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Wimbledon Clinics

On the road… with Sarah Danaher, dietician for the Return to Run programme

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What do you spend your time doing?

At the minute I’m working as a freelance dietician. I’ve just relocated to Northern Ireland and my three kids are on school holidays, so it’s wonderful to be able to work around their hours. Before we moved, I was working out of Kingston Health Centre treating patients suffering from gastrointestinal issues, such as allergies, intolerances and IBS.

Who is your average client?

It varies. I treat a number of professional and elite athletes: for example, a top five women’s tennis payer, a GB triathlete and a rugby player for the London Irish Academy – but I see amateur athletes too.

How does it work?

I look at very closely at a patient’s routine – what they eat on the day-today, their exercise regime, and what their goals are. Then I do all my dietician-y calculations – there are various equations I do that help me to pinpoint what percentages of proteins, fats and carbs that they should be eating. It can get quite technical! Then we adjust those findings to fit their goals. What’s key is to get to understand the person’s lifestyle. Do they like cooking? Do they work in the city? Do they have time to prepare their own lunch? Realistically, if they are unlikely to ever cook from scratch, I’ll research the restaurants that they tend go to, and find things for them to order that are suitable for their programme.

Do you see patients in person?

I like to – there’s nothing quite like face-to-face contact. Very often there are other issues going on too – perhaps a long-term history of disordered eating – so it’s important to have direct communication with a patient. However I do Skype appointments from time to time if I need to.

What’s the most common problem you come up against in your work?

People focus so much on the physical side of sport, which is wonderful – but when it comes to successfully changing your body composition (i.e. losing weight or building muscle), a huge percentage of that comes down to what you eat. I see fundamental mistakes that happen again and again. The most reoccurring one is people who hammer in healthy fats, but too many of them. Avocados, nut butters and coconut oils are good for you in moderation, but they have a high calorie content. People tend to full up on them, and then become frustrated that they’re not the weight they want to be. The same is true of protein shakes. Adding in calories, particularly if you’re not reducing them, means that you’ll probably end up seeing weight gain.

How did you get into nutrition?

My first memory of having real interest in nutrition was at Bristol University, where I was doing a degree in physiology. I was in the health section of a bookshop when I came across a book called Super Skin. From the age of 15 I had always suffered from acne, and this book really opened my eyes to how food can affect your health. Three years later, I came to the end of my degree and realised I needed to decide on a career. I knew that I wanted to work with people in the medical field, but I also had this interest in diet. Then I came across dietetics. I started working in London, and teaching in hospitals – then slowly, I made the crossover into working with sports people.

Are you sporty yourself?

Yes – in fact, I was on the Irish sailing team as a child! But I stopped sailing when I went to university, and started playing water polo. There’s a strong rugby background in my family: my cousin is on the Irish ruby team, and my husband also plays professional rugby – so I suppose my interest in sport was honed some time ago.

Do you run?

I do, but with the three kids it’s hard to fit exercise in…. I have to do it first thing in the morning, and basically get up and out. I’ve only done a handful of races over the years, but I love doing them. The ten-mile Great South Run is my greatest distance so far, but when I run by myself, I do anywhere between three to 10 kilometers. I just go with what my body feels like on the day.

What do you love most about running?

It’s calming for the mind, and – weirdly – a lot of my good ideas come when I’m running. I have a nutrition blog and a fair few features spring to mind when I’m out on the road! It also helps with some of the clients that I see. Many have quite complex issues with intolerances and gut issues, and I often come up with new ideas for them too.

Have you had any injuries?

Yes, a number of years ago I had a knee injury – I didn’t need surgery but it took a number of months for it to heal. So I can understand the frustration that people with injuries have. You want to get out moving and, particularly if you’re a runner, that must be very difficult. I spent a lot of time swimming with a pool buoy between my legs!

How did you become involved with the Return to Run programme?

I was contacted by Wimbledon Clinics via St Mary’s sports clinic, where I was lecturing on the nutrition. The programme was already in place, but they were looking for a nutritionist. It’s been a great experience so far.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

There’s a huge psychological  element –  understanding someone’s goals and putting them down on paper seems straightforward, but it’s not always the case. Patients who have suffered injuries and can become quite depressed as a result. These people can become very OCD about their diet and cut back too far, or they go other way entirely and put on a lot of weight, becoming quite depressed. Either way, it’s a journey. 

And the most rewarding?

Finding a way to make the programme work for a patient, and then watching their transformation. If it’s not a practical solution, I’m not doing my job!


 To find out more about the Return to Run/Learn to Run Programme CLICK HERE