Do you and your team want to be crowned champions this year? Have you previously got within inches of lifting that silverware, but just couldn’t find that final push? You’ve been hard working, committed and motivated all season, so where did it all go wrong? After natural talent and appropriate training, an adequate diet is the next most important element for enhancing training and allowing Gaelic players to reach their optimum performance. Nutrition may be the difference between winning and losing.

“Good food choices will not make a mediocre athlete into a champion, but poor food choices may prevent the potential champion from realising their potential.”

The reality is that many GAA players are unaware of the importance of adequate nutrition for enhancing performance, recovery and overall health. A players daily dietary intake plays a major role as it supplies the athlete with the fuel and nutrients needed to optimise adaptations achieved during training and to recover quickly between sessions. Many GAA clubs provide their teams with overall nutrition advice and nutrition programmes throughout the year, however it is important players understand we are all different and our nutrition demands are individual to us, depending on our bodies, training/match demands and our personalised aims and goals.

Players should be aware of the reasons to follow correct nutritional advice and strategies, including:

  • Enhance players’ performance
  • Optimise body composition
  • Delay early onset fatigue during training and matches
  • Both accelerate and maximise recovery
  • Combat delayed onset muscle soreness
  • Injury prevention
  • Improve immune function

Energy is supplied by the diet from macro-nutrients: carbohydrate, fat and protein which all provide a different amount of energy.

Carbohydrate: 4kcal/g

Fat: 9kcal/g

Protein: 4kcal/g

These macronutrients are broken down within our bodies into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) via a range of mechanisms. ATP is basic energy source that fuels our muscles, allowing us to sprint, jump, break tackles and catch the ball on the Gaelic field. ATP can be produced in a variety of ways, depending on the fuels available within the body and the intensity of the activity.

Energy balance is very important in ensuring we have enough “fuel in the tank” for our bodies to accommodate for all our daily demands. Energy balance is determined by: Calories in (carbohydrate, protein and fat) vs Calories out (basal metabolic rate (BMR), thermic effect of food (TEF), and physical activity).

CARBOHYDRATES

Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that can provide energy for anaerobic activity, such as sprinting. This is very important in Gaelic football, as it is an intermittent activity involving short bursts of high intensity work often followed by short periods of recovery. Daily carbohydrate requirements vary based on several factors, including: an individual’s bodyweight, total energy needs and intake, demands and intensity of match or training sessions, playing position and the time during the football season.

During intense training or match, it is important players’ have an adequate intake of carbohydrates, to ensure there is enough glycogen in the muscles, so that the anaerobic system can produce energy when needed in these high-intensity situations. This will help players’ delay early onset fatigue, especially during a match. Therefore, it is important for Gaelic players to aim towards 8-10g carbohydrate per kg bodyweight on match days.

Timing of carbohydrate intake is vital to ensure players’ have adequate energy and muscle glycogen levels to last a full game of football. Therefore, players are recommended to consume 1-4g carbohydrate per kg bodyweight in the few hours prior to a match. During a game it is beneficial for footballers to keep their carbohydrate stores replenished at water breaks and half time through the intake of high glycaemic index carbohydrates, including sports drinks, energy gels/ bars, bananas. This will assist maintenance of blood glucose level, spare muscle glycogen stores, delay fatigue and increase endurance.

Players’ should aim to eat as soon as possible after training, a high carbohydrate meal should be eaten within first hour to avail of the window of opportunity. This is the first 30- 60 minutes after exercise when a player’s muscles can enhance nutrient absorption and accelerate recovery. It is recommended that players’ have an increased carbohydrate consumption of 1.0-1.2g per kg bodyweight for the first 4 hours after exercise, then continue to follow daily fuel requirements after 4 hours. It is best to choose high glycaemic index carbohydrates post-exercise, to promote speedy refuelling and recovery; these foods include potatoes, white bread and rice

PROTEIN

Protein is the building block for new muscle growth, to give you the strength you need. Essential Amino Acids cannot be synthesised by the body, therefore for optimal functioning of our muscles and tissues these need to be taking from our diet. Our bodies can only store a certain amount of protein at any one time, therefore it is recommended to take a regular consumption of protein daily to maintain lean muscle mass, including foods such as poultry, fish, eggs and Greek yoghurt.

1.8g-2g of protein per kg bodyweight is the recommended quantity when looking to maintain muscle mass. Protein should be an essential ingredient for all your meals as it essential that your body meets it protein requirements daily to function properly. A maximum intake of protein (up to 2.5g per kg bodyweight) on gym and rest days will promote muscle growth and recovery. Players bodies can only adapt and increase muscle mass when its in a state of positive nitrogen balance, therefore a good consumption of protein, natural foods, fluid and fibre should be taken to enhance muscle growth.

FAT

Fat is necessary for the production and regulation of hormones and maintenance of cell structures, as well as the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Therefore, it is important that players maintain a minimum intake of 0.6g of fat per kg bodyweight. However, if we are trying to achieve optimal performance and recovery, an intake of 0.8-1g of fat per kg of bodyweight is recommended. This is dependent on individual preference, or personalised goals, such as losing fat, gaining or maintaining muscle mass. As a Gaelic player you will be aiming for a good carbohydrate consumption, if you were to increase your fat intake this would lead to making a reduction in carbohydrates to stay within your calorie target. So in order to achieve an adequate carbohydrate intake, fat intake should be kept around 20% of total calorie intake. In both a fat loss and muscle building phase, a low-fat diet (0.6g/kg bodyweight) is needed to maintain a player’s performance and recovery.

The recommendations of each macronutrient are classified; however, these may vary depending on the individual and what they are looking to achieve. Three phases a player can find themselves in, includes muscle maintenance, fat loss and muscle building phase. Firstly, excess body fat may have a negative effect on the performance of a GAA player, affecting both speed and stamina. The key to losing weight is to achieve a long-term routine of a calorie deficit, however remain fuelling the body with adequate energy and nutrients.

When people are aiming for fat-loss, majority immediately think about calorie and carbohydrate restriction, however as previously stated carbohydrates are the main fuel source for optimum performance for Gaelic players’. Therefore, restricting complex carbohydrates (white potatoes, white rice, etc) to achieve defined abs won’t allow you to maintain peak performance on the pitch. Therefore, if you wish to drop body fat whilst still maintaining a high-level performance, the best way would be to cycle carbohydrates in around your training sessions. Carbohydrate timing is a very effective strategy initiate fat loss in people and it also minimises fat gain in people aiming to gain muscle.

HYDRATION

Adequate hydration is a crucial part of performance within GAA, dehydration may affect performance, decreasing a player’s strength, speed and stamina and also increasing the possibility of muscle pulls and strains. It is essential Gaelic players consume at least 2.5 litres of water, whether it be from food or fluid. The quantity consumed should increase when you exercise and depends on the intensity of activity.

To maintain adequate hydration, players should drink fluids in small amounts consistently throughout the day and match their fluid intake to sweat losses during training and matches. Weighing yourself before and after training, will give you an estimation of how much fluid if being lost through sweat and a simple pee colour comparison will tell you roughly how hydrated you are.

TAKE HOME MESSAGES

1. Stay motivated and consistent with your nutrition throughout the GAA season, you should be organised, plan ahead and prepare food in advance, whether that be preparing a whole week of meals on a Sunday or just the previous night. This is very important as often busy work; training schedules and other commitments determine what food we eat.

2. Plan to break the rules 10% of the time, allow yourself little rewards now and again for adhering to strict nutritional guidelines, for example a chocolate bar or packet of sweets after a match.

3. Eat Little and Often. Aim to eat 5-6 small meals and snacks each day at regular intervals- this will help reduce unnecessary unhealthy snacking or binge eating keeping you on the right path to achieving your personal and sporting goals.