Simplify your in-season rugby diet
Nutrition is a complex and ever-evolving subject. That’s doubly true for sports nutrition. There are hundreds of books and websites pumping out nutritional advice, and almost all of them recommend a different approach. It’s so confusing!
Many nutritional approaches are so convoluted that only full-time athletes with live-in chefs could ever hope to follow them. With others, you’ll need be filthy rich to be able to afford all the supplements you need to take.
However, if you dial back the clock a dozen years or so, nutrition was a much simpler subject. There were no superfoods, no one was counting macros like their lives depended on it, and supplements were exactly that – supplementary.
If the subject of nutrition leaves you feeling dazed and confused, ignore all the pseudo-science and marketing hype and simplify your rugby diet. Your performance won’t suffer, and nor will your health; you’ll just have more time for the important things in life, like rugby and squats!
Know your macros
Macro means big, and the three macronutrient groups are pretty much where your diet starts and ends. Your body needs a steady supply of protein, carbohydrate, and fat to function properly and fuel training and recovery.
Protein is vital for muscle growth and repair. Playing and training for rugby are catabolic activities which means they break your muscles down. Dietary protein provides your body with amino acids and your body uses them to repair that damage.
Too little protein could hamper recovery so it’s very important that all ruggers eat plenty of this important nutrient. Good sources include beef, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and whey protein.
A lot nutritional advice suggests you should consume about 2.0 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight, or about one gram per pound. This info is normally aimed at bodybuilders and weightlifters. Most ruggers don’t need that much and should aim for a more conservative 1.4-1.6 grams per kilo.
Why the difference? Rugby training is, by and large, a full body activity. Because of this, you need to leave space in your diet for adequate carbohydrate. Too little carbohydrate could rob you of energy. Bodybuilders often only train each muscle group once or twice per week which means they can get by on a lower carb diet. They are not in such a hurry to recover between training sessions.
The harder you train, the more carbohydrate you need to consume. If you are physically active most days of the week, as ruggers tend to be, you should consume plenty of carbs daily to fuel your body. The less active you are, the less carbs you need. Repeat after me – you need to earn your carbs!
Adjust your carbohydrate intake according to your level of activity. If you are enjoying a de-load week, you should reduce your carb intake to reflect your reduced levels of activity. You can also consume less carbohydrate on rest days.
Good carb choices include wholemeal bread, brown pasta, brown and wild rice, potatoes, and oatmeal – basically unrefined, complex carbs or starches. Avoid refined carbs like pastries, candy, cake, and other types of high-sugar junk. Carbs often get a bad rap in the media but not all carbs will cause weight gain.
High quality carbs are undeniably good for you and will enhance your performance in the gym and on the pitch. Carbs are especially valuable an hour or so before and immediately after training. Pre-activity carbs will give you the energy you need to perform at your best, while post-training carbs will restore depleted glycogen and speed up recovery.
About 40-60% of your daily calorie intake should come from carbs. There is no need to measure this precisely, just look at what’s on your plate!
The balance of your diet should be made up of healthy fats. Fats, like carbs, are highly misunderstood and often maligned in the media. While things like trans fats and olestra are best avoided, healthy fats are very beneficial. Good sources of healthy fats include olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, oily fish, nuts, and seeds.
Be aware that, even though they are healthy, you can have too much healthy fat in your diet. Fat contains nine calories per gram and that means eating too much fat could make you fat. Reducing your fat intake slightly is an easy was to lower your overall calorie intake for weight management – discussed later in this article.
Focus on food quality
People who religiously track macros and calories often lose sight of the “big picture.” They focus too much on the amount of food they eat, ignoring the quality. When it comes to eating for health and performance, quality is every bit as important as quantity.
For example, a can of soda contains roughly 160 calories and 40 grams of carbs – in the form of sugar. If you need to consume some carbs in a hurry, soda might appear to be a good option. However, soda contains no other nutritional benefits. It is the very definition of empty calories.
In contrast, a couple of medium-sized bananas contain roughly the same number of calories and carbs but also contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The difference is clear.
You don’t need to go full Paleo, only eating foods you can hunt or forage, but you should do your best to eat more natural foods and less processed junk. One of the reasons that the “carbs are bad” mantra has spread so far and wide is that most junk food is carb-based. In most cases, simply eating less processed carbohydrate and swapping it for unrefined carbs will negate the need to go low-carb.
What about weight management?
When you get back to basics, weight management is very simple. If you want to gain weight (muscle), you need to eat more. If you want to lose weight (fat), you need to eat less. If you want to maintain your weight, your food intake must match your calorie expenditure. You don’t need fancy eating plans to manage your weight, you just need to adjust how much you eat.
Do you need to count calories and measure macros? You could, but it’s not essential. Just adjust the size of your meals until you see the progress you want. If you want to lose fat but aren’t, eat a couple less snacks per day or reduce the size of your meals. If you want to build muscle but aren’t, add an extra snack or two per day or increase the size of your meals. Monitor your progress adjust accordingly.
Nutritional science IS a complex and ever-evolving subject, but the practice of eating for health and performance is actually pretty simple and hasn’t really changed. Address your macro needs, adjust your food intake to reflect your body composition goals, and eat plenty of natural foods while going easy on the junk. Simplify your rugby diet and enjoy your food!