There’s nothing better than sitting down for a big after-match meal with your teammates. But what we put into our bodies as rugby players has a huge effect on our performance.
We all know that Maccies is probably not the best fuel for athletes, but with so much information out there it can be hard to know what to trust. And, unless we’re playing at a high level, we don’t necessarily have access to a nutritionist or expert.
As part of our Player Welfare series, we’ve called on Chloë Pinder, Registered Associate Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition, currently working with the GB Skeleton team and Castleford Tigers Rugby League Club. Chloë has kindly answered all of our big nutrition questions below so you can go into your next supermarket shop with all of the tools to eat a healthy, balanced and rugby-friendly diet.
Chloë Pinder ANutr
How important is nutrition when it comes to our ability to perform in rugby and why should we prioritise it?
Very! Good nutrition allows us to get the most out of our bodies when training and competing in sports like rugby. Without paying close attention to what we’re eating, our ability to perform in rugby will definitely be hindered. It’s important to eat well pre and post training and matches to allow us to be fully prepared for the session ahead and then recover well once we’re finished. Without good pre-rugby eating, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to make the most of the training session or play to our full potential in a big match. We’ll likely feel much more tired throughout the session, we won’t be able to sustain big efforts. The risk of injury will also be greater. The same goes for recovery strategies once we’re finished training or playing. Ensuring that we have a good meal or snack after rugby is key to creating the optimum environment for our muscular adaptations. Without appropriate recovery nutrition, the damage that our muscle fibres and tissues went through during the session, will lead to more serious aches and pains and what we called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). We want our muscles to adapt to the training we put them through, so that we can become better players. Not prioritising nutrition for recovery will definitely hinder that process. As I mentioned with nutrition pre-rugby, eating well after a match or training session is also imperative for reducing the risk of injury. A well-thought out recovery meal or snack can help us get back to our prime quickly and efficiently so that we’re ready to go for the next time we’re on the pitch.
What are macros and should we be tracking them?
Macros are the nutrient “groups” that we need to consume in large amounts in order to keep our bodies functioning properly. The three macronutrients to consider are carbohydrates, protein and fat. Carbohydrates provide fuel for not only the central nervous system but also act as the key to allowing muscular work. It’s really important that we’re getting enough carbs as athletes as they can be used for both anaerobic and aerobic work. We need them no matter how intense the training is. Protein is vital and the latest research data suggests that we need a sufficient intake of dietary protein in order to support the repair and remodelling of our skeletal muscle that occurs as a result of high volumes of exercise. Fat is also a necessary component of a healthy diet. We need fat to provide energy, help make up the membranes that protect our bodies’ cells and also to facilitate the absorption of what we call fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). There are different types of fats that we should pay attention to. It’s important that we focus on “good” fatty acids known as unsaturated fats. These can be found in things like nuts, seeds, oily fish (such as mackerel, salmon, herring etc), vegetable oils and avocados.
For most players, strictly tracking macros isn’t necessary. We should be aware of trying to follow current guidelines for athletes but it shouldn’t be something we obsess over. It’s recommended that carbohydrates make up about 1/3 of the food we eat regularly. However, this can change throughout periodised training and the rugby season, so it’s important if you’re worried or concerned about your macro intake, that you talk to a registered dietitian or nutritionist. Understanding how important adequate protein intake is to support optimum recovery, can be key to a successful season as a rugby player. Although I don’t believe we all need to be weighing out chicken breasts, and fanatically tracking protein intake through apps and food labels, I do think it’s important that we understand how to recover well through quality sources of protein. Current evidence suggests that optimum muscle protein synthesis can be achieved by ingesting high quality protein in the early recovery phase. This is 0-2 hours after exercise. For a 70kg athlete this might be about 17 – 20g protein once the session or match has finished. The highest quality protein can be found in dairy products like milk and yogurt (think a nice big glass of chocolate milk!). Again, advice should be sought from a nutrition professional if concerned about protein intake because recommendations will vary individually. Lastly, I’d like to point out that no more than 30-35% of our dietary energy intake (i.e. kcal) should be made up of fat. In particular, no more than 10% of this dietary energy intake should be saturated fats. If you’d like to keep an eye on your fat intake, the best way to do so is by sticking to the “good” fats I mentioned before and avoiding saturated and trans fatty acids. These can be found in more shop-bought baked goods and fried foods like doughnuts, fried chicken etc.
Do female rugby players have different nutritional needs to male rugby players?
Females in general have different nutritional needs to males, and it’s important to be aware of the differences you’ll have as an athlete too. To start with, females generally need around 500-750 less kcal a day than males. We generally have smaller bodies and less muscle mass, meaning we require less energy just to maintain our bodies’ functions on a daily basis. Our energy requirements will also differ more dramatically than our male counterparts, due to the menstrual cycle and the large fluctuations in oestrogen and progesterone, amongst other hormones, that we experience throughout the month.
How does our menstrual cycle impact our nutritional needs?
There has been some recent research to suggest that the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle can increase daily energy needs above our normal baseline level. The luteal phase is the second half of our cycle, when the lining of the uterus is thickening. This process obviously requires a little more energy than we would need for the rest of the month. On the other hand, in our follicular phase, the first two weeks of the cycle, we might need a little less energy than in the second half. However, much of the evidence is undecided about these factors so it’s important to listen to your body and try and eat in a way that makes you feel good. At the very end and very beginning of your cycle you might experience cravings or changes in appetite due to PMS. This is totally normal and it’s absolutely fine to eat a bit more chocolate than you might usually! If you have particularly heavy periods, you may be losing significant amounts of iron. If this is the case, please make sure you discuss with your GP or gynaecologist. To keep on top of iron intake throughout the month, focus on foods like dark green leafy vegetable such as spinach and kale, as well as red meats and also pulses. Vitamin C helps aid the absorption of iron so try to ensure you’re eating citrus fruits like oranges as well as kiwis and tomatoes.
What are your top tips for meal prepping and how can we do it if we live at home with our parents versus living on our own or in a house share?
Meal prepping is a great tool for busy athletes with hectic training/work/school commitments. If you’re training in the evening, it might not be feasible to come home and make a lovely, nutritionally-balanced meal afterwards. This is where having prepped your meals in advance comes in handy. The same goes for being able to take lunch with you to work, school or university so that you don’t have to rely on Gregg’s or Subway when the hunger strikes! Not only is it going to be a healthier and more sustainable option, prepping your meals or at least making some dishes in advance, will save you money. I personally am not a huge fan of eating the same thing for every evening meal of the week, like you do sometimes see on Instagram. I love to make breakfast smoothies or overnight oats the night before I need them. This way I don’t have to worry about allowing time to make a balanced breakfast first thing in the morning. I can just grab my smoothie or oats from the fridge and get on with my day. You can make your breakfast in advance whether you’re living with parents, you’ve got housemates or you live alone. Another great tip which works for any living situation, is making a bit too much of your evening meal. That way you can spoon the leftovers into a Tupperware once you’re finished and pop it in the fridge or freezer. I tend to use my leftovers for lunch the next day. However, things like pasta sauces, Shepherd’s pies, lasagne and curries are fine to freeze and use when you’re next tight for time. The most important thing for prepping meals and keeping leftovers is having good Tupperware! You can find all sorts of shapes and sizes, with clip locks, reusable and freezable silicon bags and wax wrap from places like Lakeland, John Lewis, Amazon and supermarket superstores. A lot of workplaces, university student unions, and some schools will have microwaves available to you. I strongly suggest you make the most of these, especially in the winter. There is nothing nicer than a hot lunch on a cold day.
How should I approach a supermarket shop? Do I need to read all of the food labels?
I came across an awesome piece of advice from a sports dietitian in America (Instagram @uri_carlson) who works with mountain bikers and skiers. You’re shopping on a balanced meal plan of protein + complex carb (e.g. wholegrains and things like brown rice & pasta) + healthy fats (e.g. avocado, nuts & seeds, olive oil, yogurt) + plants. With this in mind a quick shop should consist of: 3 proteins, 3 complex carbs, 3 healthy fats and 5 plants. From this quick shop you can create all sorts of delicious weeknight meals that will fill you up and keep you training and playing at your best.
In terms of food labels, I don’t think it’s necessary to be reading all of them, all of the time. As we’re aiming to be buying mainly whole foods, we don’t always need to read these labels. When you’re buying a pack of chicken breasts, or a jar of cannellini beans, you know what’s inside the packaging. If you were planning a specific recovery meal or snack and read the food labels for protein intake, then you’d understand how much you were getting. I mentioned saturated and trans fatty acids earlier, and these will be declared on food labels too. It might be wise to start looking out for those as we’re aiming to avoid them where we can. Of course, if you have food allergies than reading labels is very important.
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What should I do if I’m told I need to alter my weight for rugby? E.g. lose or gain weight for a certain position.
I think it’s important to sit down and have a constructive conversation with the individual who has asked you to alter your weight. If both involved can be clear on the reasoning behind this advice and altering your weight might make a significant positive impact on your rugby, then you might want to do so. This suggestion should also depend on your age. If you are young and still growing, or haven’t fully developed then trying to alter your weight can be dangerous. In this case, involving your parents or another trusted adult would be wise. If you’ve stopped growing, you’re fully developed and are happy with the suggestion then proceed with caution. I would recommend talking to a health professional like your GP, a physio or specialist sports doctor, or a registered sports nutritionist/dietitian to talk through your options and work out a plan for going about this in the safest way possible. Gaining or losing larger amounts of weight can have serious health consequences and it’s vital that the weight alteration is done under the supervision of someone who has the training and expertise to ensure your safety. We really don’t want to put anyone’s physical or mental health at risk.
What are your top foods to fuel performance?
When talking about foods to fuel low intensity activities I love things like dried fruit, nuts and seeds and nut butter sandwiches on wholemeal bread. Soreen is a particular favourite of mine for big bike rides. I’m also a big fan of baking so love a banana muffin made with wholemeal flour. For high intensity sessions think honey, jam or nut butter on white bread, my favourite sweets; Jelly Babies, white sticky rice balls with a little parmesan and salt sprinkled in/over.
What about to aid recovery?
As a cyclist, my go to post-ride snack is a big glass of chocolate milk, or hot chocolate in the winter! As I mentioned previously, dairy protein is the perfect recovery fuel. Other great recovery ideas might be eggs on toast with some mushrooms and spinach, banana and nut butter on toast, a nice bowl of chicken, pesto and veggie pasta or prawn stir fry. I would only recommend protein supplements like shakes and high-protein bars etc if a player was really struggling to eat enough protein. I think what you’ll usually find is that most people eat more than enough protein for their requirements and a lot of sports products claiming to be vital for good recovery, are just trying to make money. Always try and put food first!
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Is caffeine good for pre-training or pre-game? How do we know how much to have?
Some people will benefit from having a drink containing caffeine before a match or training. Other people will find it affects them negatively and makes them shaky or more nervous before a game. Some will find it doesn’t make a difference at all. It’s very personal, but it is one of the most widely researched “supplements” out there. Most of the current research suggests that caffeine intake can enhance performance for many types of endurance, power and strength activities at doses of 1-3mg/kg body weight. If you’re 70kg for example, that’s between 70-210mg. To put this into context, one cup of instant coffee contains around 60mg caffeine, whilst an espresso is more like 45-100mg. You’ll find around 100mg caffeine in standard energy drink, and 40mg in a can of Coca Cola.
Should I be taking nutritional supplements like protein powders, multivitamins, etc?
The only supplement that everyone should be taking is a 10 g vitamin D tablet, once a day between the months of October to March. This may increase to all year round if you don’t spend a lot of time outdoors with your skin exposed to the sun. You will find an overwhelming amount of research, marketing and products suggesting performance benefits from taking nutritional supplements like protein, creatine, BCAAs, Beta-alanine etc. I firmly believe that even as athletes, we can get absolutely everything we need from our diets. The times when this might not be the case are in a vegan diet when it may be necessary to supplement with vitamin B12
, or if your health care professional has diagnosed you with a condition that needs treating with a supplement. For example, if you are anaemic and need to take an iron supplement. Of course, there may be some performance benefits from taking particular sports supplements but you should always discuss this with a sports professional, ideally a dietitian or nutritionist, before starting on anything. It should also be noted that there are a number of sports products out there that may contain banned substances if training and competing at a higher level. Please refer to https://www.globaldro.com/Home
if you need to check the ingredients and batch-testing of any sports products you’re using.
Bean, A. (2017). The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition.
London: Bloomsbury Sport.
Thomas, T. D., Erdman, K. A., Burke, L. M., & MacKillop, M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116
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