Physical development of the young athlete: Doing it right Part 3

The first part of this series looked at the importance of providing the young developing body with lots of varied physical inputs, the pitfalls of sedentary living and early sports specialization. The second installment looked at gym training and how moving away from the conventional approach might serve us better in the long run. This third and final part will discuss nutrition; how our physical capacities are inextricably linked with what we eat. We understand that a good diet can reduce the likelihood of developing degenerative cardio-vascular diseases, but do we realize the effect our diets have on our movement?

Less Grains, Please.

The food we eat affects our organs, and our organs affect our movement. Paul Chek describes this connection in detail in this article:

“Most people have little or no understanding of their organs in general, and because of their ignorance of what is inside them, they make diet and lifestyle choices that create stress on their organs and glands that disrupt almost every aspect of their body and mind”

The practice of segmentalizing the body into separate pieces may be useful in terms of putting labels on body parts and teaching anatomy, but it has mostly served to diminish our appreciation for the oneness of the human body. Organs talk to and control muscles. Thus, Chek believes that you would be wise to look inward when dealing with chronic problems, describing how he has rehabilitated athletes with chronic muscloskeletal pain that could not be resolved until function was restored to the related glans and organs. The mechanism for this is explained as such:

If an organ overheats for any reason (let’s say inflammation of the gut), the organ will send the excess energy into the muscles it shares direct neurological relationship with first. This can lead to increased background tone of the muscles and soft tissue pathology. In this state, eventually the organs will functionally disable the same muscles to limit resource drain so that it can effectively heal. Chek’s experience is resulting joint instability occurring in the region of the inhibited muscles. And we know that joint instability will certainly eventually lead to injury.

Now, assuming that organs can inhibit muscles from the inside out as described above, we now have a problem if our diet is unhealthy, causing an immune response. Leaky gut is a condition in which the intestines’ mucosal lining becomes irritated, inflamed and more porous as a result of maldigestion, malabsorption, and intestinal dysbiosis. This triggers a state of continuous and prolonged stress in and on the immune system, affecting certain organs and systems depending on your genetic predisposition. And if our muscles/organs hypothesis is correct then we may well develop a musculoskeletal problem.

So what are the some common sources of gut-lining irritation? Sugar, wheat, dairy, processed foods…

Growing up in our house the diet was pretty consistent, based around three variations of the aforementioned food-type; wheat. Weetabix in the morning, at least three, Cheese sandwiches in our schoolbags for lunch, and pasta for dinner. It wasn’t that we weren’t eating healthy, as Forest Griffin the UFC fighter once put it, healthy changed. Pasta was the food of athletes, couldn’t get enough of it. Weetabix (or Wheat Bisks depending on your budget) and sandwiches, low fat goodness! When I went to College I thanked the Gods that the epitome of health was so convenient and suitable to my student budget. In reality, the effect of a 20-year wheat binge, in all likelihood, was damage to the gut and massive disruption to my body’s ability to efficiently digest and process nutrients.

nancy clarke book

Nancy Clark must shoulder a lot of the blame in our house for pushing her wholesome whole grain diet, ‘refreshingly free from high-protein hype’. Nice one Nancy.


The impact that certain grains and wheat can have on our digestive system and gut health has been well documented in recent years. There are still Food-Pyramid die-hards out there who will argue that gluten is fine and who in the good name of balance will defend these food products. Maybe some people can tolerate certain quantities without issue, but the evidence is compelling enough for me. Also, we need to separate the low-grain debate from the low-carb debate. We may well need carbs to fuel our activities, but wouldn’t it be better if they were sourced from real foods? Pasta doesn’t grow on trees, and you don’t cultivate Weetabix in your vegetable patch.

Weetabix Cheese Sandwhich Pasta

Grain galore. 20 years of forcing my gut to deal with this every day.

If I could turn back the clock and have another crack at building a healthy and resilient body, I would begin from the inside out; nurturing the gut microbiome with nutrient-dense foods, keeping the hormonal system happy and the digestive system in good working order. I would give the physically active body all the fats, carbs, and protein it needed to restore, replenish and rebuild. And I definitely wouldn’t eat wheat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for years. It would take the most pugnacious Nancy Clarke devotee to argue that this is a healthy eating plan.

When it comes to performance nutrition for the high-level athlete there is a lot more to consider, but for young people it’s all about getting the basics right. And thus, we needn’t complicate things. Eat mostly veggies, fruit, fish, meat and poultry. Everyone is biochemically individual so listen to your body when you choosing your foods, and as they say; keep it real.

Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.

UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.

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