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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Elite level rugby: Is what they eat important?

There are key moments in any career that stand out above all others and this is one of mine; I clearly remember the moment when a former Wallaby great was sitting at my table at the annual Sydney University Grand Final Lunch. After asking what I did for a living, the player actually laughed, and said, “so they are still telling you what to eat” before he continued to make a complete joke about my profession, and rant about how he thought that dietitians working in rugby were a complete waste of time.

I did not say it was a fond memory……

So is what they eat important? Could they eat a steak and eggs and perform as well as they do today? Possibly; there will always be genetically gifted players who could eat whatever they like and still do well, but it is as well as they could have if they had eaten well? Surely, maintaining optimal levels of hydration to reduce the risk of cellular damage during contact sport, having more than enough fuel stored in the muscles for extra time, or aiding in the prevention muscle soreness on long flights by eating the right thing, are simple yet powerful things any athletes could do to make their bodies feel better under the huge impact of what they expect from them, training session after training session, season after season?

It seems to me that some of these things are pretty simple, and yet many players and administrations, at both junior and senior levels still do not think that sports nutrition is worth investing in. I will let you decide.

As sports drink containers fly across the field when the final siren sounds, it appears that teams have hydration down pat, but did we all forget that it was pre game hydration that was actually the most important thing? Significant injuries: knee and shoulder reconstructions, hamstring tears, broken bones can finish a player’s season and even their career. Surely it makes sense that a well hydrated body; one that has more fluid padding on every one of the millions and cells helps to reduce the risk of injury? And yet players are still routinely dehydrated. A study completed with a national rugby league team found that on the average training day, 60% of players were significantly dehydrated.

Remember, an elite level rugby player will lose 3-4 kilos of fluid a game! Intensive rehydration protocols utilizing supplementary drinks, electrolyte replacement technology and practical interventions in which water bottles are placed in player hands as opposed to be left lying across the field, will become increasing importantly as we expect more from the human body, travel more for international competitions and look for ways to gain competitive advantage.

The average person is exhausted after their daily gym workout so imagine your workout was tripled in time and intensity and then you may be slightly closer you how the body of an elite level rugby player feels, and that is before we consider the impact of injuries, travel and age related pains and niggles. Without aggressive supplementation post every single game and training session, elite level players muscular systems is constantly in breakdown mode – a negative physiological state that leaves players vulnerable to fatigue, injury, infection and illness. To say eat, is not enough, it is unfortunately not that simple. Rather, it needs to be eat this, in this quantity and this time for every meal, every day, is again the specificity required to not only allow for reasonable recovery for an athlete of this level and but again ensure that every aspect of a teams preparatory culture is optimal.

Pre Game Preparation
Most players at Super 14 and international level rugby are well organised. They basically know what to eat when they are training and in the gym but game day is a whole new ball game. Many will not feel like eating or travel and game logistics simply mean that the foods the players need are just not available but this is the most important time for optimal fuelling.

Ideally pre game preparation begins the day before a game; fluid loads, carbohydrate regimes with a training tapers and of course foods that digest well to prevent physical discomfort to ensure the player feels light and yet energized for the physically and emotionally game day. The exact carbohydrate types within any sports drink can be the difference between optimal fuelling and gastric comfort, again variables that are too important to be blasé about.

Players will rarely miss a gym session but they will readily miss the breakfast they need before the session and they will gladly skip the food they should be eating for a fantastic array of pills and potions that are guaranteed to make them stronger, fitter and faster than every before. Welcome to the world of supplementation. There is not doubt that elite level players do require some degree of supplementation to get the calories they require on day to day basis within the frantic world of international rugby but how they take these supplements is considered slightly less important. Players are shocked to hear that supplements will work better if they are consumed with food. Of course they will be, the human body is programmed to absorb complete nutrients and will always do so more efficiently when wholefoods are consumed. That is why supplement programs go hand in hand with food programs.

So, I think that what they eat is important. It is every bit as important as the weight programs they do in the gym, the training drills coaches spend hours formulating and the massages they rush to the tables post game to get. Food is the basis of the body, and rugby is about the strength, speed, the focus and physicality of the human body and yet it is still the one-thing coaches, administrators and apparently ex players are quick to downplay.

The funny thing is, that is always the true champions who are most respectful, who see the possible improvement in performance with small levels of intervention whether it be strength, conditioning or nutrition. Take Victor Matfield, arguably the worlds best line out forward, who sat quietly and respectfully in every one of the lectures I gave to his club on a recent trip to South Africa, even though he would have heard it all many times before. While junior players sniggered and carried on the way that young men in a group only can, Victor sat, listened and asked intelligent questions that inevitably has helped his team’s perforance in the recent Super 14 competition. These are the qualities of a true champion.

So, there can be ridicule, from ex players, coaching staff and even sometimes the players themselves, but every so often you work with a team in which you have been a part of a winning mentality, where all aspect of preparation including nutrition and have been second to none and the team outperforms itself. And that is what makes it all worth it.

My deepest congratulations to the Bulls for their standout season. I wish some of our teams here in Australia posessed your focus, commitment and vision which has so clearly paid off.