs perhaps expecting us to lay out our plans to enhance your performance on and off the pitch, in reality this is the first step towards our collective journey to making sure we all benefit from our unique ability to enjoy the most powerful, legal performance-enhancer possible – becoming the team that CAN do its job, that WILL do its job, and that cares about the job for the bigger commitment of each other.

More soon. (Oh, and in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to take some fish oil, get some sleep, and get your vitamin D levels tested…)

Adam Russell

"caffeine is WAY up there in terms of its established track record of robust and replicable research and application"