Sport Wales' new kitchen. Pic: Sport Wales

Master Chefs In The Making . . . Welsh Athletes Are Learning The Ingredients For Success

With the Commonwealth Games only five months away, Welsh athletes are getting primed for Birmingham. That means training, resting, competing . . . and eating. So, who makes sure the top Welsh sports stars are cooking up a healthy basis from which to serve up their best? Aled Wheeler has been finding out.

We all love some good food. A hearty meal can kickstart the day in the right way or turn a frown upside down.

It also goes without saying that food is a crucial part of life. What we eat and drink can influence our emotions, productivity, and general health.

This is especially true for elite athletes. A lot of energy is needed to fuel their rigorous regimes.

But they can often overlook a balanced diet to focus on tactics and fitness training.

Whether it’s because they don’t know how to cook or don’t see the need to, many athletes will rely on others to cook for them.

It can mean they are not in control of their food intake which could hinder performance.

With that in mind, Sport Wales have built a shiny new kitchen at their Sophia Garden base in Cardiff to encourage athletes to improve their cooking skills.

Acting lead nutritionist at Sport Wales, Eoghan Hickey, claims: “It’s all about the numbers game.”

He explains: “In a four-year cycle, an athlete will typically eat and drink about 8,000 times, which surprises a lot of people.

“It is often double the amount that they’ll train or compete.”

“Every one of those 8,000 is an opportunity that we would see to either recover, fuel for the next session, or just generally maintain good health and immunity.

“If the athletes can chip away at those 8,000 meals to make them more performance-focused and just better for their overall health, from a nutrition perspective, we see that as a huge positive.”

Building a kitchen may not sound like a revolutionary concept, but building one just for athlete development puts Wales a step ahead of the game.

The innovative kitchen is located at the Sports Wales National Centre building. It combines culinary and educational tools to produce a space where athletes can enhance their cooking knowledge.

“The same way an S and C coach needs a gym, we would view the kitchen as our gym,” explains Hickey.

“It’s our space to coach athletes in the practical skills they need, rather than just the theoretical one of telling them how they should be eating.

“It’s the first of its kind. And to my knowledge, in the UK, I believe it’s the first of this type of bespoke facility just to train athletes in kitchen coaching skills.”

Originally thought of in 2018, the kitchen has been a well thought out process, spearheaded by the Sport Wales nutrition team.

“It’s definitely been a bit of a slog at times,” says Hickey.

“There was great momentum within the initial planning and building phase. Then, there was a big spanner in the works, and then it was sort of intermittent between different lockdowns.”

After three years of on-off development, the new kitchen is finally open for business.

The first session took place on January 13th, with two athletes from GB Boxing being the first to cook up a dish.

The pair used the tools at their disposal to whip up a few tasty milkshakes and curry dishes.

Not exactly MasterChef or The Great British Bake Off, but the athletes are chasing gold medals – not trying to impress Paul Hollywood.

When it comes to what’s inside the kitchen, the fancy gadgets and top range tech has been pushed aside.

Instead, the space possesses simple tools to replicate what athletes will have access to in their own homes.

“It’s definitely fairly basic for a reason,” says Hickey.

“The purpose is to emulate something you would find in a uni halls or just an athlete’s own home.

“It didn’t need to be all-singing and all-dancing, it just needs to be functional so that they can transfer those skills into their own spaces.

“If they find some sort of fancy blender and then they can’t afford it or access it in their own space, then it’s not transferable to the real world.

“There’s a whiteboard which is built into the wall, so there’s elements of educational transfer built into this. But otherwise, it’s just your standard hobs, sinks, units.”

So, the features of the kitchen may not be mouth-watering, but Hickey and his staff are hoping the kitchen’s purpose will be enough to tingle the taste buds of Welsh coaches and athletes.

A good training session needs a good gym, track or playing surface. And what better place is there to teach athletes the importance of nutrition than a kitchen specifically designed to do so?

“We want it to be similar to a gym session where it’s linked to what you are trying to achieve,” adds Hickey, who worked with elite athletes in tennis, rugby and gold before coming to Cardiff.

“Athletes’ cooking skills are a big barrier to them being able to do everything they need to do.”

The Sport Wales nutrition team are hoping that breaking down these barriers will provide Welsh athletes with an advantage over the competition whilst giving them essential life skills.

Since announcing the opening of the athlete kitchen on his social media, Hickey has received a lot of positive responses and enquiries.

“It’s been really good. Even amongst everything else that has been going on globally, for sport in Wales, it’s been an exciting period.

“Through the months of January to April, we have got quite a few bookings from a range of different sports. Everything from boxing to beach volleyball, to football, to gymnastics.”

For now, only athletes and coaches who are a part of the Sport Wales group of national governing bodies are allowed a taste.

“The phase we’re in at the minute is similar to launching a software product, we’ll call it the beta phase,” says Hickey.

“Initially, we’ll keep it for Welsh NGBs, so across those 45 NGBs, we support, for their athletes to trial it on a taster session basis.

“In the future, we are hoping to allow sports that sit outside those NGBs to hire out the facility.

“The level beyond that, way further down the line, is to see if there’s any scope for general public users.”

The beta phase has certainly been successful so far, but there are a few elements of the project that still need some time in the oven.

Hickey and the rest of the Sport Wales team have acknowledged that the pandemic may create difficulties reaching the facility for athletes not based in Cardiff and are thinking of ways to get them involved.

“We definitely want to make it a really useful and accessible space for sport in Wales, generally,” he says.

“I think a big element of that is having some means in the future where we can film content and stream sessions so that it is not too Cardiff-centric.”

“So that athletes in West Wales and North Wales, or who are just unavailable, can still benefit from it.”

With the kitchen now up and running, Hickey and the Sport Wales nutrition team have all the right ingredients to teach Welsh athletes how to be a star baker and avoid a soggy bottom.

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