Ask the Expert: Tilly Spurr (EatYourselfBrilliant)

Tilly SpurR is a SENr Sports Nutritionist who specialises in working with young people early in their sporting careers. Tilly has a BSc from Edinburgh, an MSc in Nutritional Medicine from the University of Surrey and is currently completing a PhD in Developmental Physiology and Performance Nutrition at the University of Chichester. She teaches at Chichester on the Sports and Exercise Science health and performance pathways and gives talks in schools, sports clubs and businesses under the company name EatYourselfBrilliant.

1)What has led you into youth sport? 

While I was training I did a lot of cover teaching in secondary schools. Talking to keen young sports people, PE staff and parents I realised how difficult good nutrition can be in a school setting. Even with good intentions, there are lots of barriers that get in the way and have to be worked around. Student athletes are often rushing between morning training and school and then onto evening training. It is common for children to compete Saturday and Sunday, maybe more than once. They are often eating on the move and sharing lifts with older team mates or using public transport which can limit the opportunities for eating. Food availability at school and in sports venues is poor, everything is expensive or has to be carried and even the healthiest pack lunch is rarely balanced. Three things particularly struck me, the first was how confused most people are about food and nutrition, the second was that hardly anything I was learning academically would be particularly helpful, do-able or practical, and lastly I found that there was very little research being done in children or adolescent athletes particularly for girls. I was being asked for advice that despite years of study I was unable to give. I wanted to change this.

2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport? 

One of my biggest influences is Dr Alex Richardson (Oxford University). I first met Alex Richardson when she came to speak at the University of Surrey but I continue to follow her work closely and rely heavily on the fantastic information bank provided by That first time she came to speak about polyunsaturated fats and cognition but it was what she said about the practical application of her research that really stuck in my mind. She was very keen to highlight that just because something wasn’t of significant benefit in a population study, it didn’t mean that it was not of significant benefit to some individuals within the study. It is always important to look at individual responses. This is something I have also heard since from performance nutritionists working with elite performers. Every individual is uniquely different, with different genetics, different backgrounds and different tastes. It’s important to personalise nutrition advice, as what works for one person may not work for the person sitting next to them or those competing against them. There are general rules but the detail needs to be tailored to the individual and their preferences.

3) What is your particular area of interest?

My research is in adolescent nutrition in team-sports and my particular interest is in using real foods for performance. The specialist sports nutrition food market is huge and growing fast. It is easy to get caught up in the marketing and feel you are buying guaranteed success, particularly as most published studies use pills, powders or fortified juices. Adding a supplement to your diet can be seen as a quick fix. Often there are better, cheaper sources, that are readily available and can be just as effective. Layering supplements on top of the wrong base diet does not make it better. 

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

Often I am contacted when the something has already gone awry, when a young athlete has been dropped from the squad or is suffering from a sequence of injuries. Sadly parents have often been told that their child is too big or too small and have already been trying to restrict foods or are adding supplements. Taking the diet back to basics and looking at the balance of what is being eaten, how and when, talking to coaches about training and finding out about their growth and development often gives insight into what may have gone wrong. 

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

80% of coaching should be listening. The time given is often limited and its easy to fill it with lots of information and things to change or try. A few years ago I heard a coach I really respected talking about the 80:20 rule and the value of listening. I think this is particularly pertinent within nutrition coaching, as food is so subjective and personal, governed by likes and dislikes as well as habit, availability and culture. It’s important to listen to the individual so that the advice given fits closely into their lives. In childhood nutrition it is not just about recommending the right foods, it about ensuring that they want to eat them.

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes? 

To definitively include nutrition as part of your coaching strategy. Not only will performance be better if individuals are fuelled correctly but you should also see improvements in mood, teamwork and trainability. 

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

Studies in junior athletes tend to show that they do not eat enough in meals and that the composition of the diet is unbalanced. In the UK the national healthy eating advice is pictorially represented by the Eatwell Guide and although not perfect, it is a good (science backed) place to start and the Scottish interactive version is a good teaching resource and will agree with the school syllabus.

However, when working with young athletes I tend to use a slightly different dietary composition more similar to that given in the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate or the New Canadian Food Guide. This is because of the very easy messages these guidelines focus upon. Half of everything you eat should be fruit and vegetables, with vegetables slightly more important than fruit. Healthy oils are important and should be purposefully included and freshness, variety and quality are valuable. This may seem very basic and non-specialist advice but having analysed 100s of food diaries I have found that young athletes are often mimicking specialist diets selectively, causing some imbalance or insufficiency. If the base diet is well planned its much easier to fine tune it to individual demands and the training schedule, both inside and outside competition.

Healthy Eating Plate
The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate
Healthy foods
New Canadian Food Guide

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

I have a website, am on twitter @Eatbrilliant and Linkedin. I am always happy to help young athletes and coaches where I can and can be contacted through my website or the University of Chichester.

Thanks very much to Tilly for her time and expertise in this often confusing area!

Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.