Fuelling elite athletes for success
Tokyo, 2021. The Australian rowing team is gearing up for competition after a long and tricky preparation for the mid-pandemic Olympics. Tricky for the rowers themselves, but also tricky for the support staff, including the team’s head of nutrition, Bronwen Lundy.
Working with athletes at the pinnacle of elite sport may seem like a dream come true for Lundy, one of Australia’s leading sports dietitians, but she insists “it’s not always as glamorous as it sounds”.
In Tokyo, due to the ever-present threat of COVID-19, dining in the catered competition venue was deemed too risky for Australian athletes.
This meant Bronwen had to don an apron herself and cater for 38 hungry rowers from the team room.
“There I am making bircher in zip-lock bags and piping it into disposable coffee cups, and trying to order ingredients for a hundred wraps a day when I can’t leave the village to go to the shops,” she recalls.
“It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of pressure, but it’s all worthwhile when you know the athletes are prepared to perform at their best.”
The Australian rowing team won two gold and two bronze medals from four races in Tokyo, a stellar effort given the less-than-ideal preparation.
And while the athletes wear the medals, the support staff also share the spoils.
“Rowing is a gruelling sport, and you never get a gold medal easy,” says Bronwen, who also worked with the Australian Olympics squad in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“To see our athletes do so well and to be part of that, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
Getting her start
When Bronwen Lundy was in high school, she had two main passions: food and sport.
She competed in lightweight rowing, a category of the sport where limits are placed on the maximum bodyweight of competitors.
Food prep in the team room in Tokyo.
“I loved rowing but I had a lot of trouble making weight, as a lot of lightweight rowers do,” she says.
Bronwen finally began to make headway in the sport when she was referred to the highly-regarded clinical dietitian, Dr Helen O’Connor.
“Helen turned around my approach to making weight, and she was really inspiring, so I started to see a career pathway in sports nutrition that made sense to me.”
Years later, with a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Nutrition and Dietetics under her belt, and hands-on experience working with athletes in rugby league and rugby union, Bronwen took on a role as a performance nutritionist for the English Institute of Sport.
As an Australian accustomed to rowing and rugby, the position exposed her to lesser-known sports like synchronised swimming and badminton.
“I can’t say I was initially particularly excited about those sports, because they’re not such a big thing in Australia,” she says. “But I got stretched in different directions and the athletes were great to work with, and as a result, I really grew as a nutrition scientist.”
After half a dozen years in the UK, Bronwen Lundy returned home to work as a senior sports dietitian with Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
It was a homecoming in more ways than one, as Bronwen found herself back in her comfort zone rubbing shoulders with elite rowers.
Rowers are unique amongst athletes in that they require strength, speed and endurance, and these unique demands have important nutritional needs.
“Nutrition is really important in rowing because of the massive amount of training they do,” says Bronwen, who points out that elite rowers consume up to 30,000 kilojoules a day, more than three times the recommended daily intake of an average adult.
“They’re really big humans and they have a huge amount of lean mass, so they’ve got a big driver of energy need and they really challenge themselves in the boat.”
Nutrition is not only important for maximising the performance of these athletes; it’s also crucial in minimising their risk of injury.
In recent years, Bronwen has been engaged in research focused on the role that nutrition and energy availability can play in injury prevention.
“We now have a greater understanding of the importance of nutrition in minimising the risk of injury,” she says. “It’s become quite clear that when athletes have low energy availability, they generally have a greater chance of getting hurt.”
In 2016, Bronwen Lundy commenced her PhD through ACU’s Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research.
Her research project came about as a result of an end-of-season team debrief she attended when she first arrived at the AIS.
While the rowing coaches and team leaders were satisfied with their nutrition program and supplementation practices, they wanted a greater focus on preventing illness and injury.
Bronwen saw this as an opportunity to initiate a research project that the coaches – and the athletes – would value.
She has since led several studies exploring energy availability and nutrition-related risk factors for rib stress fracture, a common injury amongst elite rowers.
Bronwen at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“What often happens with rib stress is that, right at the critical point, the athlete can’t train properly to compete at their best, and this commonly occurs in the lead-up to a major tournament,” says Bronwen, who expects to complete her PhD in 2022.
“It’s a really significant injury in rowing, and we know that bone and nutrition are pretty closely tied together, so I’ve spent a lot of time engaging in research to describe what the bone is like for rowers, and then exploring all the different things – nutrition, energy availability and other factors – which may be an influencer to injury.”
Her goal is to apply the new information gleaned from her research to the Australian rowing team in preparation for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
Injuries like rib stress could be the difference between a gold medal and a silver or bronze; or even worse, says Bronwen, it can mean athletes miss out on competition altogether.
“The last thing we want is rowers out of the boat for months on end,” she says.
“If we’re doing everything possible from a nutritional point of view, making sure that our athletes have enough energy available to repair and maintain their bone and prevent injury, then we’re putting athletes in a position to be healthy and to perform at their best, at the time that it matters most.”
Bronwen Lundy is a senior sports dietitian Rowing Australia, and a PhD candidate with ACU’s Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research.
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