Lessons from a Life in Sport from Professor Louise Burke – catherine norton rd phd.

Links and figures added by C Norton and not directly form Professor Burke’s presentation.

The 2022 International Sport and Exercise Conference (ISENC) took place in Manchester last December. This is the annual gathering of the good and the great of exercise nutritionist, dietitians, physiologists, and wannabes, where we celebrate successes of the past year and plan collaborations and research opportunities for the years ahead.

There was a varied programme with parallel tracks for nutrition on health and performance themes. The speakers were a diverse group but a predictable line up on the world’s leading researchers in the performance nutrition and sport science field.

Professor Louise Burke of the Australian Catholic University presented a plenary session on her reflections of her career to date in performance nutrition research and athlete support in elite sport. Her abstract for this session went as follows:

In July 2012 just prior to the opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games, simultaneous activities by the BBC Panorama current affairs programme and the British Medical Journal directed attention to sport science research. The outcome was a hearty criticism of the work of those involved in sport science research with headlines such as “40 years of sport science research and little insights gained” published. There was criticism of small sample sizes commonly seen in investigative studies, the lack of the generalisability of the results, the intrusion of commercial bias and the failure of replication of results. While these summaries provide a small kernel of truth and a reminder that the peer-review process can be flawed, the producers and editors misunderstood the questions asked by athletes, their coaches and underestimate the challenges involved in providing answers.

The presentation from Professor Burke aimed to provide a critical analysis of the current understanding of the benefits of a arrange of sport nutrition strategies on sports performance, as well as impairment of performance associated with incorrect nutrition support. Professor Burke provided a road map for researchers and practitioners for researcher and practice with this criticism in mind.

Her thoughts could be summed up by with a pile of ‘Ps’! Professor Burke encourage researchers and practitioners to consider the following in planning and executing research and practice in this space.

Plan A (and Plan B)

Have a good plan but also remember the importance of a Plan B. Things often go wrong, especially when the stakes are high!


The aim of sports nutrition is to amplify the outcomes of training. Since training is periodised to macro / meso / micro cycles, nutrition needs to follow suit (for both individual and team pursuits).


There is no one-size-fits-all approach! Consensus guidelines often offer ranges of intakes and Prof Burke recommends personalised approaches to optimise outcomes for athletes. Knowing your athlete and personalising the recommendations to their unique individual requirements is necessary.


The importance of a research-informed, evidenced approach to nutrition interventions was emphasized (repeatedly!) but this is not necessarily something that RDs need to be reminded of! However the hierarchy of evidence might not always be the best model in sport science where true elite athletes are in a minority and  randomised controlled trials are uncommon.

Performance focused

The end game of performance nutrition is podium positions and winning medals, so interventions must improve performance to get buy in from athletes and coaches. Sometimes statistically significant will not be physiologically significant or translate to performance improvements, but the converse is also true. In sport sometimes the smallest difference is the difference between winning and losing, and winning is the aim for performance.

Practical and pragmatic

If the performance nutrition plan proposed is neither affordable, nor practical in the intended setting – opt for Plan B! DEXA may well be the gold standard tool for body composition assessment in clinical practice but the use of this pitch-side or for large squads with limited budgets might not mean it is the best option for performance practice.


Performance nutrition is rarely a single nutrient intervention, but often involves stacking of approaches and supplements to achieve many outcomes. Not all will act synergistically and often prioritisation is necessary.


Game day is NEVER the time to try a new strategy! Fail to practice and prepare to fail. Strategies should always be trialled in training and low-stakes events.

Population (diversification and inclusion)

Females are often under-represented in sport science studies and Prof Burke and her colleagues are leading the way in advocating for better diversification and inclusivity in sport science research participation. Women are not small men and the extrapolation of data on the evidence for supplementation in men may not have direct application to female athletes.


No one is an island and collaboration with practitioners and researchers within and beyond your own discipline should improve outcomes for the collective.


Whether your approach was successful or not, there is always merit is sharing your findings or reflections with peers. Find opportunities to share experiences and knowledge with like-minded colleagues to drive professional standards. However, Professor Burke advised caution in the ‘Twittersphere’ expressing opinions at the extremes; rather  she recommended accepting that most things in sports science and performance nutrition are not binary and exist on a continuum.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable conference with excellent educational and networking opportunities. The team from the Physical Education & Sport Sciences Department at the University of Limerick is looking forward to implementing Professor Burke’s advice in our research and practice in the year ahead and updating colleagues at ISENC 2023.

Dr. Catherine Norton is a registered dietitian, accredited performance nutritionist, lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition and course director for the MSc Sports Performance in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, UL.  Catherine is also vice chair of the Healthy UL Steering Group and Leads the Healthy Eating Sub-group. 

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