In years gone by, halftime rugby nutrition involved a couple of slices of orange, usually supplied by the home team water from the faucet in the lockers.

Some teams even fortified themselves with a mid-match beer! In those days, however, rugby at even the highest level was strictly an amateur sport, and nutritional science was a fledgling discipline yet to become mainstream.

Fast forward to the modern game and nutrition has been shown to be every bit as important as training for successful rugby. The game is faster, the players are fitter, and the pace of play is more intense and sustained. In short, rugby takes a lot more out of you than it used to.

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Pre-match nutrition is crucial to ensure that you are fully fueled up before the first blow of the referee’s whistle but, after 40-minutes, many of those nutritional resources have been used up.

In many instances, a game of rugby is won or lost in the second half. Both physical and cognitive performances have been found to decline in the initial stages of play that follows half-time. An increased risk of injury has also been observed during this period. Teams can either snatch victory from the jaws of defeat or defend their lead and emerge victorious. However, the team who stays strong until the final whistle is more likely to prevail than the team who, after a hard first-half, is unable to keep playing hard in the second half.

Of course, fitness and pre-match nutrition play a vital role in how much energy you have in a second half, but what you do at halftime can also have a significant impact on your performance.

Halftime – what your body needs

While rugby undeniably takes a lot out of your body, there are three things your body needs when halftime arrives; carbohydrate, water, and electrolytes.

1. Carbohydrates, glucose, and glycogen

When you exercise aerobically, for example, while jogging at an easy pace, your body uses fat and a small amount of glucose in the presence of an abundant supply of oxygen to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – your body’s main source of energy. Because even the leanest person has a lot of fat on their body, several pounds at least, this means that aerobic activity can continue for a long period of time without the need for refueling.

In contrast, the main source of ATP during high-intensity rugby is glucose or, more specifically, glycogen.

Glycogen is stored glucose which comes from dietary carbohydrates. Locked inside your muscles, glycogen is a local energy store which simply means that the glycogen in your legs powers your legs, and the glycogen in your arms powers your arms. Glycogen is broken down and converted to ATP to fuel intense muscular activity.

Because rugby is a total body sport, glycogen depletion is global rather than local. The degree of glycogen depletion depends on the size of the glycogen stores before the game, and how intensely you have played during the game. Irrespective of initial glycogen stores and how hard you’ve played, it’s a safe assumption that at least some of your muscle glycogen will have been depleted. Depleted glycogen stores can lead to a marked decline in power, strength, and endurance (1) which means glycogen replenishment at halftime is critical for maintaining a high level of performance.

2. Water

On even a cold day, your body uses a lot of water during a rugby match. You lose water through perspiration which helps keep you cool and exhale a lot of water vapor too. Water is critical for virtually all bodily functions, and even mild dehydration can result in decreased physical performance (2).

It’s not uncommon to lose as much as 32 oz. of water per hour of high-intensity exercise, and rugby players should endeavor to start each game well hydrated, taking more water on board at any opportunity e.g. long stoppages in play, immediately after a try, etc.

Thirst is not a reliable indicator of dehydration, especially during an intense rugby match when you are concentrating more on the game than you are on how you feel. It’s also suggested that thirst is a late indicator of dehydration and that, if you do feel thirsty, you are already mildly dehydrated. Regardless of this, it’s clear that replacing lost fluids should be a halftime priority.

It should be noted that while water is crucial, there is such a thing as too much. In very rare instances, it is possible to over-hydrate, a condition called hyponatremia which, in simple terms, is the over-dilution of plasma sodium.

In endurance events, such as marathons and triathlons, it’s very easy to take on a lot of fluids and consume too much water. In contrast, in rugby, water breaks are few and far between and so hyponatremia is much less likely. However, while drinking plenty of water before, during, and after a rugby match (and training) is important, it’s equally important not to go overboard.

3. Electrolytes

Electrolytes are minerals critical for muscle contractions – including the heart. When you sweat, you lose not only water but also these vital minerals. Sometimes referred to as salts, the seven main electrolytes are:

  • Sodium (Na+)
  • Chloride (Cl-)
  • Potassium (K+)
  • Magnesium (Mg++)
  • Calcium (Ca++)
  • Phosphate (HPO4–)
  • Bicarbonate (HCO3-)

Your body is a big bag of salty water, and a lack of electrolytes can affect the strength and frequency of nerve impulses. They also control the movement of fluid into and out of cells. Low levels of electrolytes, combined with dehydration, can lead to exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC) and studies suggest that replacing lost electrolytes can delay or even prevent the onset of cramp and fatigue. As electrolytes are also critical for forceful muscle contractions, it’s easy to see how lost electrolytes need to be replaced to maintain a high level of performance.

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Halftime nutrition and hydration considerations

1. Time

Halftime lasts between 10-15 minutes, and a lot of things need to happen during this time. As soon as the whistle blows, players must leave the pitch, reach the locker rooms, treat any injuries, make any necessary kit adjustments, listen to the team talk from the coach, receive any one-to-one feedback from the coach, use the bathroom, and re-warm up as needed. That’s a lot of do! Subsequently, any halftime nutrition and hydration strategies must be quick and easy to implement, and not interfere with any of the other critical things that happen during the halftime break. The key word for halftime nutrition and hydration is practicality.

2. Digestion

Even the fastest acting carbohydrates and easy to absorb fluids take time to digest and absorb and the digestive process itself slows down considerably during exercise. During exercise, blood is preferentially directed toward working muscles and away from less crucial systems and organs. This means that the digestive system becomes decidedly sluggish at this time.

Food and fluids consumed during halftime need to be easily digested to ensure they a) get to work as soon as possible and b) do not cause excessive blood to be diverted from the working muscles to the digestive system.

3. Bulk

Imagine playing rugby after a huge bowl of pasta; that first tackle could leave you spewing spaghetti carbonara all over the pitch! Any food or drink consumed during halftime should come in small, easily consumed portions. This is NOT the time to fill your stomach!

4. Taste

Intense exercise often has an appetite- suppressing effect meaning that, even though you know you need to rehydrate and refuel, you might not really want to. This situation can be made worse if your food or drink is not very appetizing. Avoid this problem by making sure you choose foods and beverages you enjoy and even look forward to.

5. Transportability

Unless your entire team follows the same halftime nutrition and hydration protocol, you’ll need to transport your own food and drink to the game. This may make some strategies impractical, especially if playing away or you're on rugby tour.

Halftime nutrition and hydration strategies

Here are TEN halftime nutrition and hydration strategies for you to use. Each one has worked for at least someone and may work for you too! To avoid digestive problems, make sure you try your chosen strategy during training before using it during a game. The last thing you want to do is sabotage your performance by using an untested strategy that doesn’t work for you.

1. Sports drinks

Sports drinks contain glucose and electrolytes. The Original sports drink was Gatorade, made for the Florida Gators football team way back in 1965. There are now dozens of different sports drinks on the market, and three main types are available:

  • Hypotonic – containing less than 2 grams of glucose per 100 milliliters of water, hypotonic drinks are great rehydration but not so good for glycogen replacement.
  • Hypertonic – containing 10 grams or more of glucose per 100 milliliters of water, hypertonic drinks are more food than fluid. While all that glucose can help restore depleted glycogen, it can also impair fluid absorption.
  • Isotonic – containing 6 grams of glucose per 100 milliliters, usually divided equally between glucose, sucrose, and maltodextrin, isotonic drinks provide a good balance between fuel and fluid. This mixture of sugars is designed to deliver fast, medium, and slow-acting energy to keep you fueled for the next 30-60 minutes.

It is clear that isotonic beverages are your best choice for sports drink in most instances. However, despite containing electrolytes, most sports drinks are still low in sodium. This is because most people prefer a sweet rather than a salty sports drink. If you can tolerate the taste, add a quarter to a half teaspoon of sea salt to your sports drink for better fluid absorption and electrolyte balance.

Check out this video to discover how top make your own sports drink that costs cents instead of dollars:

2. Energy gels

Portable, easy to consume, and fast acting, sports gels are popular in endurance sports and are ideal for halftime rugby too. Just rip the top off and squirt the sweet, fruit-flavored gel into your mouth. Wash down with copious amounts of water. Ideal for away games, there are a variety of different sports gels available containing a range of ingredients, including caffeine, so make sure you read up on your chosen product to make sure it is right for you.

3. Flat coke

There is no school like old school, and this trick is very much from the days when sports nutrition was in its infancy. Take a can of regular, full-sugar coke, and then shake well. Open the can carefully and let the carbon dioxide gas escape. Keep on agitating and venting your beverage until it’s no longer fizzy.

Coke contains sugar and caffeine and, contrary to popular belief, caffeine is not the major diuretic that many of us have been told. In short, a can of flat coke, which contains around 35 grams of carbs and 160 calories, will not lead to instantaneous dehydration.

If caffeine makes you jittery, avoid this strategy as you may find it causes anxiety and interferes with fine motor skills.

4. Dried fruit

Dried fruit is tasty, sweet, and naturally high in many important electrolytes. Because it has had most of its water removed, all that is left is a concentrated source of fast-acting carbohydrate.

Readily available, dried fruit is a convenient half-time snack, but even though it’s fast acting, it will still take time to digest. Good choices include dried apricots, raisins, sultanas, pineapple, and mango. Some dried fruit is dusted with sugar making it even more energy dense.

Some people find dried fruit too acidic to digest comfortably so avoid if you have any such issues.

5. Pre-workout drinks

Pre-workout drinks such as Twitch Faster and Beet Elite are ideal for the halftime break. Containing ingredients designed to energize you in minutes, they boost your energy by buffering lactic acid, increasing blood flow, and, in some cases, with caffeine. Some pre-workout drinks are carb and calorie free so do not help with glycogen replacement. That’s easily remedied by adding some glucose powder to your carb and calorie-free pre-workout supplement.

6. Snack cakes

Snack cakes like Twinkies, Jaffa Cakes, Ding Dongs, Ho Hos, and cereal bars might seem like unlikely halftime fodder, but they can work quite well. High in fast acting sugar, they digest quickly and easily, most people like them, they are widely available, and are portable too. While they won’t help you to hydrate and don’t contain much in the way of electrolytes, that is easily remedied by consuming a hypotonic drink at the same time.

7. Bananas

Naturally high in both carbs and electrolytes, specifically potassium, bananas are a good halftime food providing you choose ones that are very ripe. The riper the banana, the higher its glycemic index will be, and the more digestible it is. Ripe bananas have brown splotches on their skin and are much softer.

8. Non-alcoholic beer

No, not a joke entry – non-alcoholic beer can help replace lost electrolytes, water, and glycogen. If you are an old-school player who cannot imagine halftime without a brew or two, drinking non-alcohol beer could be a decent compromise. However, avoid unpleasant gas issues by opening your beer before kickoff so it’s flat by halftime (4).

9. Jelly beans

Jelly beans and other high sugar confectionery can provide a quick hit of glucose energy in a very easy to digest form. Weighing in at around 20 grams of carbs and 100 calories per one ounce serving, a small handful is all you need. Consume with plenty of water to replace lost fluids. Avoid confectionary with a high-fat content, such as chocolate, as fat inhibits digestion.

10. Energy bars

Energy bars such as Cliff Bars, Power Bars, and Quest Bars are all loaded with fast-acting carbohydrates that are ideal at halftime. Some are very chewy and can be hard work – especially if allowed to chill, while others are soft and taste just like candy bars. Look for bars that provide around 200 calories and at least 30 grams of carbs or consider eating two less substantial bars. Consume with plenty of water.

What if you can’t stomach much food or drink?

Not all rugby players can tolerate food or drink at halftime, finding that, if they try to force feed themselves, they end up feeling sick or bloated. If you find the idea of eating or drinking at halftime a major turn off, consider carbohydrate mouth rinsing.

Simply mix up a 10% concentration carb drink, with optionally added caffeine, and rinse it around your mouth for 30 seconds or so just before you return to the pitch. Studies reveal that this simple trick can help increase peak power output and performance during repeated sprint activities such as rugby although the exact mechanisms are, as yet, unconfirmed (5).

Halftime is not a time to switch off and recover passively. You need to make sure you stay warm, tune in to what your coach has to say and take care of your energy, water, and electrolyte requirements. With ten tried-and-tested strategies to try (plus carb rinsing), you should be able to find at least a couple of options that will work for you. Remember though; game day is NOT the time to try a new halftime recovery trick; experiment with these protocols during training first.

REFERENCES

1 - Glycogen and Resistance Training
https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/glycogen.html

2 - The effects of fluid loss on physical performance: A critical review 
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095254615000046

3 - Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1150229/

4 - Effects of Beer, Non-Alcoholic Beer and Water Consumption before Exercise on Fluid and Electrolyte Homeostasis in Athletes 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/

5 - Effects of caffeine and carbohydrate mouth rinses on repeated sprint performance
http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/apnm-2012-0333#.WRLR_9KGPIU

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We are building the most comprehensive library of training materials for amateur and pro rugby players. With protocols for hitting training goals including power, agility and strength. Our team consists of elite-level trainers from rugby, S&C, powerlifting and performance nutrition backgrounds.