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Ung kvinne i treningsklær ser på mobilen og forbereder et måltid pluss kosttilskudd
The practicality of cooking is something that affects how young athletes view nutritional supplements.

Hectic schedules leave young elite athletes with little time to prepare proper meals

Researcher urges elite sport schools to prioritise meals.

Anette Skilbred has conducted in-depth interviews with 24 teenagers.

All attended private elite upper secondary sport schools and were involved in different sports: handball, football, biathlon, ice hockey, athletics, swimming, cross-country skiing, and motocross.

Many describe hectic daily routines that do not include enough time to prepare a proper meal.

A student athlete and participant in the study puts it like this:

Portrett forsker
Anette Skilbred has a master's degree in sports psychology from the University of Roehampton.

'So I come home, shower, and eat. Actually, I should eat before I shower because you need to get nutrients as soon as possible to get the most out of the session, but if I'm a bit sweaty, I quickly get cold, and then it's easy to get sick, so often I eat a slice of bread while in the shower [...]'

The goal of the study was to find out what kind of understanding these ambitious young athletes have of performance-enhancing substances, such as dietary supplements.

Have a lot of knowledge about dietary supplements

“I haven't asked them directly if they use them or not. The focus has been on how they make sense of, for example, dietary supplements, and who influences them,” Skilbred explains.

Based on the interviews, it appears that they receive a lot of instruction and have enough knowledge. They also have lots of people they can ask if they are unsure about dietary supplements.

One student says:

'I think I maybe will ask mum first. She is, in a way, my second coach, kind of, so I will ask maybe her, and then I will ask my coach. But also, we have this dietitian, and we know we can send a message to her.'

In the interviews, the researcher has asked the students who they talk to, what they talk about, and who they ask if they have questions.

“The challenge, as I see it, is that they have a hectic daily life. The practical aspects of cooking are something that affects how they view dietary supplements. Then one can understand that it becomes a practical solution,” she says.

The study shows how young and ambitious athletes are constantly working to improve their performance. As they get older, more people become involved in the process.

Skilbred explains that the network the student athletes are part of greatly influences how they view the choices they make to perform better. Whether it involves training, nutrition, or the use of dietary supplements.

There are many choices that are considered in terms of how they can become the best in the future, according to the researcher.

Know enough about the consequences

Skilbred wants to point out that there is no lack of knowledge and information among these student athletes.

“If the goal is that they should not use dietary supplements, then it is not more information they need. They have the knowledge and know about possible consequences if the dietary supplements are contaminated and that it can lead to a positive doping test. They're almost a bit tired of hearing about it,” she says.

The students say that they have received good information about the consequences through lectures and e-learning from Anti-Doping Norway, both through sports teams and school.

Skilbred herself is concerned that parents and coaches do not need to worry even if the teens decide to take dietary supplements.

She acknowledges that there is a risk that the dietary supplement is contaminated. However, the use of certain dietary supplements does not necessarily lead to uncritical thinking and the use of other prohibited substances.

Many do not see dietary supplements as something they take to improve their sports performance.

“The youth don't seem to believe in ‘quick fixes.’ In this sense, dietary supplements do not appear as something that can be a shortcut to quickly becoming the best. They are not naive and know what has to be done to become really good,” she says.

Three suggestions for elite upper secondary sport schools

So what should elite upper secondary sport schools do to make things easier for the student athletes? Skilbred has three concrete suggestions:

  • Be available to discuss alternatives. A coach or teacher does not have to say that dietary supplements are unnecessary. Be curious about how they reflect on the subject.
  • Include cooking in the class schedule and remove something else, maybe even training? Give the students time and help to cook meals. Many of them move alone into dorms at the age of 15 or 16 to pursue sports. Maybe they need support and time to prioritise cooking. 
  • Talk about food and meals as social and enjoyable, not just as components on a plate.

Food as part of the performance logic

Skilbred emphasises that she has not focused on nutrition and eating disorders in her project. Nevertheless, she believes that her findings can be related to these problems.

“Food is treated as part of the performance logic for these athletes. Therefore, I think it's important that food and meals are not just protein and carbohydrates, but a dinner and social activity that the teens gather around,” she says.

Through the long interviews, Skilbred gets the impression that the students also know a lot about nutrition.

They know what they should include for a nutritious meal.

There is just simply not enough time.

Perhaps larger changes and measures are needed around the school day of the students, which they describe as very hectic.

“We talk about athletes needing to have better attitudes, but maybe we should change the structures instead? Maybe things need to be done a little differently for these young people who are so dedicaed to their sport. Couldn't we provide more space to sit down and have a nice, social meal together?” Skilbred asks.


Skilbred et al. Young networked athletes and performance-enhancing substances: who are the actors in their network, and how do the actors shape athletes’ meaning-making?European Journal for Sport and Society, 2024. DOI: 10.1080/16138171.2024.2335578


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About the research

The project is funded by the Norwegian Sports Federation and Antidoping Norway.

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