In the summer of 2010, Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic faced a crucial yet career-defining test. This wasn’t a relentless rally against Rafael Nadal or a test of perseverance against Roger Federer. This was a simple test being conducted by Serbian doctor and nutritionist Igor Četojević.
Earlier in the year, Četojević had seen Djokovic struggle in the Australian Open quarter-final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. This was a match where Djokovic was up two sets to one before a mysterious bout of weakness struck him, not for the first time. In the fourth set, with Tsonga leading 1-0, Djokovic couldn’t breathe and requested the chair umpire for a toilet break. In the locker room, Djokovic was vomiting up all of his strength, he writes in the book Serve To Win: The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan For Physical And Mental Excellence (2013).
Četojević suspected that Djokovic’s problems could be due to food sensitivities. So, for a test, the nutritionist first asked Djokovic to stretch out his right arm while placing his left hand on his stomach. The doctor pushed down on Djokovic’s right arm and told the player to resist the pressure. Djokovic felt strong, easily resisting the pressure on his right arm. “This is what your body should feel like," Četojević said.
The doctor then gave Djokovic a slice of bread and asked him to hold it against his stomach with his left hand, while repeating the drill with his right, as Četojević again pushed down on his arm. This time the right arm felt weaker. It turns out the four-time Wimbledon champion was sensitive to gluten. Once the 31-year-old was made aware of the problem, he changed his diet and has gone on to become one of the fittest athletes at the elite level.
Djokovic’s case was a classic example of performance nutrition gone wrong. In his new book, The Energy Plan, sports nutritionist James Collins not only writes about how you can manage nutrition but also about the everyday application of the “scientific secrets" top athletes rely on to boost performance.
In his decade-long career, Collins has worked with some of the top European football clubs, the English and French national football teams, and—outside sport—music and dance academies in London to help individuals cope with the demands of top-level performances.
The book is divided into three parts, with Collins taking you through some of the basic facts about the role of nutrients, metabolism and physical activity in the first section. The second part is what he calls the practical application section, where, apart from establishing your own goals, you can even build your own “performance plates" of food. The final part looks at the challenges your “Energy Plan" might face: like sleep cycles, immunity, food supplements, travel schedules and ageing.
Many of Collins’ methods and much of his research are based on his experience with sports organizations, where the key is to produce nutrition plans that offer the athletes the best chance of success at the right moments. In his line of work, he helps athletes fuel their bodies in harmony with their training and competition schedules.
You might not be running the full length of a pitch for 90 minutes like a professional footballer, but you do put in hours of hard work—no matter what profession you are in. To perform at the highest level or to make the most of your day, your body needs fuel in the form of food. The main “energy currency of the body", writes Collins, is adenosine triphosphate or ATP—the primary carrier of energy in our cells. This is the only energy currency our brain and muscles trade in.
Collins takes you through similar technical concepts—resting metabolic rate, glycaemic index (GI) or the thermic effect of food (TEF)—with ease.
Perhaps one of the most crucial bits in The Energy Plan is the chapter on performance plates, which Collins describes as a process based on what your body requires, not what you are used to doing. While there are essentially three types of performance plates, building a plate is a four-part process. You basically need portions of maintenance (in the form of protein), fuel (carbohydrates), protection (in the form of micronutrients from vegetables, fruits and healthy fat) and hydration. He describes a quick way of measuring or weighing portions (using your palm and thumb), and lists some good food sources for nutrients along with recipe ideas to build these meals.
The Energy Plan covers almost every aspect of daily nutrition—even caffeine. Collins describes caffeine as “the fuel injection". While it can be integrated into your energy plan, he suggests using caffeine strategically (based on type, timing and amount) rather than habitually.
There are also some relevant chapters on monitoring progress once you start your own energy plan, and ways to manage the challenges your plan might face, based on the nature of your profession and working hours. As Collins writes, there is a lot of noise about nutrition; a lot of conflicting advice and dietary plans that leave people in a state of confusion. If followed to a T, The Energy Plan may be able to resolve that confusion.