Good nutrition right can make a vital difference on the pitch. Clodagh Finn talks to performance nutritionist Emma Tester who is responsible for crafting bespoke diet plans for Munster players
There’s no relaxation at half time in the Munster dressing room. At least not for the team’s lead performance nutritionist Emma Tester. For her, it’s game on as she makes sure the players have the right fuel to take them through to the final whistle.
That could be as simple as handing out a glass of water and a bit of a banana, or as seemingly exotic as distributing turmeric juice and sour cherries post-game.
In any case, she is on full alert the second the whistle goes.
“As soon as they come in the door, I’m standing there putting things in front of them. You need it to kick in as quickly as possible”, she tells Feelgood, explaining that they need the energy boost to kick in as soon they go back out on the pitch for the second half.
After the game, the focus is on recovery which explains why turmeric and cherries make the menu — they both have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties — along with other protein-rich foods, such as chicken skewers with sweet chilli sauce.
Emma is not simply thinking of helping the players to recover from the game they have just played; she is looking ahead to the one that might follow in the days or weeks ahead.
Strategy is not just something that is visible on the pitch. The level of planning that goes into providing players with optimum nutrition, on and off-pitch, is just as well thought-out.
At least now, the importance and the power of nutrition in the professional game is widely appreciated. When Emma took over as lead performance nutritionist at Munster Rugby’s High Performance Centre in Limerick three years ago, she found a squad open to ideas.
And, on game day, if a player hasn’t eaten the right foods or fuel they won’t be able to reach the speeds they need. Likewise, when training, weights in the gym won’t have the desired effect without an adequate intake of protein.
In other words, finding out how best to fuel your body can translate into tangible results on the pitch.
The collaboration between sports nutritionists and sports science researchers is ongoing. They both agree that a good nutritional plan is inextricably linked to performance. In 2019, a series of papers in Sports Medicine looked in detail at how a range of foods affect performance.
While more research is needed, the benefits of good nutrition are beyond doubt. Players Jack O’Donoghue, Alex Wootton and Shane Daly are all convinced of that.
“Nutrition has a massive impact on your performance,” says O’Donoghue, the Waterford player who has been capped twice for Ireland.
“If you are not well fuelled, you are going to feel sluggish on the pitch and if you don’t get the nutrients in after the game, you are not going to be able to recover to a high standard at the next training game. It’s absolutely vital for us as professional athletes,” he says.
He is particularly interested in foods that boost the immune system, such as oily fish, as his system was laid low by glandular fever when he was a child.
Despite the common perception, rugby players don’t all eat vast calorie-laden plates of pasta and 5,000 calories a day. It is far more individual and more finely tuned than that.
Munster wing/ full-back Alex Wootton, for instance, says he tends to put on weight quite easily so he stays away from the carbs when he is not training.
Emma takes up the story:
In some cases, she adds, you might have two individuals playing the same position but one might thrive on a particular kind of diet but it might affect the other negatively. It’s Emma’s job to find out what suits each player and to make small, targeted changes when there are special needs.
For instance, if a player has been injured, she needs to be a lot more conscious of what they eat.
If they need surgery, it’s a different story. Hydration is vital post-op while, later, it’s very important to eat enough protein to support growth and repair. Likewise, if a player breaks a bone, calcium is key or if there are nerve injuries, fish oil can help.
When it comes to supplements, Munster turns to its partner Optimum Nutrition which provides a range of products. Meanwhile, Zest, its Shannon, Co Clare-based catering partner, produces breakfasts, lunches and protein-rich snack pots on training days.
“It’s like having a personal chef,” says Emma. “Whatever we need, they can produce it.” Emma however, is the one who works out who needs what and when. Nutrition at the Munster camp is all about streamlining the players’ diets and being more strategic.
The lead performance nutritionist collects training data throughout the year and if a change in diet translates into a positive change — in the gym or on the pitch she records it.
Munster winger Shane Daly is certainly sold on the importance of dietary advice. “It’s something I needed when I came out of school. I knew what was good for me and what wasn’t but I didn’t know the actual breakdown and how much to eat of anything,” he says.
Now, he more or less sticks to the same diet all the time but cuts down on the carbs when he is not training.
On game days, like his team-mates, he tends to do a carb-load the night before and then eat very simply to stave off game nerves.
Jack O’Donoghue continues: “You can have nerves when playing and it’s quite tough to get food into you, so chicken and pasta is the main one.”
When it comes to cooking at home, all three have their specialities. Jack O’Donoghue does bolognese; Shane Daly does a good thai green curry while Alex Wootton is a fan of smoking meat and barbeques. “And,I cook a nice Sunday roast, actually,” he says.
This year, there is another factor in the mix. The Rugby World Cup may be over but it has altered the calendar. Munster started early in a season that extends to June. That puts pressure on players to stay fit and to optimise their nutritional intake.
FOOD TO GO
Back at the High Performance Centre, Emma sets each player’s nutritional targets based on body weight. For example, an average 100kg player will be aiming to eat 200-250g of protein a day.
That sounds like an onerous amount but it is broken down into five servings over a day.
An average menu might look like this: breakfast with eggs and bacon medallions; a mid-morning snack of high-protein yoghurt with toppings; a regular lunch of meat and two veg; a mid-afternoon top-up snack; a standard dinner, followed by an evening top-up snack.
On the day of the game, the menu is kept plain: “You don’t want anything that will upset their stomach,” says Emma.
Then, Emma swings into her game-day routine which means she on duty at the stadium handing out drinks, jellies and fruit just before, during and after the game.
Like any diet, it only works if you there are days off. “If you have ever been on a diet yourself, it becomes tedious so we can’t expect our professional players to be on a plan for 45 weeks of the year. It’s just not feasible.”
She recalls working with a player in the UK who was caught in camp with a pack of biscuits.
“Our players don’t do it because they know that’s not the best decision for them, but they are human,” she says.
And they readily admit to having guilty pleasures. For Emma, it’s a good pizza. Jack O’Donoghue is partial to a Kinder Bueno and Alex Wootton is fond of chocolate. For Corkman Shane Daly, the answer is KC’s. He finishes the session with Feelgood explaining to his teammates that those initials stand for one of the city’s most famous fish and chip shops.