While it’s not exactly clear who first uttered the words “you are what you eat,” it is clear that they were on to something! A rugby player's body is an incredible machine and, like any machine, it works best when fueled properly. As NZ rugby has encouraged, the key is to eat plenty of healthy, nutrient-rich food, which provide lots of energy during rugby games and help you recover faster from strength and conditioning training. However, if you eat a lot of junk, you can’t expect to get the same positive results.
Nutrition is important all year round, but your diet during pre-season rugby training is even more important. Why? Because training is usually at its most intense during this training period and establishing healthy eating NOW will instill positive nutritional habits that will help you during the competitive rugby season. If you are serious about rugby and want to get the best possible results from your training, it’s time to start being serious about your pre-season diet too!
Check out this video to find out what England rugby players eat:
The macronutrients - Macronutrient is the collective term for the three main food groups of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Each one plays a major role in your diet.
I’ve listed protein first in this section because it is arguably the most important food group for rugby players. Training for Rugby, whether we’re talking gym work or full-contact tackling, is catabolic which means it breaks your body down. For catabolism think catastrophe.
With Rest and proper nutrition, your body recovers from catabolic activities and grows back bigger and stronger – like a callous on your hand. This rebuilding process is called anabolism and is critical whether you're trying to get bigger or lean out.
For the anabolic processes of muscle growth and repair to occur, your body needs amino acids which it gets from protein. No protein means no amino acids and less than optimal recovery. For this reason, protein should be the cornerstone of every meal you eat during pre-season. Include fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, or a vegetarian source of protein such as quinoa or nut butters in all your main meals. Hard training rugby players need around 1.8 to 2.0g of protein per kg of body weight, or around one gram per pound. As some of you are undoubtedly big guys, this means you’ll need to prioritize protein in your meals to make sure you are getting enough. (Ref 1.)
To make meeting your protein needs a little easier, consider supplementing your diet with whey protein – arguably the best source of protein available.
Low-carb diets are all the rage for weight loss but, for the average rugby player, carbs are a vital food group. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose which is your body’s preferred source of energy during high-intensity training.
If you want to perform during pre-season, it's essential that you consume enough carbohydrates for your needs. That means including at least come carbs in most of your main meals, especially in the hours before and after intense training. Good sources of carbohydrate include potatoes, bread, pasta, rice, and other grains and fruits (particularly berries).
Whenever possible, consume unrefined grains such as wild rice, brown pasta, and wholemeal bread. The fiber content of these foods is good for your digestive system, and as you’ll invariably be eating quite a lot of food, you want to keep yours in good working order.
Fats are a controversial subject in nutrition with many people under the impression that they are all unhealthy. The truth is that some fats are unhealthy, but others are absolutely essential, so you need to know the difference.
As a rule, natural fats like fish, butter, lard, egg yolks, avocados, nut butter, olive oil, and other unprocessed plant oils are very healthy, and you need them in your diet. They help regulate inflammation and are also essential for producing anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone. They're also the basis for our ketogenic diet program - with specific adaptations for rugby players.
Conversely, processed and unnatural fats like margarine and hydrogenated fats made from refined plant oils are unhealthy. Often called trans fats, these "bad boys" can cause inflammation and other serious health problems and need to be avoided as much as possible. This type of fat is commonly found in processed foods and commercially baked goods so if you cut out the junk, you cut out most trans fats too.
You should aim to consume around one gram of fat per kilo of bodyweight which is roughly half a gram per pound. This will ensure you enjoy the benefits of fats without taking on board too many calories. Natural fats are undeniably good for you but being fat is not!
VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Most natural food contains vitamins and minerals. These micronutrients don’t provide any energy, but they help you to unlock the energy in the food you eat. Vitamins and minerals are also the facilitators of the reaction that happens in your body. Insufficient vitamins and minerals mean slow or even no reactions.
For example, an absence of vitamin C means that your immune system will be decidedly underpowered while too little vitamin D means that any calcium you consume is less likely to be transported to your bones. Bone health is, of course, essential in rugby!
You could get your vitamins and minerals from fortified foods and supplements but, if you do, you are selling yourself short. Fortified foods and supplements DO contain vitamins and minerals, but in many cases, these micronutrients are synthetic rather than natural. Also, when you eat “real food,” you don’t just get a couple of isolated micronutrients, you get lots of different ones at the same time. The vitamins and minerals in your food work synergistically and are present in the best form for maximum absorption. When it comes to vitamins and minerals, Mother Nature knows best!
To ensure you get your daily dose of vitamins and minerals, strive to consume ten servings of fruit and vegetables per day. That night sound like a lot, but if you include two or three servings per meal and also snack on fruit once or twice a day, it’s quite realistic.
Try to eat a variety of fruit and veg each day to provide a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals. I like to use the “traffic light approach” and include one red, one orange, and one green item in each main meal. Eat your fruit raw and your vegetables lightly cooked to preserve their nutritional content.
Meal frequency is another controversial nutrition subject. Some experts believe that you’ll get better results if you eat lots of small meals per day, while others say that just a couple of large meals is all that you need. The truth is you need to find the approach that works best for you. Some people are built for grazing while others are more comfortable eating fewer, more substantial meals.
If you are able, try both approaches and see which one works best for you. If, however, you are limited to one choice or the other, maybe because of work or school, don’t worry – in the grand scheme of things food QUANTITY and QUALITY is more important than meal FREQUENCY.
NOTE: the only additional thing we'll say about meal frequency relates to those players who are looking to gain weight during pre-season. We get asked this question at least once a week. The best way to put on weight during pre-season is to have a 400-500 calorie protein shake at around 3am. This is a point in the day when your body is craving fuel to build muscle mass. Adding calories between dinner and breakfast is the best way to stack on lbs during pre-season.
Your body is basically a big bag of salty water! Water makes up around 65% of your weight, and you’ll find water everywhere from your muscles to your eyes to your blood to your cerebral fluid. Just a small drop in water can lead to a reduction in performance, and as rugby training is hard enough as it is, the last thing you need is to get dehydrated.
Although other drinks can contribute to hydration, what your body really needs is water and lots of it. How much, however, is up for debate. The standard advice of eight 8-ounce glasses per day has no scientific basis – it just has a certain numerical ring to it. However, it’s not a bad place to start. (Ref. 2)
The best way to assess hydration so you can determine how much water you need to drink is to monitor your urine output. Other than your first pee of the day, your urine should be mostly clear, odor-free, and copious. If it isn’t, drink more water per day. The harder you train and the more you perspire, the more water you should drink.
So, how what does this information look like in the real world? Good question! Here’s a typical day of eating that adheres to the principles outlined above.
- Breakfast – large bowl of oatmeal made with full-fat milk, one banana, 2-3 hardboiled eggs
- Snack – 10 Brazil nuts, one apple, ½ cup cottage cheese
- Lunch – grilled chicken, steamed or roasted mix vegetables, olive oil, one cup cooked rice or quinoa
- Snack – 1-2 scoops whey protein, small handful of almonds, one orange
- Dinner – lean steak, one large baked sweet potato, green beans, plus fresh fruit salad and Greek yogurt
- Plus 1-2 glasses of water at every meal
- Midnight - whey protein shake with berries or a banana
No discussion on rugby nutrition is complete without mentioning supplements. Supplements can help enhance your diet but they can't replace real food. As useful as supplements are for recovery and energy during workouts, it’s important to understand that they are the tip of the dietary pyramid and you need to build a solid base of good nutrition for any supplement to have the desired effect.
For example, if you live on soda and takeouts, taking lots of whey protein will not have many benefits. Supplements are useful, but they are not magic bullets that can prop up an otherwise unhealthy diet.
When it comes to nutrition, the best way to make healthy food choices is to ask yourself “what will this meal do for me?” If you cannot answer this question with anything better than “it tastes nice” you probably need to rethink your meal choice. It doesn’t matter how hard you train; a poor diet will undermine your progress. However, when you align your diet to your training, you’ll be amazed how much better you will feel and perform.