Nutritionist James Collins was just 28 when he first met Arsene Wenger. “I remember my final interview at Arsenal was with Arsene,” Collins tells The Athletic. “We had a club medic that was chairing the meeting, and their chief executive at the time, Ivan Gazidis, was also present.
“The doctor said, ‘Look, we’ve got James, he’s going to come on board — he’s very experienced in Olympic sports’. And then I just remember this moment where everything froze. Arsene leaned forward, elbows on the table, completely deadpan, and said, ‘He looks a bit young to be experienced’.”
Whatever Collins mustered in response, it worked. Wenger was convinced by Collins’ pitch and in 2010, he became Arsenal’s first nutritionist. Ultimately, he would spend seven years working alongside Wenger at London Colney.
Since then, he has become one of the foremost voices regarding nutrition and football. Collins has also enjoyed stints with the national teams of England and France, and is currently working with Chelsea, as well as a variety of different teams, sportspeople and performers through his Intra Performance Group consultancy.
Initially, Collins’ background was in athletics. “I entered the Olympic sport system before Beijing 2008,” he explains. “It was a time where there was a lot of investment of excitement towards sport in the UK building up to the London games in 2012.”
Collins worked with sprint teams and distance runners. “At that time, nutrition was really in its infancy. But athletics was a great sport for nutrition because everything’s very measurable. We had so much clarity in terms of the data. And the athletes could see the benefit and were saying, ‘Give me all this information’.”
Arriving at Arsenal in 2010, Collins discovered a very different environment. “My brief was really to go in and to build a service and a culture,” he explains. “At the start, a lot of the players hadn’t worked with a nutritionist before. My first job was to engage them.”
Though he had been used to speaking one-to-one with athletes for sometimes up to an hour, Collins quickly realised he needed to work more efficiently in a football environment. Conversations had to be condensed into shorter 15-30 minute sessions, and above all else, he needed to quickly demonstrate efficacy. “If you don’t get your ideas across quickly, especially within a football club, you’re dead in the water,” he says.
The challenge was to demonstrate the impact nutrition could have on players’ performances swiftly. “An obvious place to start was the matchday,” says Collins. “It’s the most important day of the week, and there are lots of things you can change very quickly and easily to make sure the player is fuelling properly heading into the game.
“It may mean they feel more energised in the first or second half, or that their gut comfort is better. Some disciplines take longer to demonstrate results. With nutrition, you can get some very quick wins that relate to in-game performance. It’s about building buy-in.
“I remember sitting down with the senior players and saying, ‘You always need to judge me on performance. This isn’t about healthy eating or things you’ve heard. This is going to make you perform better’.”
The other key relationship was with Wenger, who, fortunately for Collins, was interested in nutrition and wanted to embrace the science around it.
“In any football club, it’s really important at the start that you build a relationship with the coach,” says Collins. “There needs to be that open dialogue with the manager. ‘How do we want to work together? What’s really important to you? Is it that the players are at a certain percentage of body fat? Is it that they are properly fuelled and prepared? Is it making sure we accelerate recovery during fixture congestion?’. You don’t just have to win over the players. You have to win over the staff.”
Steadily, Collins bedded nutrition into the performance department. He persuaded Arsenal to become the first Premier League club to invest in a DEXA scanner, which measures body fat and muscle mass.
In the early days at Arsenal, Collins also introduced something that has become commonplace at many Premier League training grounds — a restaurant system that allowed players in the canteen to “build their own plate”.
“We had a protein station, a carbohydrate station, and there were graphics on the wall to help players make informed choices. You want them to be thinking, ‘OK, it’s a recovery day today, so what should I be eating to aid my recovery?’.
“And we’ve got to remember that in the dressing room, you might have 15-20 different nationalities. So these first principles need to be really simple for players to follow, and they need to be able to be broken down and explained in a way that a player can understand.”
Collins’ work with Arsenal saw his reputation within football grow and in 2014, he was granted a sabbatical to go with Roy Hodgson’s England to the World Cup in Brazil. It was the first time a nutritionist had travelled with the national team to a major championship.
“One of the big areas of focus was preparing the team for the conditions they would face in Manaus,” says Collins. At England’s Vale do Lobo training camp in the Algarve, England’s players trained in layers to help condition them for the humidity they would face in Brazil.
“I flew out some of my colleagues from Loughborough University to help us do some sweat testing,” says Collins. “We wanted to observe their sweat composition, so we could track how best to keep them hydrated in a hot environment.
“It was a great experience, even if in terms of the success of the tournament, it was obviously extremely disappointing.”
Four years later, however, Collins would be part of a World Cup-winning campaign. “That was a different role, a different model,” says Collins. “With England, I’d been there on the ground. With France, I worked more strategically to oversee their nutrition. We went into a huge amount of detail, working very closely with their head of performance, Gregory Dupont.”
Around this time, UEFA commissioned Collins to lead a research project to put together a “consensus”. The intention was to create a document that would inform practical recommendations and guide future research — effectively an assessment of the current and future role of nutrition in the sport. It was the first study of its kind in a decade.
By this time, people were starting to become more aware of the importance of nutrition, because the sport’s physiological demands had changed.
“We know the physical demand is significantly higher now in terms of the high-intensity output during matches,” says Collins. “If your physical loading is higher, we have to fuel the body differently to better cope with those demands. And it also means that we have to fuel the body to recover, to accelerate that process.”
In an area that is vulnerable to quackery and gurus, Collins decided to publish his guidelines. “We needed to make sure that all of the practitioners in the clubs have access to the best scientific knowledge,” he says. “The idea was to build this one blueprint, one playbook. Something that covers fuelling, recovery, the immune system, junior players, female players — everything we know, so that it can then be applied.
“We had a team of 31. I really wanted to be representative of football worldwide, not just Eurocentric. We had nine different countries represented, with different scientists from the top institutions, and also practitioners on the ground to make sure it was ecologically valid. We had people from Barcelona, from Mexico, from Real Madrid. Some from the UK, the Australian Institute of Sport, the Boston Celtics — a real mix. We spent three years working on a document that lays out best practice guidelines for the sport.”
Wenger wrote an accompanying editorial, even though Collins had decided to leave Arsenal. After seven years at London Colney, he set up an independent consultancy, but his legacy at Arsenal remains — as well as his work with the first team, he installed nutrition support within the academy and the women’s team.
“The nutrition framework within any club should start at under-nines,” Collins says. “At that age, it’s about structuring workshops, making nutrition fun, engaging them with food. But as the athletes move along towards the first team, their competencies change. At the academy stage, players are maturing, and it’s really important they understand their energy needs are higher.
“One of the big challenges we’re seeing with a lot of our academy and junior players at the moment is they’re simply not eating enough. We have to work to make sure they’re fuelling sufficiently to meet their demands.
“Within your nutrition framework are your club protocols. It’ll govern your club chefs, how you prepare for matches, what the guidelines are when players are injured, what the guidelines are regarding immunity or sustainability.
“And then, alongside that, you have the individual player work. How do you take your principles and apply them on an individual basis, factoring in a player’s likes, dislikes, cultural values, and individual goals? Those two trains are running in parallel.”
Collins believes this is a compelling time for nutrition in football. “One of the interesting things we’re starting to see now is that we’ve got this generation of coaches that bought into nutrition when they were players, and are now taking that into their philosophies as managers,” he says.
“Mikel Arteta was a big advocate as a player. So was Frank Lampard. Inevitably, that will affect their coaching philosophy.”
Collins has also worked with Tomas Rosicky to install a nutrition programme at Sparta Prague, the Czech club where Rosicky is now sporting director.
Collins believes that giving players control is the key to nutritional improvement. “I’m a big believer in empowering players,” he says. “There is a culture within football where a lot is done for the players, but we mustn’t smother them. It’s often seen as sexy to show off the beautiful training ground, chefs on call, juices whenever they need them, but that isn’t what moves the dial.
“You know what does? Engaging them, spending time with them, helping them understand nutrition and how to take ownership to make the right choices in different scenarios.
“Can a player mix up their own recovery drink? Absolutely. They need to take ownership so when they’re travelling, when they’re away with the national team, when they’ve just moved to a new club or country, the strategies don’t fall apart. We set things up in a way where we nudge players to make better decisions.”
If players can adopt good guiding principles, it means nutrition is something that can have a positive influence 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We’ve been very focused on performance — around the training sessions and games — but what about the other 20 hours away from the ground?” says Collins. “Long term, we have to embed more into lifestyle and influence how they behave away from the training ground.”
Those empowered players, rather than having to follow rules, are proactively looking for marginal gains.
“More and more individual players are coming to us as they want to explore their nutrition in more depth,” says Collins. “Sometimes, it’ll be to offer them some continuity and trusted support throughout their career, especially if they move clubs.
“A lot of the early work with that player is then about helping them adapt and make good decisions on where they’re going to shop, what to order from their hotel, what local restaurants to eat at. It’s a stressful time, but you can’t just abandon your nutrition. You need to perform.”
After his UEFA research, Collins has a good perspective on the nutritional issues affecting the game. “One of the big things we see with players is that for three o’clock kick-offs, the players fuel really well,” he says. “However, for lunchtime kick-offs, they’re often under-fuelled, and that can obviously result in energy levels not being as high.
“Equally, after evening kick-offs, players are sometimes coming in for the next game under-recovered — which means they’re not refuelling properly after the match. If you’re playing in Europe, or dealing with fixture congestion, it means that incrementally, you’re going to be under-recovering, which will result in residual fatigue.”
The trend in football is for every player to take on a personal chef but Collins believes it’s not always necessary.
“It’s become a bit of a badge of honour for a footballer,” he says. “But when a player comes to me and says, ‘Should I have a chef?’, we always reverse engineer this with them and say — ‘Tell me why you need one’.
“We often find that most of them come in wanting a chef, but actually, if we up-skill them to do some cooking, and give them some chef support, that’s often a far better mix for them. One of the things we tend to see with players and chefs is fatigue — if someone’s cooking for you day-in and day-out, you end up seeing quite a high turnover of chefs.
“More importantly, we’re finding more players now want to take hold of their own nutrition. If you’ve got a squad of 26 players, there’s going to be a lot of players in that squad that will want to cook and they’re interested in food.”
In the right context, a chef can be invaluable — it’s about applying it correctly. “What we should be doing is looking at the fixture list, when Champions League intensifies in November, and saying: ‘There’s a block here that’s really hard work for you. Let’s get some support in that period to help you prepare your meals’.”
Collins describes his philosophy as “food first” and he is suspicious of supplements. “With supplementation comes the risk of violating anti-doping regulations, which is where we’ve had a lot of problems within football,” he warns.
“Practitioners in the clubs are under constant pressure to innovate, which can often lead to introducing more supplements. The statistic is that around 15 per cent of supplements will contain a banned substance that will elicit a positive test result. Sometimes, these are deliberately adulterated, or sometimes this is just through cross-contamination on the production line.”
Food sustainability is another issue Collins thinks should be more prominent in football. “I don’t feel football is doing enough within sustainability,” he says. “We’ve been very focused on performance, not on planetary health. But the two are interlinked.
“The players were talking about this a long time ago. The athletes have been some of the earlier catalysts. I remember talking to Hector Bellerin and Mathieu Flamini about this years ago.
“We’ve got a new generation of talent who are very aware of these global issues. They want to understand planetary health, water usage, greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not necessarily about being vegan, it’s just a question of saying, ‘How can you be more plant-forward with your eating?’ — which is a completely different question.”
Collins believes that, along with psychology, nutrition is one of the great untapped resources of sports science within football. It is still trying to “find its fit” within organisations. But rather than a constant need to innovate, he feels the critical thing now is to apply knowledge correctly.
“We’re swimming in data,” he says. “Every day, there are new approaches and new companies with new promises, new supplements.
“But the next big thing that will move the dial for the players is the interpretation: working with them, and just helping them to understand the quite complex world of nutrition. That’s the next frontier, really: differentiating the signal from the noise.”
(Top photo: Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images)