Athlete interview: Team GB’s Alex Danson
FitPro catches up with Olympic gold medalist Alex Danson, who shares her day-on-a-plate for analysis by registered dietitian, Linia Patel. The hockey player reveals her coaching tips and explains why she’s so passionate about her work with the Youth Sports Trust.
This is my favourite meal of the day! If it’s a Sunday, or a later training start, I will often have scrambled eggs, avocado and chilli on two slices of brown toast. I love this combination as it’s high in protein and tastes great, and the added chilli gives it a kick. My standard breakfast before training consists of one large coffee, 100g of porridge with semi-skimmed milk, a spoon of peanut butter, half a banana, linseed and some agave nectar (an organic natural sweetener and alternative to honey). This is a great breakfast to get a good loading of carbohydrates, and I add in a spoon of protein powder when I want to increase this intake.
I normally try and get in a snack after my first session, within about 20 minutes of finishing. I have four oatcakes and almond butter, with a small amount of strawberry jam for a little added sweetness. Oatcakes are a really good, slow energy release food, which is perfect towards the front end of my day. Sometimes a snack can be as simple as a piece of fruit, normally an apple or pear.
If I’m on the run, or only have a short amount of time between training, my go-to meal is a mixed vegetable and humus wrap with Quorn. As a vegetarian, my protein intake is key and vegetables are a great source of all the vitamins and minerals I need to stay healthy. If I am eating from home, I’ll usually have a jacket potato with cottage cheese and some chutney.
Spicy lentil bean burgers with sweet potato mash and vegetables is a great meal to get my final hit of protein for the day, as well as carbohydrates in preparation for the next day’s training. Just before I go to bed, I have a yogurt and a small handful of cashew nuts. During a heavy training phase, this helps support muscle repair and replenishment overnight.
There are numerous health benefits to following a vegetarian diet, but only if done properly, and Alex does very well! Although, that said, there are always ways to improve one’s diet. The key nutrients that Alex needs to be concerned about are protein, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. Her protein intake is good and she eats a wide variety of vegetarian protein sources. Alex would benefit from having slightly more and faster-absorbed protein in her recovery snack. Studies show <1> that the addition of 15-25g of protein to a post-workout meal or snack can boost glycogen storage, reduce muscle soreness, and promote protein synthesis. Having a banana, berry and yogurt smoothie, with a little added protein powder, would be a better recovery snack than oatcakes with nut butter.
Iron-rich foods include dark green, leafy vegetables and grains such quinoa or brown rice. Alex needs to incorporate more of these into her diet. A simple swap of walnuts instead of cashews could boost her omega-3 intake. To increase the availability of the omega-3 from the flaxseeds she has in the morning, they should be milled.
Lastly, as natural as agave makes itself out to be, it isn’t actually that good for us. Agave syrup is low in glucose but high in fructose. Although both glucose and fructose look very similar, they have completely different effects in the body. Whereas every cell in the human body can metabolise glucose, the liver is the only organ that can metabolise fructose in significant amounts. When the liver gets overloaded with fructose, it starts turning the fructose into fat, which in the long term results in a fatty liver. While fruit also has fructose, none of this applies to whole fruit, which is loaded with fibre. We are well equipped to handle the small amounts of fructose found in fruit.
Kato et al. 2016. Protein Requirements after exercise as determined by the indicator amino acid oxidation method. PLOS ONE | DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0157406
Linia Patel is a registered dietician and sports nutritionist. She has a BSc degree in biochemistry and physiology and since graduating in 2006, Linia has taken up various leading roles in performance nutrition and public health. liniapatel.com
A few questions for Alex…
Image caption: RIO – Women’s Olympic Hockey tournament, 2016, Great Britain – Argentina
Photo: Alex Danson.
Credit: WORLDSPORTPICS COPYRIGHT FRANK UIJLENBROEK
Olivia Hubbard: What are your fondest memories from childhood hockey?
Alex Danson: Definitely playing at school and with my club, Alton HC. I remember spending hours playing with friends at school and the excitement of travelling to games with my club. I loved how quick and competitive the game was, but I mostly enjoyed playing with friends, and the challenge and enjoyment of playing in a team sport.
OH: You mentioned that, after winning bronze in London, there was ‘more in the squad’. In what ways would you say that training was altered in the lead up to Rio?
AD: In the lead up to Rio, we spent hours and hours crafting how we could become the best team. We had a very clear vision: ‘Be the Difference, Create History, Inspire the Future’, and a set of values: ‘We are one Team, Be Alive, We are Winners’. We then found ways to turn these into behaviours and live by them every single day. For example, we had a weekly session called ‘Thinking Thursday’, which was all about finding a way to win and bring our value ‘We are Winners’ to life.
OH: What does an average training day look like in the gym? Are there particular strength exercises that have helped take your fitness to the next level?
AD: We spend about 60-90 minutes in the gym and have a couple of key lifts, and then a supporting programme to ensure we are physically able to cope with the demands of eight games in 13 days during tournament hockey. Power cleans and squats are a strong feature as this improves our power and strength, and increases our ability to accelerate and decelerate with more speed and efficiency. We often have hamstring circuits and do a lot of upper body and core to ensure we have enough strength to ride tackles and out-muscle our opponents.
OH: Tell me about your work with the Youth Sports Trust and how would you describe participation levels in hockey since London 2012?
AD: Since the end of 2012 we have seen a 50% increase in the number of young girls playing in our clubs, and 10,000 new members joined clubs in the direct aftermath of Rio 2016. These figures alone show some amazing participation level increases, and with England hosting the World Cup in 2018 and Test games selling out in two hours, it just shows that hockey is growing in popularity and is in a great place in terms of participation.
“I love coaching and working with the Youth Sport Trust. I feel passionately that sport is not only for a young person to enjoy, but is also an invaluable vehicle to learn. Sport has taught me to be resilient, work hard, set tough goals, and learn to communicate effectively in all sorts of different situations. I believe these are all invaluable life skills and ones that all our young people should have the opportunity to learn, through sport and play.”
OH: Are there particular characteristics from your own hockey coaches that you have adopted in your own style of coaching?
AD: Having fun is key for me. I believe that when you are enjoying what you do and feel both challenged and supported, it helps to accelerate learning. I always try and set really challenging targets and create an environment where I will support a team to get there, and make it fun in that pursuit.
OH: What is your match calendar looking like for 2017?
AD: We have a very exciting year ahead. First up is a one-off Test match against Holland, hosted by our Olympic Legacy venue in London on 11 June. Tickets for this game sold out in two hours, which is incredibly exciting. We then have our World League 3 in Johannesburg in June, the Europeans in Holland in August, and hopefully the World League Finals in New Zealand in November. That’s one of the most fantastic things about the hockey calendar, every year we have medals to play for.
OH: At my university, we had just two hockey teams – the 2nd team was a huge range of ability levels. Do you think there should be more integration between 1st and 2nd teams during training sessions? How could a coach achieve this effectively?
AD: I play at Clifton Hockey Club and I believe they achieve this really well by having two sessions per week. The first is an open training session where both the 1st and 2nd teams train together, which leads to high standards and a great integration between the two teams. Then both squads have their own team session where more specific match-day practices can take place.
OH: Where do you enjoy taking your bike? And what’s been your best climbing experience to date?
AD: I love heading into the Chilterns or down to the New Forest. Although they are very different places, they are both beautiful, have great roads, and there is always somewhere new to explore. I love being outside; I find it the most fulfilling way to experience an area (I also love the obligatory coffee and cake stops)!
My last major climbing experience was summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. This isn’t a technical climb but it’s a challenging and hugely rewarding expedition. I made the trip on my own, which although was initially terrifying, led me to meeting a team of new people to take on the challenge with – a life experience I will always remember.
About Alex Danson
Alex was just 16 when she made her senior international debut in 2001. In the same year, Alex was runner-up in the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year awards. Her goal helped England defeat Germany to win bronze at the 2010 World Cup. She also won a bronze medal at London 2012, her second Olympics, where her and team mate Christa Cullen were joint top scorers. Danson also played a pivotal role in England’s 2015 Euro Hockey triumph, including a stunning hat-trick against Germany that took her to 50 England goals. Her third Olympics in Rio proved to be just as fruitful. Danson helped herself to five goals once more and went all the way to the top of the podium, securing the gold medal.
Alex is also a sporting ambassador for Meridian Foods, one of the UK’s leading producers of nut butters. Current sales of nut butter in the UK are at an all-time high, with consumers seeking healthier options to traditional honeys and jam.
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