How to eat like a professional rugby player

Since rugby turned professional in 1995, the size and strength of a rugby player has played an increasingly important role in an individuals development and playing career.

While most aspiring rugby players spend countless hours on the field and in the gym, they often pay far less attention to what they put into their body, which science has now proven can have just as much, if not more of an effect on an athlete than their training program.

Dr Kate Pumpa is an accredited exercise physiologist and sports dietitian who has spent a good portion of her professional career researching how nutrition can be used to maximise the performance of rugby players.

Since completing her PhD at the Australian Institute of Sport, Pumpa has worked as a sports dietitian for Irish club Leinster and the ACT Brumbies and is now Rugby Australia and the Wallabies head performance dietitian.

“Nutrition for rugby has definitely become a lot more science based in recent years,” Pumpa told Rugby News.

“We’re constantly reading literature and conducting research to stay on top of what can and can’t be used to assist performance.”

Pumpa now oversees all Rugby Australia sides and said each player now has their own individualised nutritional program, as a one size fits all approach simply doesn’t work.

“The first thing we do is look at the individual and take into account what position they play. Then we look at their body composition and find out what the coaches are looking for in that regard,” she said.

“From a development player right through to the Wallabies the main thing we consider is the player’s lean mass, which is their muscle mass versus their fat mass and then we look at what we can do to manipulate their nutritional intake to meet those body composition goals.”

Pumpa explained that nutritional periodisation, a current buzzword in the industry, was key for professional rugby players.

Put simply, nutritionally periodisation is trying to find a balance between under and over fuelling an athlete. If the athlete doesn’t consume enough, they won’t be able to perform at their peak and if they consume too much, the additional energy turns to fat.

“To measure that we look at energy intake, which is how many kilojoules a player consumes a day and that varies a lot depending on the individuals body size and the training they do.”

While an average person is recommended to consume between 8,000-10,000 kilojoules a day, Pumpa said some of the bigger forwards need to consume more than 20,000 kilojoules on a heavy training day, while most backs need between 14,000 and 16,000kj.

The issue is, most players don’t feel like eating and drinking enough to feed a small family on a day when they’ll barely leave the training field or the gym.

“That’s when we have to look at other ways to fuel them for those heavy sessions,” Pumpa said.

“We can do that through calorie based fluids that help top up their glycogen stores. Then we know that they’ll have enough energy to train at a high intensity because if they don’t consume enough energy, they’ll be flat and won’t be able to perform at their best.”

When the Wallabies are in camp, the squad eat three meals a day together most days and Pumpa said the key was to start with a good breakfast.

“For breakfast we encourage a lot of fruits, toast, eggs. Avocado is very popular and that helps us increase the calorie consumption by adding some good fats,” she said.

“During the day, we always have lots of snacks available, things like nuts and fruits. We also use sports drinks and liquid meal supplements that contain carbohydrate and protein which we mix with water or milk. That helps us top up those calories without making the player’s feel bloated and we usually do that immediately after a session.”

Typically, the squad have a morning and afternoon session each day, with lunch and a short break splitting the two sessions.

“At lunch we’ve usually got a make your own sandwich station, then a hot dish and that’s usually a noodle based dish or a pasta or rice, something with more carbohydrates.

“Then we always have another make your own station. It might be baked potatoes, or fajitas, something where the guys can pick and choose the things that they need to meet their individual energy requirements.”

Before the Wallabies travel, Pumpa will liaise with the chef at each of the team’s hotels and negotiate a menu for the week with all her catering requirements, which can even included desert, once or twice a week.

“Probably the biggest thing I have to negotiate with the hotels is volume. Sometimes we tell them that we need really big volumes and they say ‘yeah, yeah,’ but they just don’t understand what we mean by big volumes. Then they end up frantically cooking the entire time to try and keep the guys fed properly.”

On days off, players are allowed to eat on their own and while KFC isn’t strictly off limits, it certainly isn’t recommended.

Pumpa said all players are educated on restaurant and fast food options using a traffic light system. Items with green dots are the best possible options. Orange dots signify foods that can be consumed occasionally and red dots are the worst options.

“When we talk about the worst options, they are the options with lots of saturated fats and little to no nutritional value,” Pumpa said.

“Most of the Wallabies guys are pretty good about it. The younger development players sometimes need a bit more guidance though.

“You don’t want to be a food nazi, you want to be someone that they can come to for nutritional advice, so that they know if they do deviate a little bit from time to time, it’s not going to ruin an entire week of training.”

Pumpa said the same advice works for grassroots, club players and weekend warriors. She recommended a visit to a sports nutritionist for anyone serious about maximising their athletic performance, but added that there were plenty of free resources available for Joe Blow.

“I direct a lot of the players to the AIS and Sports Dietitian Australia websites. They have a lot of great recipes and the AIS actually have a survival cookbook series which is available for free online,” she said.

“That’s a great resource of recipes that are nutritious and that can also be frozen. Most club players train late in the evening, so the key is to be a little organised and cook some good meals that you can put in the freezer, then when you do finish late you know you can go home and eat a healthy meal instead of buying takeaway.”

For more information and recipes head to the AIS website.