by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Today’s modern rugby match places much greater demands on its participants than matches did fifteen years ago. Since 1995 and the global professionalism of rugby union, sport scientists, coaches, team managers and the players themselves have searched for ways to improve their performance. The advent of performance analysis has driven fitness coaches to create sophisticated strength and conditioning programs that are coupled with nutritional advice and supplementation recommendations. In this piece, I offer scientific nutritional findings on the role of carbohydrates, recovery drinks and calcium. Each plays an important role in helping rugby players reach their potential.
Since successful fitness training for rugby is based on repeated high intensity efforts followed by short recovery intervals, consuming the right foods, in the right amounts, at the correct time can be confusing. Additionally, food science can often be misunderstood or misguided by popular opinion. For example, many people have the misconception that carbohydrate intake should be restricted or avoided altogether. For a high performance rugby player, there could be nothing further from the truth. In a recent article from the European Journal of Applied Physiology, De Sousa et al conducted a study which found that increased carbohydrate intake (61% of calories from carbohydrate) lead to more consistency in 1000 meter all out running tests compared to participants who were given only 54%. De Sousa demonstrated that during intensified periods of training, increased carbohydrate consumption allowed the athletes to better tolerate the training intervention. For rugby players, carbs are not the enemy, but rather a good source of fuel. Good sources of complex carbohydrates include bagels, brown rice, corn, shredded wheat, and oatmeal.
A second example of the role carbohydrates play in an athlete’s performance is in the area of restoration and recovery. Drinks that contain an appropriate ratio of protein and carbohydrate have shown to shorten recovery time as well as decrease markers of muscle damage (such as creatine kinase). Findings in a 2009 study matched two beverages, one a commercially available recovery drink, the other, chocolate milk. In this study, there were no significant differences between the two recovery drink testing groups when comparing exercise performance trials and creatine kinase levels. For rugby players, this results in a considerable cost savings when deciding between commercially marketed recovery drinks and chocolate milk.
To minimize exposure to stress fractures, I recommend that rugby players review their calcium intakes. Athletes commonly consume additional amounts of protein to increase their lean body muscle mass and Omega-3 fatty acids to keep their hearts healthy. Why not consider taking additional calcium to promote strong healthy bones? The recommended daily allowance for 14 to 18 year olds is 1,300 mg and 1,000 mg for those 19 to 50 years of age. Some rugby players may be turned off by traditional sources of calcium such as milk, cheese, and eggs. Fortunately, a large number of alternative calcium rich foods are available to choose from including broccoli, kale, turnips or calcium fortified foods like orange juice, yogurt or soy milk.
Some rugby players may choose to increase their calcium intake via supplementation, the two most common being calcium citrate and calcium carbonate. Nutritional experts recommend taking calcium carbonate with meals because unlike calcium citrate, it is insoluble. Ingesting with meals allows the carbonate to be broken down by stomach acids and absorbed. Interestingly, researchers at the University of Memphis found that basketball players who lost a large amount of calcium in sweat during intense training had lower bone mineral content. Through calcium supplementation, the athletes were able to, over time, increase their bone mineral content. In a contact sport such as rugby, where players are known to sweat profusely, it is worth looking further into your current bone mineral content as a way to prevent stress fractures or promote healing after a bone fracture. Scientists clearly state that athletes should not view calcium supplementation as a performance booster, but rather as a way to reduce risk of injury and keep bones strong and healthy.
There are terrific nutritional resources available to athletes of every size, shape, and gender. Visit with your local specialist in sports dietetics to map out a personalized plan for nutritional success.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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