Mark Ellison stands outside the Aon Training Complex

Mark Ellison's five tips and advice on nutrition

Mark Ellison has been the nutrition consultant at Manchester United for almost a decade.

He also works with heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua, rugby side Sale Sharks and a wide range of other sportsmen and sportswomen but took time from his busy schedule to discuss some key aspects of his work, and how all athletes can get themselves in the best condition, during an exclusive interview with us.

Here are five great tips and pieces of advice to help ensure you are always in peak condition...

Mark Ellison stands outside the Aon Training Complex
Mark Ellison photographed recently at the Aon Training Complex.

REFUEL BEFORE GAMES

“Underfuelling has two different effects. In the short term, it’s going to impact directly on that game or training session. If you are underfuelled, your muscle glycogen stores are going to deplete quicker, leading to fatigue and, ultimately, it will reduce the intensity of that performance.

”When you’re tired, you make mistakes, bad decisions and your reactions are poorer. Fatigue can also lead to muscle tightness and soreness and, heaven forbid, you can sustain an injury. So, ultimately, it reduces the amount of distance you can cover and the intensity that you can do in that work-out. In the long term, if you chronically under-fuel every day, you are going to lose weight, become weaker and lose muscle mass. Across all sports, it’s relative energy deficiency (REDS). That can be really debilitating and people can look at other things like over-training syndrome or unexplained fatigue. If you’re not getting the fuelling right on a daily basis, that is the long-term risk but the short-term risk is you’re not going to perform at your best and not going to get the intensity from that work-out because you’re not going to be able to go for as long.

“So the SiS Pre-90 absolutely comes into play. It’s not easy to get enough energy before a game through the basic quality diet alone. Often there will become a reliance on easy to consume liquids, like the Pre-90 so you can get that in a drink without making a big change to the diet. And I quite like that. Managing appetite and managing your normal routines is key and being able to stick to a consistent diet and nice routines, supplementing that with a simple drink means that, when we take that away a day after a game, let’s say, you’re back to your normal routine without thinking you’ve missed a meal or you’ve missed something. It makes it quite easy.

"It doesn’t matter if you’re an elite athlete or a Sunday League player, hydration is going to affect you in the same way. It’s driving that thirst and making sure you turn up to training session and games well hydrated, especially if you’re playing in the peak of summer. It’s quite funny as we talk about the heat and sweating more in the summer but, in the Sunday League, everyone is wrapped up in long leg-ins, hats and thick tops. People don’t realise how much you sweat when you wear increased layers of clothing. So your sweat losses are just as great in the winter as the summer, if you’re wearing lots of extra layers. The effects of that are just the same. When you get dehydrated, even two per cent can be a very small amount of water, we’ve talked about how much people can lose in one session, and it can affect concentration and decision making and you can make mistakes and let the team down. You don’t want to be letting your Sunday League team-mates down by getting tired.

EVERY PLAYER IS DIFFERENT

“All players are different and you've got bigger athletes but it's not just the big guys but some of the ones who might be lower in weight, yet cover a lot of distance. Some of those midfield engine players who go box to box. They’re burning calories and burning through carbohydrates all day long so the SiS Pre-90 products can be really helpful.

"Overseas ones, say South Americans, are obviously different in how we communicate and also their likes and dislikes. Physiologically, there are no major differences and, you know, there is no difference in requirements per se, other than size and stature and the amount of workload they do. The different thing is tastes. We have a fantastic catering team here that are really accommodating of all of the guys’ different tastes. There are different dishes and different themes in the canteen so they’re very fortunate to have a broad menu that covers a lot of different tastes. Some like spice in their food and a lot of seasoning, while others like quite plain dishes.

“Certainly in pre-season and when we get new players, there is a big focus to do one-to-one work. Typically, for myself, everyone will be reviewed quarterly to update things like body composition, in pre-season there is a big focus to get people’s blood datas to inform what we do and how we work. Beyond that, I’m really fortunate that I’ve been here 10 years now and I get to see these players come through the system and can educate them, support them and give them routines and knowledge that they can go away and be independent players and make their own decisions. That is what we strive towards. There is no doubt about it, some players like the comfort of having a highly restrictive plan. They want every meal planned out – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and supper so they know exactly what they’ve got and know exactly when they are going to have it because that gives them reassurance, may give them confidence and might make their life easier. It takes that decision making away from them. You get some athletes that are into the detail, they want to know whether it’s eight grams per kilo of carbs today. What does that look like? Where are my carbs going to be and how much will I get in my pre-match meal? They are really engaged in the science but, ultimately, we are dealing with human beings.

”I don’t know if anyone has tried, certainly I did as a student, I remember doing the weighed food programmes and measuring out things. It’s hard. It’s not practical. So we tend to deal in real-world terms. Some portions are the size of your fist or actually that meal is going to be a high-carb meal or that one is going to be a high-carb, high-protein meal that we’re waiting for you take. Someone will put it in your hand to take. The same on the pitch, someone is nudging you to take the right things and it’s presented there for them and is all geared up in the right way for them. Whether you’re individual and want something prescriptive or whether you want something more broad and generic and want to go to a restaurant, off the cuff, and need to make the right decision, that’s what we aspire towards.

SiS products have been used by Manchester United for some time.
The SiS products have proved popular with the Manchester United players.

EAT HEALTHILY (THE TYPICAL DIET) 

“Two days before a game, typically, will be a reasonable training load so there would be a high carbohydrate intake, it might be upwards of six grams per kilo of body weight. A good carbohydrate intake spread through the day across breakfast, lunch and snacks. A high protein intake. So lots of fresh fish, poultry and dairy foods and there is always a focus on a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables, for all the vitamins, fibre and goodness that comes from there, and some good quality fats. So a typical breakfast might be two or three eggs to give them 20-30 grams of protein across the whole meal, a couple of slices of homegrain toast, wilted spinach or something like that on the side, as some veggies, and a glass of fruit juice or a smoothie to top that protein up. So it will be a really balanced intake and then, during training, it will either be water or sports drinks with different electrolytes or, if we need the extra carbohydrates, that will be the Go electrolytes product to keep topping up. Post-training, it’s the recovery shakes and, again, it’s a hard day, especially the day before a game, with a high-carb version of that, where we’re trying to drive the carbs as well as the proteins. If it’s a lighter day, say matchday -2, it will probably be more reduced carb product for those who don’t need it, it will be lunch, a balanced meal, let’s say we always start the plate with some protein so put the protein on your plate first.

”The kitchen is set up like that so the protein is the first thing you see – chicken, fish, meat. Start with the protein, the first thing on your plate, and then vegetables. Fill up on the veg, put plenty on your plate and take a large section of veggies, and the final bit is carbohydrates. Depending how hard you’ve worked. If you have done 10,000 metres of work in that session, you need decent carbs. Is there a game the next day? Yes, you need the carbs. If it was a lighter session, that carbohydrate focus is reduced and it’s more proteins and vegetables. It’s set up like that and that will be a balanced lunch, most people take some fresh fruit or yoghurts for a dessert. As you get closer to the games, we might allow what some people might call more naughty desserts. For me, it’s not naughty, it’s just functional and it might be a light sponge or something with some decent carbohydrates in there. It’s to encourage that muscle hydrogen restoration if we’re hitting, like I said before, that 800 grams a day for a big player, that’s hard so a healthy dessert can be a great way to top that up, especially if there are some fresh fruits in there.

“Mid-afternoon, maybe a snack at home – fresh fruit, a Greek yoghurt, we love that, and nuts in it, things like that, and then dinner will be a balanced meal again, similar to lunch. In the run-up to the games, that will have decent carbohydrates but, if there’s not a game, that might be when we tone down the carbohydrates a little bit and focus more on fish, meat and poultry. Lots of vegetables and little or even no carbohydrates if necessary, depending what is coming the following day. But that day before the game, it’s all carbs.

”We really do have a great culture here at the club of moderation. We promote people eating real food, supplemented by great quality products we know are tried and tested and more importantly trusted from a testing point of view for anti-doping. So we don’t really say no to much. It’s about balance. It’s about having a little treat at weekends and being able to sustain what we see as a good diet all season, not just in the season but the whole year and during the off season as well.

Scott McTominay takes liquids in board during a training session in the heat of Dubai.
Rehydration is vital for United's stars, including midfielder Scott McTominay.

KEEP TOPPING UP

“I think everyone needs four litres of water a day. Not necessarily four litres in SiS Go Hydro tabs, obviously, but in eating and drinking. There is a lot of literature that would say people want to aim for four litres a day, two of which come in drinks and two of which come in food. Most of the foods we encourage people to eat like fresh fruits, vegetables and even meats, and obviously dairy products have huge water content, but people are often surprised when they realise how much water and hydration they are getting from foods.

"Half comes from there and, if you’re having that good diet, and the other half is from actual drinks every day. For an athlete, it’s elevated and, that’s where the challenges around routine and hydration come in, we have to make sure we add electrolytes to drive uptake into the muscles, where they’re needed, but also to drive thirst as we know because of the salt. We all know salt in things like peanuts makes us thirsty so it plays two roles there. Yeah, the players and any athletes really, we’d encourage them to have those two litres from drinks but also, in addition to that, drink one and half times what they lose in a training session. So, if they’re training once a day and you’ve got sweat losses, you’ve got to replace that twice a day. It’s not unusual, especially on pre-season tours in the heat, that players sweat two litres in a session, like two kilos in a long session. So driving that thirst and maintaining that hydration intake is starting the session well, maintaining it during the session and replacing what has been lost afterwards. Every single one of the players should know what they lose in a training session.

“The rule of thumb is you drink one and half times what you’ve lost. If you’ve lost two litres, drink three. And that’s purely to account for, what do you do when you drink a lot, you pee. It’s positively hydrating you but also making you go to the toilet so you need to put it back. The SiS Go Hydration tabs are brilliant for that because they’ve got flavour and it stops the lads getting bored. We talked about the more cultural side and SiS have been brilliant in accommodating lots of different flavours, they’ve almost personalised drinks for the boys because certain players like this flavour and that flavour so they can’t really get bored because there is such a range of flavours. It’s the same with the tabs and the salts to drive that thirst and keep you drinking really."

Mark Ellison.
Mark Ellison believes there are many ways athletes can gain an edge with their food intake.

HOW TO GAIN AN EDGE 

“We’ve got two products – the SiS Rego Protein which has no carbs for us and the SiS Rego Power which is a high-carb alternative; that is our go-to recovery product. So, immediately after training sessions, especially when we’ve got that focus for a game the next day, we put that SiS Rego Power in for a good hit of carbohydrates and a good hit of quality proteins, like fast whey proteins and obviously the fluids in it to make it a drink. So we’re hitting all three areas. We’re refuelling, the players are getting the carbohydrates, they’re starting to put the energy back for the game the following day and rehydrating them with the fluids and electrolytes and we’re helping the muscles recover with the quality proteins there. Football being that multi-directional sport where, every time you change direction, you’re potentially doing muscle damage, it’s really important the protein is there to repair that muscle damage. As much as you can recover as best as you can for the following day.

"United may have famously eaten Jaffa Cakes in the past and they are sweet, sugary snacks similar to what we are talking about in the modern sports nutrition strategies. There were probably better options available even then and we prefer things like bananas, they’re a really interesting one. We’ve all had unripe bananas and they can upset you a little bit as the sugars are not broken down. There you have got those more long chains of sugars that take time to digest, whereas a banana when it’s ripe or even over-ripened and starts to go brown, means there are more sugars available. This is perfect for us, a bit more like the faster-absorbing sugary snack that gives us energy quickly. So we’ll have a range of things available and the guys might have a banana and a Go electrolyte or a banana and a gel.

“From a probiotic point of view, you can have them in commercially available drinks, there are a few on the market that are just a convenient yoghurt-based drink fermented with good bacteria. We can get that in tablet form so that we have them available as well. Especially when you travel as these things have a big role, traditionally as research has showed it’s reducing risks of travellers’ diarrhea. So that’s one of the reasons we supplement. There was a nice study done some time ago now, looking at Premier League players, and there was a 50 per cent reduction almost in upper respiratory tract infections, basically coughs and colds, so the gut is a really interesting area at the moment for sports nutrition where research is going down that route to a ‘second brain’ and a micro environment that has a big effect on the immune system. It’s possibly the first line of defence of the immune system for anything you consume and it’s very interesting for us right now. We encourage the players to take rich probiotic foods or, if they don’t like the foods, supplements as you get things like kimchi in a Korean diet with fermented cabbage but there are loads in the British market and it’s encouraged on a daily basis.”

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