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Top tips for fuelling the GAA athlete - Áine Breen

Gaelic football, hurling & camogie, although played at an amateur level, the expectations of players to perform optimally are similar to that of professional athletes especially within intercounty athletes. The sport be it club or county consists of high levels of training and competition therefore there is a need for adequate nutrition for athletes to meet the demands of their sport and their overall health. Athletes need to meet diet requirements to ensure they can perform to the highest standard during training and on match day. Maintaining an adequate diet allows for optimal performance and can prevent injuries while managing general health and well-being.

Although what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. There is no one size fits all, but there is guidance that you can follow to try and implement the best nutrition strategy to suit you! Ultimately it comes down to each individual’s food preferences, energy requirements, the type & intensity of the training, & personal goals!

So, what should you focus on as a GAA player?

1. Fuelling adequately

· Carbohydrates: Although needs may vary depending on each individual, carbs are king when it comes to training. They’re our bodies preferred source of energy for high intensity exercise and are stored in our body as glycogen in our liver & muscles (Burke et al., 2011; Jensen and Richter, 2012) and our muscles use this stored glycogen to provide energy for exercise! If exercise is >60mins we may be required to top up with a high carbohydrate snack as our glycogen stores can become depleted during exercise (see more below).

It’s important to note that low carbohydrate intake is prevalent among male Gaelic footballers (Cassidy et al 2018; O’Brien et al 2019; McCrink et al., 2020), and when players do not meet these demands, it may have detrimental effects. Depending on training days, requirements for carbohydrates intake can range from 4-8g/kg of BW (usually the lower end on low intensity training days & upper end when athletes are carb loading or participating in high intensity training days!).

Sources of carbohydrates include, bread, oats, pasta, rice, cereals.

· Protein: We cannot store protein in the body for later use, it is the building block of the body. And our body can only adapt to training if it has the protein to build that new muscle (Poortmans et al., 2012). So, it doesn’t necessarily provide the body with a source of energy for our training session but including it in pre workout meals will contribute to total daily intake. Consuming protein along with a carbohydrate source can potentially contribute to muscle growth & repair (Kerksick et al., 2017). As protein timing affects muscle protein synthesis rates, it has been suggested that consuming 10g of essential amino acids during early recovery i.e. 0-2 hours post exercise which means 15-25g protein in each main meal/snacks, depending on the athlete’s needs, reduces protein breakdown and repairs muscle damage (Arent et al., 2020). It is best to consume high quality protein such as a milk-based protein post exercise for muscle recovery and growth.

Sources of protein include, poultry, beef, turkey, eggs, dairy, tofu, Quorn.

2. Fluid Intake:

We hydrate to minimise decreases in performance and keep our body functioning to its best capability for as long as possible. Being only 2-3% dehydrated can have negative effects on performance (ACSM, 2009), including the perceived difficulty of training. The simplest way to monitor hydration status is by using the attached urine chart aiming for a clear or pale-yellow colour, this is usually a good sign you’re well hydrated! To take note of fluid loss weigh yourself pre & post training/game and replace weight loss by 1.5L e.g. 2kg weight loss requires 3L to replace loss.

Tips to increase fluid intake:

- Increasing intake of fruit & veg, tea & coffee, smoothies, soups, juices, milk as they all contribute to hydration.

- Sip smaller quantities of water throughout, doing this instead of consuming large quantities every few hours is more beneficial as it reduces the risk of becoming dehydrated, allows you to maintain regular body temperature as well as making sure you’re starting each training session and/or game well hydrated.

- If you don’t enjoy the taste of water add some dilute or fruit or use flavoured water

- Using foods with a higher water content such as cucumber and watermelon.

- Add electrolytes to water, as they can also provide benefits when exercising in the heat, if you're sweating more than usual. During physical activity, electrolytes are fundamental as they perform different biological functions, in particular sodium and potassium regulate the amount of body water. Add in an electrolyte tablet if you know sweat rates are going to be high. Electrolytes can help maintain hydration status by replacing minerals lost in sweat.

3. Timing

Again, this will come down to the individual themselves depending on how many meals you can get in before training, how close to training you can stomach meals & the type of foods you prefer. So, depending on when you’re eating, the following can be used as guidance to help implement a strategy that works for you:

· >3 hours:

You could potentially opt for a larger meal consisting of carbohydrates e.g. rice, pasta, potatoes + source of protein + moderate amounts of fat and fibre. This could look like…

Tuna & sweetcorn bagel

Chicken salad wrap

Spaghetti Bolognese

Baked potato with beef & veg

· 1-2hours prior:

Again main focus here is on easily absorbed carbohydrate so opting for a smaller high carbohydrate meal/snack, such as…

Toast with banana & honey

Overnight oats/cereal

Granola & yoghurt

Yoghurt rice cakes + fruit

· <60mins:

Here we are opting for a high carb snack to “top up” our glycogen stores, that again are easily digested for example…

Lucozade sport

Handful of Jellies/dried fruit

Rice cakes with banana

· During:

Again, the focus is on “topping up” glycogen stores that have been depleted during exercise. But we don’t necessarily always need to have food during a session. For example, during a light or short training session, it’s not essential to include a snack, due to sufficient fuel being provided from pre training meals. But we may require a top up if:

- A session is >90mins or training/playing at a high intensity

- You didn’t eat before training

- Training more than once in the same day (Burke et al., 2011)

The focus on nutrition should not just be the day of training/day of a game it has to be balanced across the week to 1. ensure optimal recovery from sessions, 2. Fuel appropriately for training so your body can adapt to the training to get fitter, faster, stronger & 3. To optimise your potential!

Overall, nutrition is simply an extra piece of the puzzle after natural talent & dedication to training. So, when it comes to fueling our bodies, carbs are the preferred source of fuel and without them we may not be able to perform at an optimal level day in day out. Protein contributes to muscle repair & growth while adequate hydration is essential for optimal performance! So, find the strategy that works best for you!

About the author - Áine Breen is an Irish performance nutritionist. Currently working with VY Nutrition and the Cavan County board, Áine has undoubtedly become an expert in the field.


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