Rugby Day Nutrition Guide (carbohydrate adjusted)

Preparing for rugby games should be pretty simple, right? Get to the pitch ten minutes before kickoff, whack your boots on, tuck your mouthguard in your sock and get on out there! We've all done this. But it's not exactly ideal preparation for playing top or even mid-level rugby. Thanks to the overwhelming requests from our wonderful readers today's blog focus is pre-rugby game nutrition. That is, what you should eat before Saturday's rugby match.


DIETARY ASSUMPTIONS

You'll notice from reading the title that this guide is intended for "carbohydrate-adjusted" rugby players only. Is that you? Almost certainly. The vast majority of amateur rugby players, like the public at-large, are dependent on carbohydrates as their primary source of energy. Carbs have long been the food of choice for athletes of all kinds. But this is changing and changing fast. The All Blacks diet, for example, has shifted away from carbohydrates and towards healthy fats. There's a good reason for this. Relying mostly on healthy fats for energy (a more potent source than carbohydrates) provides pro rugby players with body composition and endurance advantages.

However, shifting to a low-carb rugby diet isn't easy. It requires at least a month for you body and brain to adjust to using fats for energy. Several ketone supplements are on the market which can assist with this transition process. We'll talk about them another time. When you factor in meal schedules and game day nutrition, this change-over process takes as many as eight weeks to complete. So for tomorrow's game (yay, rugby day! woohoo!), we're going to assume that you are a carbohydrate-adjusted rugby player who relies on a balanced diet rich in complex carbs. Check back another time for our rugby day nutrition guide for fat-adjusted rugby players.


RUGBY DAY ENERGY PRINCIPLES

Before we consider the kinds of fuel we need for a game of rugby, let's address how rugby players burn through that fuel. In particular, we need to think about the activity we're performing and energy usage.

A rugby game is comprised of dozens of moderate to high-intensity intervals, intersected with walking and brief periods of rest. This causes a rugby player's body to rely on three different energy systems during a game:

  1. the immediate system - fueled by the intramuscular high-energy phosphates ATP and Phosphocreatine (PCr)
  2. the short-term system - the anaerobic glycolysis (glycogenolysis and glycolysis) or lactate system, fueled by glycogen, glucose, and the glycerol backbone of triglycerides, and
  3. the long-term system - the aerobic glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation of the macronutrients carbohydrate, lipids, and protein.[1]

Everything you'll do on a rugby field, except for maybe calling lineouts, will require physical effort and rapid muscle contractions. To fuel this process, your body will metabolize muscle glycogen to produce Adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) (mentioned above). Think of ATP as the energy that makes your muscles contract. Rapid production of ATP is critical for athletic performance.

In a carbohydrate-adjusted rugby player, your primary source of ATP is glucose. For the average rugby player, the maximum glycogen store you can accumulate is somewhere between 400-500 grams (one gram of carbohydrate equals ~ 4 kcal). This storage limit means that your carbohydrate fuel tank maxes out at about 1600-2000 kcal. What does all that sciencey stuff mean? In simple terms, it's tough to store and utilize enough muscle glycogen for an entire game of rugby. To have enough fuel to last the warm up (30mins) and the game (90 mins with half-time), your body needs more energy than you can put into it before you start playing.

So when we talk about rugby-day nutrition, we mean more than just pre-game nutrition. To fuel your body adequately for an 80-minute rugby game, you will need to give it fuel after your warm-up and at half time as well. Overlook this point at your peril. If you don't replenish your energy stores multiple times during your match, you'll run low on energy and suffer fatigue more easily.


RUGBY DAY NUTRITION PRINCIPLES

We'll get to meal plans in a moment. But first, here are the four core nutrition principles that we recommend for carbohydrate-adjusted rugby players. If all else fails, stick to these principles, and you'll be ok.

Eat familiar foods

With all the advice out there from your teammates and the Internet (including this article), it can be easy to take those recommendations and run with them. But eating foods that are unfamiliar to you just because someone recommends them is that last thing you should do. Your gut is very sensitive. Giving it something it's never seen before and expecting it to react appropriately is a recipe for intestinal disaster. Always eat foods that are familiar to you the day before and the day of a rugby match. Even if we say "eat an orange" - if you don't eat oranges, don't eat one because we suggest it. Stick to something you have as part of your regular diet.

Micronutrients Matter

Rugby players sweat a lot. When they sweat, they lose critical sodium. This loss of sodium is essential to understand as it has a series of consequences for the body during physical exertion. As sodium levels decline, there is an adverse effect on potassium balance. If you don't replace sodium, this potassium imbalance will result in fatigue and headaches. The solution? A pinch of sea salt in your pre-rugby water bottle. You can also incorporate berries, nuts, and seeds into your rugby-day meals which all contain appreciable amounts of potassium.

Notice that we don't list cramping as a result of sodium depletion. If you've played rugby for a reasonable period, you'll have seen players going down with muscle cramps. If you watched last week's Pro Rugby game between Sacramento and San Francisco, this was clearly on display. Unfortunately for most players, the recommended solution to muscle cramping has long been "get him some water." In recent years, the thinking has changed, with trainers recommending sodium as a way to eliminate cramping. Wrong again. Most muscle cramping is due to magnesium depletion in cells.

When someone is suffering from a lack of magnesium, intense exercise, sleep deprivation and a lack of fuel are all likely to cause muscle cramping or "twitching". To avoid muscle cramping, eat raw dark green vegetables. If you have spinach, for example, don't boil it. This dehydration process strips out magnesium from the plant's leaves. You can also consider taking a slow-release magnesium supplement. But if you haven't done this before, we suggest sticking to a few green vegetables.

Keep caffeine to a minimum

Studies have shown caffeine to provide performance benefits in rowers, cyclists, and endurance athletes. Wallabies halfback George Gregan was famously criticized in the late 90s for his use of caffeine tablets before rugby games. An attractive benefit of caffeine use is the perceived performance benefit. Rugby players are likely to rate their "perceived exertion" as lower if they consume small amounts of caffeine before games. However, over-consumption (more than 2 cups) of caffeine can cause significant stress on the adrenal gland. The minimum effective dose of caffeine for a 150lb rugby player would be one small cup of coffee. The larger you are, the more you can have, but don't exceed two cups before a rugby game even if you're huge.

This is particularly relevant if you're using our pre-workout for rugby players called Twitch Faster. Notice that the label says "contains 200mg of added caffeine". 200mg is right around the upper limit for our recommended dosage of caffeine before a rugby game. If you've already had a coffee or a cup of tea in the morning, we do not recommend you take a full serving of Twitch Faster. If you're looking for endurance benefits, please consider a bcaa supplement or nitrate powder instead. 

Fuel-up multiple times

As we mentioned above, your body's natural stores of glucose in the form of muscle glycogen are pushed to the limit by an 80-minute rugby game. If you forget everything else in this article, the one thing we urge you to take away is that you need to eat something at half time in your rugby game! It can be a gel pack, an orange, some gummy bears or a cereal bar. But it needs to be something. We also suggest adding a small amount of sea salt to the water you drink at half time. These two tweaks to your rugby-day nutrition can have significant benefits just on their own.


RUGBY DAY MEAL TIMING & PLANS

Friday Nutrition

During a rugby game, most players will burn between 1500 and 200 calories. Preparing for this kind of energy depletion should take place well in advance of kick off. We recommend increasing your calorie intake on the Friday before your rugby game. This doesn't need to be a major change, just an additional snack. Try to shoot for 125% of your typical calorie intake. Avoid excessive protein consumption. If you're carbohydrate-adjusted, having a steak the night before a game isn't ideal. Stick to complex carbohydrates, pasta, rice and spinach for the magnesium content. 

When are you playing?

Before we discuss meal plans in detail, let's talk about timing your meals correctly according to when your rugby game kicks off. If you have an early start (before 12:00 pm), then your meal plan will vary considerably from a standard 3:00 pm or 3:30 pm kick off.

EARLY KICK OFF (before 2:00 pm) MEAL PLAN

Breakfast

If you're playing before 12:00 pm, your opportunities to fuel-up will be limited. You should eat a high-energy breakfast 3 to 4 hours before the game which should provide lots of carbohydrates, fluids and micronutrients. 

Choose two of these options:

  • High fiber cereal with milk, honey and a chopped banana
  • Scrambled eggs on whole grain toast with greek yogurt, blueberries and sea salt
  • High-carb smoothie with strawberries and a spoonful of nut butter
  • Turkey omelette with raw spinach, feta and sea salt
  • Pancakes drizzled with honey
  • Greek yogurt glass
  • 12oz of Orange of Pineapple juice
  • Handful of dried fruit and nuts or nut butter

1hr to Kick Off

With 60 minutes before kick off, you should eat a second, smaller meal. This 'pre-game snack' should be light, easy to digest and made up of familiar foods. If you use a cognitive enhancer, it's best to take this between your pre-game snack and and pre-game warmup. This gives it enough to be absorbed and deployed. 

Choose two of these options for your pre-game snack:

  • Fruit Juice
  • Beet Elite or SuperBeets mixed into 12oz of water
  • Banana, Apple or Orange
  • Nut Butter, Honey or Jam on toast (or just straight out of the damn jar, you're a rugby player afterall!)

During Match & Halftime

It's not going to be possible to ingest a huge amount of energy during a rugby match. But you can grab a quick top-up at halftime.

Here are a couple of options:

  • Diluted fruit squash or water
  • Jelly beans, orange slices, cereal bar

Post-Match Recovery

To optimize your recovery, eating within 30 minutes of the end of your game is the recommended timeframe. This helps to limit lean muscle loss. Pro Tip: unless you're seriously injured, try to avoid ibuprofen as much as possible. You're better off using compression and ice to reduce swelling. More on this another time. 

Choose at least one of these options for post-match recovery (can you guess which one we don't recommend?):

  • Club sandwich with ham and cheese
  • 200mls of yogurt and chopped banana
  • 12 beers, 2 gins and a sleepless night on a teammate's couch
  • Whey protein smoothie with dried fruits
  • A tub of greek yogurt with raisins or cranberries

LATE KICK OFF (after 2:00 pm) MEAL PLAN

Breakfast

For lat kick-off games, you'll still want to consume a high-carbohydrate breakfast. But you'll also want to get in a second full meal before kick-off. Ideally this should be timed out so that breakfast is around 8:00am and lunch is around 11:00am

Choose any two of these options for breakfast:

  • Scrambled eggs on whole grain toast with greek yogurt and blueberries
  • High-carb smoothie with strawberries and a spoonful of nut butter
  • Turkey omelette with raw spinach and feta
  • Pancakes drizzled with honey
  • Greek yogurt glass
  • 12oz of Orange of Pineapple juice
  • Handful of dried fruit and nuts of nut butter

Lunch

For late kick offs, your lunch meals should consist of a large serving of high-fibre carbohydrate with a salty meat of some kind.

Try to combine one of each of these groups from your standard diet choices:

  • pasta, basmati rice, potatoes, brown bread
  • tuna, salmon, bacon or anchovies
  • orange juice, a pinch of sea salt or Beet Elite package in 12oz of water

If you're eating at Chipotle, try our formula for training days in this article. If you cannot eat foods before a match, take a high energy smoothie instead with nut butter and strawberries. 

During Match & Halftime

It's not going to be possible to ingest a huge amount of energy during a rugby match. But you can grab a quick top-up at halftime. 

Here are a couple of options:

  • Diluted fruit squash or water
  • Jelly beans, orange slices, cereal bar

Post-Match Recovery

To optimize your recovery, eating within 30 minutes of the end of your game is the recommended timeframe. 

Choose at least one of these options for post-match recovery:

  • Club sandwich with ham and cheese
  • 200mls of yogurt and chopped banana
  • Whey protein smoothie with dried fruits
  • A tub of greek yogurt with raisins or cranberries

    References & Resources

    [1] Rugby Union Requirements For Maximum Energy Output! (n.d.).

    rugby supplement stack

    Rugby Day Nutrition Guide (carbohydrate adjusted)


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