Mark Ellison has worked with a ‘who’s who’ of athletes and sportspeople, from Manchester United to Anthony Joshua. But it’s not always been that way. He’s also worked as far away from the privileged bubble of elite sport as you might imagine; learning his trade with adolescents with severe eating disorders before taking several steps ‘backwards’ to enter the bottom rung on the elite sport ladder. Now his work and that of his team is admired throughout sport, with his reputation in contact sports in particular without peer. Those that know him are quick to tag him, ‘best in the world’. Those that don’t probably need a better nutrition plan.

Mark is initially slightly wary when we sit down with the recorder, perhaps conscious that his topic is potentially the most divisive amongst performance disciplines, whilst his access to the eating habits of some of the world’s most famous sports stars seems to prompt entirely inappropriate questions about the content of their plates. Once he’s assured that I’m neither a famous food obsessive nor peddling my own cod-philosophies on diet, he proves generous with his time and information, easily over-running the allocated hour set aside for the podcast. I don’t normally write an accompanying piece for our podcasts but Mark and this topic merit additional reflection.

Food first. Always food first

It’s not unusual to ask a coach or leader in their field to sum up their philosophy and receive a combination of furrowed brow (mine) and lengthy explanation (theirs). Not so with Mark. When I put the question to him his response is swift and remarkably to the point,

“Food first. Always food first”.

That’s it. And if that works for elite athletes imagine how much more it works for the likes of you and me. As far as Mark is concerned, we should always look to food for our answers before looking elsewhere. He’s quick to add that he’s not anti-supplements, in fact he has a cupboard bursting at the hinges to prove this point but for him they are always just that, supplements.

He explains that he always builds from protein, followed by fruit and veg and finally carbs. Here’s a tip to follow: he’s a strong advocate of first putting the protein on your plate, then veg, then the carbs. The problem starting with carbs on an empty plate (we’ve all done it) is that we’re inclined to pile them on. Introduce them last and we’ll be more conservative, introducing better eating habits. Simple as that.

Despite his reputation for excellence it’s evident that Mark is a pragmatist. As he says, “It’s a case of order and balance”. He’s keen to stress that fostering a positive relationship with food is vital. If someone eats a Mars bar, in Mark’s world it’s not a disaster, any more than eating a plate of broccoli will deliver immediate performance gains. They shouldn’t beat themselves up and neither will he. They just go back to the plan because eating correctly delivers benefits over time, the positives accumulating gradually, requiring patience. Unfortunately for us, the opposite is equally true, if that occasional chocolate bar becomes a regular thing then it will also gradually wreak negative effects.

The cumulative impact of poor eating is something we can all slip into, thanks to the ever-present temptation of ‘snacking’. I put this to him and he pulls a face,

“I don’t like the notion of ‘snacks’. It’s the wrong way to look at food”.

“Because ‘snack’ equals biscuits, crisps and chocolate?”

Mark gives me a look that reminds me I’m speaking from the point of view of an occasionally keen amateur rather than an elite athlete.

I like to think of mini-meals rather than snacks … It’s about eating the type and quality of food you’d eat normally but in smaller portions

“I was thinking protein bars and sports drinks”. I attempt to look suitably abashed and let him continue, “I like to think of mini-meals rather than snacks and all the connotations that the word ‘snack’ brings.  Straight away you put your head into a different place. It’s about eating the type and quality of food you’d eat normally but in smaller portions”.

It’s an interesting concept but one that troubles me as to the practicality. Mark readily acknowledges this, “It all depends on the circumstances.  A lot of our athletes have a protein drink after a workout. Chicken sandwiches don’t manage too well if they’re left in a sports bag for five weeks”.

“But ideally you’d be eating food, real food?”

“Always”

I ask the question that’s been bugging me in the lead into our chat, “Are you saying I’m wasting my money on protein shakes after working out?”

He laughs, “It depends on what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. If, after working out you’re eating a large chicken breast as part of your meal, then you don’t need a shake. If your workout doesn’t come close to a meal time then a protein shake is a good idea”.

If you put 20 grams of protein in a turd, it’s still a turd

“If food comes first then I guess the source and quality of the food is important?”

“Exactly. You don’t want to be grabbing a meal deal with piece of lettuce and a slither of ham. Or a ready meal where you’ve no idea where the meat comes from. You should be going to a butcher, finding out where they source their meat and buying what you see”.

“As well as ‘food first’, it’s the provenance and quality of the food is what matters, not the nutrition listing on the label?”

Chuckling, Mark recollects the wise words of a friend, “If you put 20 grams of protein in a turd, it’s still a turd”.

I guess that’s another way of summing up his philosophy.