Dr Justin Roberts is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Hertfordshire. As academics go, however, he is a far cry from the faded tweed and open-toe sandals of most educationalists. Not only is he a keen triathlete who takes a hands-on approach to his subject matter, but at only 34 years of age, he has already worked with some of the greatest athletes and sportsmen in the country. Taking science and applying it in a practical manner, Justin has helped countless people achieve their dreams, from professional cricketers and high-profile rugby players to Olympic athletes and outdoor adventurers. He is currently working with the Pink Lady® PoleCats, who have just finished their polar training at Resolute Bay in Canada and are now about to set off on a four day 65-mile trek to Polaris Mine, the start point of the Scott Dunn Polar Challenge, which begins on April 22.
Justin was not always destined to take this path. In his younger days, sport was the furthest thing from his mind. He confides, “I was awful at sport at school. I was taught really badly and I just gave up on the idea. Then when I was 18, I wanted to go to University and I decided to do Sports Science, because I needed something that I knew would challenge me.” After completing his undergraduate degree, he went on to become a personal trainer, which in turn led to him working at the British Olympic Medical Centre as part of the Olympic Medical Teams. He explains, “My role was exercise physiology, testing Olympic athletes and helping them with their programmes, seeing what their maximum fitness was and looking at how efficient they were. Our job was to get them up to Gold Medal standard.”
Such experiences gave Justin a firm grounding in high-end exercise physiology and put him in a strong position for working with his own clients, who nowadays include triathletes, footballers, rugby players and endurance racers. Over a protracted period, Justin can assist individuals in a number of different areas, from fitness assessments and training regimes to nutrition and applied psychology (including neurolinguistic programming and clinical hypnotherapy). Arguably one of the major attractions for his clients is that he is not just an academic, but competes in endurance events himself. Having recently completed his first half-Ironman contest, he is about to sign up for the Marathon de Sable, a gruelling 150-mile race through the searing heat of the Sahara Desert. In taking such an involved approach, Justin is able to blend theoretical science with the practicalities of real life events.
Working with the explorer community
The last few years have seen Justin taking his specialist knowledge in an interesting direction, as he has started working with an increasing number of endurance athletes, adventure sportsmen and polar explorers. In 2004 Ben Saunders became the youngest Briton ever to complete a solo journey to the North Pole, at the age of just 26, and it was Justin who assisted him with both his physical training and his nutritional needs. Similarly Mike McGrath, founder of the Muscle Help Foundation, approached Justin for nutritional assistance and then went on to become the first person with muscular dystrophy ever to make it to both the North and South Pole. And veteran explorer Pen Hadow, the first Briton ever to complete unsupported trips to both the North Pole and the South Pole, has also worked hand-in-hand with Justin throughout his polar career.
Prior to completing a successful Antarctic trip in 2004, Pen was determined to become the first British person ever to reach the North Pole, by himself and without any external assistance or resupply. The journey could take anything up to 70 days, which meant that Pen needed high levels of fitness, stamina and endurance. He also needed food that would provide sufficient levels of energy, whilst still being light enough to drag in a sledge. Getting this balance right was far from easy, but between them, Pen and Justin revolutionised expedition nutrition. The resulting diet provided Pen with all of his nutritional needs, whilst still being light enough to carry, and on 19th May 2003 Hadow achieved his life-long dream of reaching the North Pole solo and unsupported.
Justin’s latest clients include Sam Eve, Tori James and Felicity Aston, the three girls of the Pink Lady PoleCats. Sponsored by Pink Lady apples, the girls are competing in this year’s Scott Dunn Polar Challenge, a demanding 360-mile race across the Arctic that sees competitors brave minus 40°C temperatures and drag 60-kg (135-lb) sledges, in an attempt to reach the North Magnetic Pole. The Pink Lady PoleCats are the only all-female team competing this year and no all-women team has ever before finished this race. Justin has been working with the girls for the last six months and during that time he has dealt with both their exercise programme and race strategy, as well as their nutritional needs. Further details can be found at www.pinkladypolecats.com.
Training diet and exercise regime
As one might expect, physical fitness training has played a major part in the run-up to the event. The girls’ training schedule has developed into two to three hour gym work outs, three or four times a week. This has been complemented by cross-country tyre-dragging sessions every weekend, in an attempt to simulate the action of hauling a heavy sledge. On the nutrition side of things, Justin has made the team completely rethink their diet. He explains, “A lot of them were eating high glycaemic or fast releasing foods and quick snacks very late at night. They weren’t necessarily overweight, but they needed to tone up a few muscles here and there, especially their upper bodies. So I changed them to a low GI diet.”
This low glycaemic index diet involved looking at the quality of the carbohydrates that the girls were eating, so that they could get more sustained energy out of their food. This meant making small changes in their diet, such as exchanging white rice for brown, eating rye bread rather than wholemeal and swapping fruits like strawberries and melons for apples or pears. The next stage was to get their protein balance right. Justin explains, “One of the tricks to getting around glycaemia is to increase protein ratios in the diet. So we tried to match an intake of protein with low glycaemic carbohydrates. And then as we went through the programme, we tried to match that intake according to their projected needs.” This protein came in the form of fish, lean meats, eggs, nuts and seeds, vegetables, wholegrains, lentils and pulses. Justin planned the diet so that the girls were not eating heavy meals each evening, but were instead drip-feeding their bodies with energy throug
hout the day, so that they could utilise the food more effectively.
Strategy is key
Justin also assisted the team in planning their overall race strategy. Whereas the average female requires between 2,000 and 2,500 calories a day, the Pink Lady PoleCats will be burning up to 5,500 calories each within a 24-hour period. In order to maintain this effort for the full duration of the race, the team need to exercise at the right level. Justin explains, “We’ve tried to get them exercising at about 30-40% of their maximal oxygen uptake, which is ideal because this event is not necessarily won by how fast you go, but by how consistent you are. It’s the tortoise and hare scenario. If somebody goes off on Day 1 at 60% of their VO2 max thinking that they’re cruising, that’s all well and good, but only if they can sustain it for two weeks.”
Much of what Justin teaches is equally applicable whether you are a high-performance athlete or an everyday member of the public. Whilst the benefits of regular exercise are self-evident, the advantages of a low GI diet may not be so obvious. By eating low GI foods such as brown rice or fruits, such as Pink Lady apples, instead of fast foods with their high GI content, it is possible to avoid massive swings in blood sugar levels, which in turn lead to lethargy and further hunger. Justin explains, “I use the same diet that I’ve used on the girls, without the drip-feeding approach, on most people who want to lose weight. And it’s successful. If you change the quality of your diet as well as the quantity, then the results are likely to be effective. You’re not just improving the quality of your diet, you’re improving the way the body responds to that diet. You start to have lower insulin levels and lower glucose levels at rest, your growth hormone response is more effectiv
e, you can put on lean muscle tissue faster and you can burn fat faster.” Which demonstrates that you do not have to be a sportsman, an Olympiad or an explorer to eat sensibly. Just small changes in your diet can make a great difference to overall fitness and wellbeing.
- Ends -
High resolution photographs of Team Pink Lady® are available on request.
Please contact Elodie Massol (0207 569 3043 / email@example.com) or Tina Fotherby (0207 569 3042 / firstname.lastname@example.org) at The YES Consultancy for further information or interview requests.
Tori James, 23, from Pembrokeshire, Wales, is the Office Manager at BSES Expeditions in London.
Sam Eve, 26, from Felixstowe, Suffolk, is the Marketing Manager for BSES Expeditions in London.
Felicity Aston, 27, from Hildenborough, Kent, is a travel writer who has extensive polar experience, having worked for British Antarctic Survey.
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