Q&A: Performance nutrition with Sophie Pelham Burn

Sophie Pelham Burn is the founder of Nutrition SPB, a registered Nutritionist, intuitive eating coach and health ambassador. She helps clients reach, and surpass, their own personal goals and enjoy a healthy and fulfilled lifestyle. In this Q&A, we chat with Sophie about the impact nutrition has on sports performance, the concept of intuitive eating, her thoughts on the nutrition industry today, her top fuelling tips, and more. Read on!

The interview 

Hi Sophie, introduce yourself! Tell us about your journey to where you are today? Why nutrition?

I’m Sophie Pelham Burn, I am a nutritionist with a Masters of Medical Science in Human Nutrition, and further qualifications in sports nutrition and Intuitive Eating.

I was working as a private chef in London when one of the teenagers of the family I worked for started to get really into sport. At the same time, two people I was close to had cancer and were going through chemotherapy. In both of these very different circumstances, I kept hearing about the role of nutrition. As a chef, I only really thought about food from the perspective of flavour and texture, and as I started looking into the role of nutrition to support the body going through chemo, as well as how the right nutrition could help the teenager get the most from his training, I became more and more interested.

I realised quite quickly that it was a topic a lot more complex than something I could just look up on Google, so I enrolled in university to study for a masters in nutrition. That was quite a while ago now, and since then I have specialised in sports nutrition, with a particular interest in endurance sport, as well as female-specific sports nutrition, and latterly Intuitive Eating.

Sophie at an Ironman event with one of the athletes

You talk about ‘intuitive eating’, what does that mean?

Intuitive Eating is the name of an intervention or method that is made up of 10 guiding principles which aim to help people move away from diets, and find a less restrictive way of eating that is right for them and their body. At its core, it’s about focusing on health gain rather than weight loss, but it’s also about being kind to yourself and enjoying your food.

It’s a fantastic approach, although as with everything in nutrition, it’s not necessarily suitable for everyone. People who have an active or recent eating disorder, as well as those participating in high-level sports, may need a slightly different approach.

From a performance perspective, what advice do you have for anyone training for an event and want to start fuelling better?

The first thing would be to think about what kind of event you’re doing, and the training you’re doing to get there. Think about how your training is periodised, and what the goals of each training session are; a slow tempo run, a strength and conditioning session, maybe speed work and intervals? Each training session is essentially a stimulus for physiological adaptation, and matching your nutrition to each session, or type of stimulus, will help your body get the most benefit from your training.

Just how important is nutrition in sports performance?

It depends on the sport, and the level you’re competing at. I work with a lot of triathletes, and I always say that an Ironman is basically an eating competition! Not necessarily in terms of how much you can eat, but the level of importance of pre, during and post-race nutrition. The difference between winning a place at Kona (the IM world championship) and not can come down to nutrition. I also work with cross country skiers, and it really does make a difference there too as you’ve got the added factors of altitude and the cold to contend with.

For a lot of what are termed ‘intermittent’ sports, such as football, hockey or rugby, nutrition during the match itself is of slightly less importance, but of course, the right strategy during training is still going to be invaluable when it comes to getting the fitness adaptations you want, recovery, and maintaining a strong immune system.

And what’s the overall impact associated with getting your nutrition right, i.e. better recovery, wellbeing, improved overall energy levels?

All of those! Plus, of course, a well supported immune system, reduced risk of injury, long term health, and improved performance. Even for sports where technique is more important than nutrition, by keeping an athlete in peak health during training we can not only make sure they’re getting the most from each session, but also reduce the number of sessions missed due to illness or injury. Nutrition also has a role to play in mental health and emotional resilience, both of which are super important aspects of performance that aren’t often thought of in relation to nutrition.

What’s the biggest nutrition myth out there?

Gosh, there are so many, I can’t possibly decide! I guess it would have to be the sweeping generalisations; the ‘it worked for me so it’ll work for you’ rhetoric. To take the gut microbiome as an example, each of us has a set of microbes as unique as our fingerprints.

Layer over that our individual genetics, lifestyles, health histories etc and you can see why generalisations are so often myths. One of the vast generalisations I see everywhere is that most people should have 20 grams of protein within 30 minutes of a workout, and it’s something I did a fairly long post about recently over on my instagram page, @nutritionspb.

What’ are your best tips for pre-race, during the race and post-race fuelling?

Stick to the plan. Whatever you have worked out as your strategy during training, try to stick to it as best you can. Make sure you’ve done your homework and know what on-course nutrition there will be so that you can practise with that during training. Never put anything new in your tummy on race day! If the on-course nutrition isn’t going to work for you, make sure you know that you can carry enough of your own fuel with you, plus a few spares. You’d be surprised how often a gel or packet of Haribo gets dropped by accident!

How do you view the current state of the sports nutrition industry?

It’s the Wild West of the biological sciences! Which is why it’s so important for people to make sure they are only getting nutrition information from people who are suitably qualified, and registered to a professional regulatory body. In the UK that would be the BDA for dietitians or the Association for Nutrition for nutritionists.

What would you say to anyone who tries fad diets or unhealthy weight loss programs?

Take a moment to explore why you want to lose weight fast. What is it that you really want, that you think lies at the end of the weight loss ‘rainbow’? How else do you think you might get there? For a cyclist looking to maximise power to weight ratio, crash dieting is likely to give you a dip in performance and immune system so won’t give you the performance benefit that was the original goal. Instead, try focusing on increasing your power by including some more strength-based workouts. Same goal, different, and healthier, approach!

For people who are more driven by health than high performance, try establishing exercise habits that make you feel good, and eat healthily without imposing any rules on yourself. If you think about your ‘why’ for losing weight, chances are it comes down to self-confidence. Aim for health gain rather than focusing on weight loss, and get to work on improving your self-belief!

Lastly, in the social influencer world we live in, what does the term ‘healthy lifestyle’ mean to you?

To me, it means finding an exercise you enjoy, and choosing what to eat from a place of nourishing your body and your mind, rather than restriction and deprivation. If the pursuit of ‘healthy’ is reducing the ‘happy’, then it’s not going to do you any favours in the long term. Mental and physical health are inextricably linked, so a healthy lifestyle is one that addresses both of those aspects with equal importance. 

Thank you Sophie! You can follow Sophie’s Instagram channel here or visit her website here.