Have you ever wished you could maintain your energy level throughout a full day of teaching? Found it difficult to stay patient with a class that won’t listen? Had one of those momentary lapses in concentration that resulted in a hard crash? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, or just have an interest in health and nutrition, read on. In this article, you’ll learn the how, what, and when of eating and drinking to improve your mood, ability to respond quickly and accurately to an unexpected event, and reduce fatigue levels over the season.
Our story begins with a research study to look at the stresses experienced by ski and snowboard instructors in western Canada and continues with how the program has grown to help snowsports instructors across the U.S. avoid injuries and increase their on-snow performance. I’d begun my career as a sports scientist, supporting Olympic athletes to maximize their training responses and competition performances. But as an avid skier myself, I saw people working on snow as instructors, patrollers, and mountain guides as occupational athletes. After all, your daily physical and mental effort demands a high level of performance! And even a simple injury can lead to serious consequences to your livelihood. Between 2009 and 2013, injuries to ski instructors in British Columbia accounted for 55 percent of all accident claims on ski hills. It was clear that existing safety programs were not as effective as they need to be, and with the cost to the industry and the individual so high, it was time to look for another approach.
A CLOSER LOOK AT STRESSES
As a research scientist, I know the first step is to define the problem. Hence, we began by spending a season evaluating the stresses experienced by ski and snowboard instructors while teaching at five ski resorts in Western Canada. We recorded workloads and movement strategies, as well as diet, hydration level, markers of metabolic output, and cognitive measures.
One area that was quickly identified to be of concern was the diet consumed by the majority of snowsport instructors. In general, instructors were dehydrated, consumed far too much salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats, and they weren’t getting enough of many essential vitamins and minerals. In addition, most instructors were experiencing wide fluctuations in their blood sugar during the day. This finding is of concern for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is unhealthy because it can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Secondly, of more immediate concern is the effect of fluctuating blood sugar has on the nervous system. When large swings occur back and forth between low and high blood sugar, the nervous system is impaired.
HOW BLOOD SUGAR LEVELS IMPACT PERFORMANCE
My previous research and the work of others had shown that blood sugar levels affect reaction time, decision-making and mood, all of which are critical when skiing and teaching. To determine if this was a factor in instructor injuries, we took blood samples and reaction time measurements every two hours to determine the impact of high or low blood glucose levels on the nervous system. Every aspect of physical and mental performance was better when blood glucose levels were stable; participants reacted faster to an unexpected visual stimulus, made quicker and more accurate decisions, and experienced less fatigue and more positive moods when fed food and drink that prevented the highs and lows in blood sugar. Furthermore, the ability to assess risk may also be more accurate when blood sugar is less variable. The difference amounts to approximately 15 percent better accuracy and about half a second in reaction time (Roberts, D. “Chapter 23. The Occupational Athlete; Integrated Injury Prevention, Health and Wellness for Truck Drivers.” In: Implementing Physical Activity Strategies. National Physical Activity Plan, Human Kinetics, Inc., Champaign, Il, pp 193-201, 2014). This might seem like a small change, but it makes a huge difference to performance while skiing, as well as in reducing the incidence of injury. Imagine how long half a second is when descending quickly through the trees or bumps! In fact, educating instructors on how to manage their blood sugar levels during the day consistently lowers injury rates by approximately 40 percent and data from 13 resorts in Colorado indicates that 70 percent of injuries occur more than three hours from the last snack or meal.
This article by Dr. Delia Roberts originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of 32 Degrees. Log in now to the online version to access other great content that will up your instructor game.