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Eat to perform: top nutrition tips for rugby players

If you were to look at the diet plans of each of the players taking to the field for this year’s 6 Nations Championship, you’d be hard pressed to find two that were identical. Gone are the days of the same menu for the entire squad during training, with the current emphasis now squarely on understanding a player’s individual requirements and tailoring their diets accordingly. With this in mind, here are some tips for working out your own needs and getting smart when it comes to nutrition.

Matchday isn’t for experimenting

Think of nutrition as a long game: a strategy to help you achieve maximum fitness, strength and optimum body mass over time. If you look at your current habits and decide that a diet overhaul is called for, the morning of your next matchday isn’t the right moment to launch your new plan. Your body has enough to do on that day without a ‘meal experiment’ and if it doesn’t quite agree with you, your performance could suffer.

There’s room for taste in any plan (within reason)

From soya milk to spinach, contrary to what you may have heard, there isn’t a single ‘must eat’ superfood that has to be included in every rugby player’s nutritional routine. Yes, there are categories of food to focus on, but the the good news is that these categories are widely drawn. Personal preference can and should shape any plan, so don’t force yourself to eat something you can’t abide just because you’ve heard it’s good for you. Substitute it for something equally as effective while still listening to what your taste buds are telling you.

Don’t forget rehydration

It’s the most important thing you put into your body, and yet water can be easily overlooked. For an idea of how much fluid you lose during a training session or match, take a reading of your weight before and after a typical session. 

As a rule of thumb, a 1 kilo reduction in weight is the equivalent of a 1.5 kilo fluid loss. This reading should then give you guide as to how much fluid you should consume after a session to stay hydrated as part of your post-session replenishment efforts. It’s especially important to focus on this if you have training and/or matches on consecutive days to avoid possible problems with chronic dehydration.

Salty food and excessive alcohol can both cause dehydration and are therefore best avoided.

Whole foods rather than supplements

With supplements, the clue is in the name: if taken, they are meant to supplement your diet and address specific deficiencies rather than being a substitute for nutritional groups. Fruit and vegetables are a good example. A multi-vitamin supplement shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for this food group, not least because it means missing out not just on the nutritional value of the foods themselves, but also their potential antioxidant effects.

Seek professional advice before taking supplements.

Work out your goals

In an interview for England Rugby, the national team’s nutritionist, Graeme Close explained how players tend to be classified in three ways for nutrition. Maximisers are aiming to gain muscle mass, maintainers are trying to keep it, while for minimisers, the focus is on trimming body fat.

Be clear on the category you fall into in order to form a plan that’s right for you.

Protein combined with muscle work for lean mass

Foods high in protein such as lean meat, fish milk and nuts are vital for building muscle mass. Remember, however, that an increase in dietary intake will not automatically lead to an increase in body muscle. At the same time, this should be complemented by a programme of increased weight training.

Do not eliminate food groups

If maximising muscle is your aim, intuition might tell you to go easy on the carbs to make room for more protein. In fact, whether you are maximising, minimising or maintaining, a good diet will typically consist of items from all five food groups: cereals, fruit and vegetables, milk, meat and its alternatives as well as fats.

Carbs, for instance, are your body’s essential source of fuel. Without a steady source of carbohydrates from sources such as grains, fruits and vegetables, your body will burn protein for fuel, which will hinder muscle growth or muscle mass maintenance.

Snacking: when and how to do it

For a minimiser, calorie control can be achieved by trying to cut out snacks altogether or by eating fruit when hungry outside of meal times. For a maximiser, snacking can be a useful way of loading up on calories throughout the day. In the same way, five smaller meals each day can be a more manageable way of ensuring you meet your target calorie intake compared to three larger ones. The content of those snacks should be healthy (i.e. no confectionary), balanced and varied. Sandwiches can be a reliable way of achieving this; for instance by combining tuna, salad and bread.

Whatever your aims, a focus on nutrition combined with a suitably adapted training regime can help you achieve them. Clubs themselves have an important role to play in supporting all of this, along with general risk management and health and safety measures. To find out how insurance solutions can help you to further provide a safe and supportive environment for your players, take a look at our rugby insurance solutions.