Diet: Does it Matter? Nutrition for Young Rugby Players

This article by Clare Wood appeared as a chapter in John Eales' Rugby Book, a practical guide for young athletes.

Diet is a subject that has received an enormous amount of exposure in the media for some years now, so I'm approaching it a little hesitantly here, knowing that many readers will have automatically switched off as soon as they saw the heading above. People are fed up with reading about diet and diets. They have heard too much about it and they can't take any more. But if you are really keen to go as far as you can go in rugby, please bear with me because the subject of diet is actually quite important, especially if you happen to be a teenager. The fact is that your eating and drinking habits do have a real, practical bearing on how well you perform on the rugby field.

We all know what normally constitutes a good diet: a reasonable balance between meat, bread, cereals, vegetables and fruit. In case you think that a balanced, nutritious diet is a nice-sounding idea but doesn't really have any practical benefit, consider the trouble that the Wallaby team management goes to making sure that the Wallabies eat a healthy diet. The Wallaby management has plenty of other things to worry about, and they wouldn't bother with the players' diets unless they knew for certain that this would have a bearing on how they performed on the field.

So what should you be eating? Here is a list of seven rules to follow.

1. Aim for a well balanced diet — and eat for health

The dietary pyramid is a good guide to follow. The large base of the pyramid consists of breads, cereals, fruit and vegetables, and most of what you eat should come from these food groups. The next, smaller layer of the pyramid consists of moderate amounts of foods like meat, chicken, fish and dairy products. The small top of the pyramid consists of limited amounts of the 'extra' foods such as fats, refined sugar foods and alcohol. When you get this ratio of food groups right, your body will be getting the right amount of nutrients, vitamins and minerals from what you eat. Your health should be a priority, and with this eating plan you're on the right track.

2. Be sure to eat heaps of energy foods for the best energy levels on the field

Carbohydrate foods like breads and cereals, fruit and starchy vegetables should be eaten daily. These are the foods that give your muscles the energy that they need to function. They will also help to keep your energy storage tank full for when you need it, which is every time you train or play rugby. These types of nutritious carbohydrate foods also contain fiber and other vitamins for good health. Remember, it is important to eat these carbohydrate energy foods at every meal.

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3. Try to achieve a balance of all the nutrients in the diet

Along with the carbohydrate energy foods, you need to include adequate protein, and a small amount of fat in the diet. Foods that contain protein include meat, chicken, fish, eggs, cheese and baked beans. These foods help to build muscle and will assist you to grow and develop into a strong athlete. Fat comes from a large range of sources in the diet and should be included in small amounts. Good types of fats include those that come from plant-based foods like vegetable oils, nuts, and oily fish.

4. Avoid foods that are high in fats, including takeaway food

Foods like fatty meat products, full-fat dairy products, processed foods and takeaway foods are often high in fat. Other sources of fats include those you can add yourself to food like butter, margarine, and oil. We do need some fat in the diet, but generally people eat too much fat and can become overweight. Fat is not a good fuel for sport and exercise and it can also reduce the amount of good fuel (carbohydrate) that the body is getting. So aim to avoid foods that are naturally high in fats, or choose lower fat options like reduced-fat milk, lean meats, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Lower-fat takeaway foods include sandwiches, rolls, kebabs and pasta meals.

5. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids to stay well-hydrated

Fluid is essential for life and for good sports performance. Water is vital for many systems in the body to work properly. During exercise we lose fluid from the body in the form of sweat, which reduces our total body water. Drinking adequate fluids helps to keep the body's water levels up. If you lose too much fluid from the body without replacing it, you can become dehydrated. When the body is dehydrated, the ability to lose heat is reduced and exercise performance is reduced. This can become dangerous. As a general rule aim to drink a water bottle of fluid for every hour of training or exercise.

6. Enjoy a variety of foods don't eat the same foods everyday

Different foods contain different nutrients, and it is important not to miss out on any of these nutrients. By choosing to eat foods from all the different food groups every day, you are ensuring the body gets all the right things. So avoid missing out on any particular food group, because you may miss out on some vital nutrients.

7. Exercise can be very demanding on the body — treat it well

Playing rugby can be very demanding and tiring on the body, so it is essential that you eat the right foods to give the body maximum energy and to reduce the amount of fatigue you may experience.

Finally, here's a thought on the subject from George Gregan, quoted in Peak Performance:

'With the ever increasing demands of professional rugby, it is even more important for players to have an awareness of nutrition and performance. Having a balanced high-carbohydrate diet not only fuels athletes for competition, it also helps the most important aspect of our game — recovery. This is the rule of thumb that I have used throughout my career.'

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