mpact Kitchen: How did you get into working with professional athletes?

Sylvie Tetrault: I’ve spent my entire life in athletics. As a kid I did everything but ultimately I was fortunate enough to play rugby at the university level. It was my first introduction to high level athletics and I was humbled and amazed. (Just ask 20-year old Sylvie how it felt to hang from the pull up bar in front of all her teammates…not great.)

Right after university, I got certified as a strength coach. I moved to Toronto and started working at a busy gym with general population clients in order to get experience working with all types of clients. I worked my way up to run the gym as the health centre director but found that I had gotten away from my passion for training clients. Realizing that in addition to missing training clients, I had let my own health slip (too much sugar and coffee to get me through long work hours, and a lack of exercise), I quit that management position without a backup plan.

I did some soul searching and found that what I desired most was to get back to working with athletes. So I did some research and came upon a program from ex-NHL player Gary Roberts. I was inspired by his story, and how he returned to the NHL after a forced retirement due to an injury. He attributes his ability to return to the NHL to his lifestyle changes including nutrition, strength training, and recovery practices.

It was a long shot but I reached out and asked if he was hiring strength coaches (even if he wasn’t, I hoped I could at least learn from him). I went and shadowed he and his strength training team. I guess he liked me enough to hire me as his first female strength coach, which gave me my start with professional athletes.

I love being a strength coach but I soon became obsessed with recovery and nutrition. A desire to understand the recovery strategies of an athlete and a curiosity about my own injuries and health issues motivated me to go back to school and become a certified Holistic Nutritionist, specializing in athletics. It’s been quite the journey but I love what I do.

IK: Outside of the obvious (they need more calories), how is programming a diet for a pro athlete different from programming for a regular individual?

ST: My approach is similar regardless of the client, whether they are professional athletes, executives, or busy moms. We all want to be high level performers in our fields, and we all need a different approach. I want to work with my clients to find the one or two factors holding them back from reaching the next level. It could be low vitamin D for a professional hockey player that is leading to fatigue, or excessive caffeine for the busy mom always on the go.

The big difference in working with athletes is that we have to look at quality energy sources in higher amounts (for example, making sure they get higher quality carbohydrates before and after workouts to maintain energy levels and decrease fatigue). We look at good quality protein (chicken, turkey, fish, beans/legumes) after a hard workout in order to assist muscle growth and regeneration. Athletes also have to focus on recovery at all times of the day, not just after a workout, this means eating foods to assist in recovery like healthy fats like omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts etc.). Foods high in medium chain triglycerides (coconut, for example) assist in decreasing inflammation.

We look at the micronutrients needed to assist high intensity activity, including foods high in antioxidants like goji berries, blueberries, blackberries, artichokes, pecans, and kidney beans. Antioxidants decrease overall oxidative stress and inflammation by assisting in cell regeneration and muscle repair.

Lastly we want to ensure they are getting proper hydration and taking in foods high in electrolytes (coconut, avocados, dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, sea salt). These foods are incredibly important for athletes to assist in replenishing fluid loss and avoid cramping or fatigue during exercise.

With an NHL player discussing post-workout nutrition at Nature’s Emporium

IK: What other dietary needs might a pro athlete have that we might not know about?

ST: Athletes use up nutrients at a way faster rate than the average person which means that food is more than just fuel for athletes; it’s their livelihood. I always take an individual approach with every athlete I work with but on the whole it is vital they consume enough micronutrients and water to replace the lost amount. Lifestyle factors, such as stress and sleep, can significantly impact their performance and absorption, which in turn alters their nutrition plan. I always want to look at more than just what they are eating, the how and the why. If an athlete is over trained or in a very stressed state (sympathetic overdrive) their absorption of nutrients will likely be depleted; the cause of their stressed state can come from more than just food.

IK: What are some of the things you’ve learned working with pro athletes that you found transferable to non-athlete clients?

ST: Athletes are creatures of habit and routine. In working with them, understanding and building a program that recognizes that tendency is crucial to their success. My programs are focused on small incremental changes until these new healthy habits become a lifestyle, rather than an intense stressor. I created an online program called Inner Athlete for this reason. I want everyone to perform at highest level in whatever they choose, in whatever situation. The focus on habit and routine is something that we can all implement to our benefit.

IK: What’s something the average “weekend warrior” athlete tends to get wrong about their diet?

ST: Nutrition information can get super complicated with all of the different online resources available at our fingertips. It is easy to become caught up in what diet is the best for fat loss, muscle gain, etc. I don’t believe in an “all or nothing” approach to achieve long lasting changes. Often people are looking at what they need to cut out of their diets (gluten, dairy, grains, all carbs etc.) rather than focusing on what they need to add into their diet.

My initial suggestions are to work on boosting digestion, increasing vegetable intake, and increasing water consumption. Then, we can start to look at the foods that don’t work for you as an individual. We are all biochemically different so it is important that we recognize what foods make us feel great and what foods might not be the best for our individual bodies and health.

Sylvie and Gary Roberts speaking to a group of young hockey prospects about the what it takes to be a pro hockey player in the competitive sport today

IK: What are some of your top tips for the individual interested in being healthy and getting or staying in shape?

ST: Be consistent and approach food and exercise with fun and excitement rather than as a chore. Eating healthy and exercising can be fun (I know that is coming from a strength trainer/nutritionist but I truly love the way I eat and move). If you are not having fun with it and always thinking about exercise and nutrition as deprivation or judgement, it will be really difficult to make long lasting changes. I always recommend starting with these types of healthy lifestyle habits:

  • Add in 1-2 more servings of vegetables a day in a variety of colours
  • Add in 1 green smoothie or juice everyday
  • Drink more water
  • Eat whole real food without a complicated ingredient list with weird stuff you can’t identify and pronounce
  • Move in a way that makes you happy and try new forms of exercise to keep it exciting
  • Get your sleep. This is crucial for recovery, weight loss and hormonal function

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