Laura Mahony, Performance Nutritionist with Connacht Rugby gives an insight, in her own words, into the importance of Nutrition in professional sport
Food is a very social thing, so on a week off I don’t expect players to stick to their usual ‘training diets’. I want them to enjoy their food and their time away from the Sportsground, but at the same time, players know that one bad week of eating and drinking can undo a lot of the good work that they may have already put in this season so far. That is partly why we do regular body composition, or skinfold monitoring, with the players. This gives us an idea of how much body fat a player is carrying in relation to his overall weight, and as rugby is a collision sport, we are always trying to optimise lean muscle mass and overall body weight.
Rugby is a collision sport where body weight and the amount of lean muscle mass that a player is carrying will influence their performance hugely. Diet obviously has a large role to play in terms of body size and composition, but more than that, nutrition has a big impact on training and performance. If players are not well fuelled and hydrated going into a training session they are going to find the session harder than normal, and concentration levels may decrease. If their recovery nutrition after a session is not timely and in the right proportions, it can hamper the recovery process.
We want our players to be able to train 2-3 times a day 4-5 days a week and to be able to do this to the best of their ability. Their diet and nutrition is going to play a significant part. Some specific nutrients such as protein, omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D might be of particular interest to rugby players as these are associated with key factors such as lean muscle mass, inflammation and immune and muscle function.
Performance nutrition has evolved significantly over the past number of years. One of the biggest changes I have seen as a performance nutritionist is the recognition that others now have in its importance. Our rugby coaches, physios, strength & conditioning coaches all value the role that nutrition can play and this leads to team working across the different disciplines.
On a daily basis as the Performance Nutritionist for Connacht, I might be looking at GPS data to see distances covered in training, rehabilitation sessions to see what stage of rehab a player is at or speaking with the team doctor to see if any nutritional deficiencies have been identified in blood testing, all of which contributes to the player’s individual nutrition plan.
Previously nutrition was sometimes seen as a ‘tick-box’, or something to cover off in pre-season or match day, but now the importance of daily nutrition and changing player’s habits has become much more valued. On the flip side, just as the importance of Performance Nutrition has become more and more valued, so too has the number of nutrition ‘Gurus’, and ‘fads’. The confusion and contradictory reports that are out there can easily confuse our players.
Nutrition plans will be individualised based on a player’s specific requirements such as body weight, height, skinfolds (lean mass: fat mass proportions), playing position and training load. I will liaise with our physios and S&C department on a regular basis to see what stages of rehab our players are at as this will impact on their nutrition requirements. If a player has had surgery, or has been off their feet their requirements will differ significantly over the course of their rehab phase, whether it’s in the acute post-surgery phase, or in an off-feet phase, or in the return to play/perform phase, as their training load increases so too will their energy requirements.
This week is interesting in that in a training week like this, the players’ energy requirements may actually be higher than that of a match week as the volumes covered, and intensity of, trainings may be greater than that of a match week. During training weeks like this it is probably even more important that players are planned and organised in terms of their food and nutrition as they have less time to prepare meals. To help the guys make the best possible choices when they are hungry and tired after a long days training, preparation is key, hence I spend a lot of time looking for, and adjusting, recipes to help them choose wisely - this week’s recipes included overnight oats, energy balls and turkey burgers!
Nutrition and food in general is not something that ‘you do’ on training days, it is a routine or habit that is built over time.
Food is such a sociable thing I want the players to be able to enjoy food and not just think of it as a ‘diet’. Good nutrition habits are formed over time and are reinforced by friends, family, your own cooking skills and nutrition knowledge. This is where initiatives such as MasterChef, (which was the culmination of 6 weeks of cooking lessons), empowers players to make better choices. Players learn skills such as how to follow a recipe, how to chop efficiently, how to cook with different types of ingredients, and it’s all done in a fun environment, obviously with a bit of competition at the end to keep the players competitive juices flowing!
This is the first time that Connacht Rugby has had a full-time Performance Nutritionist. My role is split 50:50 between the seniors and the academy/sub academy and NTS programme. This means that players are starting to get nutrition support, mainly through workshops, at a younger age, so over time, the nutrition knowledge, and hopefully habits and practices, of our players coming through the Academy programme will be greater than it has been before.
The players here in Connacht are very good at setting both their own, and team, performance goals. Most of these goals will rely on their nutrition being at its best, so this means that I rarely need to motivate the players to improve their nutrition. Instead I might need to keep on their shoulder to make sure they are doing what they know they should be doing! Good nutrition is based on changing behaviours and behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight so I think I will be busy for a while yet!