Good nutrition is fundamental for helping your body to recover properly, allowing you to train harder and perform at your best on game day. Your body is put under a lot of stress during training and matches, therefore refuelling well throughout the week enhances your body’s ability to recover and go again the next day.
During winter months the body is put under additional stress which increases the risk of illness, shown to occur greatest in December and January in elite rugby union teams (Cunniffe et al., 2011). This is where nutrition really shows its importance by fighting off infections and keeping you on the field each week. What you eat after training influences how your body recovers by quickly replacing energy used, repairing damaged tissues, allowing your body to physiologically adapt (improve) to stress of training and regulating post-exercise stress hormones and inflammatory responses (Nieman et al., 2017).
How should I refuel after training/matches?
Recovery should start as soon as you get back into the changing rooms, focusing on quality protein and carbohydrates. Protein is important to help repair and rebuild damaged muscle fibres. 20-40g of high-quality whey protein such as Big Whey is ideal because it’s convenient and rapidly digested with the required amino acids to maximise protein synthesis (Moore et al., 2009; Macnaughton et al., 2016).
Carbohydrates are your primary energy source to maintain a high intensity during training (Saltin et al., 1973). Carbohydrates also fuel the immune system and therefore should not be neglected during heavy training (Gleeson et al., 2004). After hard training or after a match, muscle glycogen stores will be depleted, so you will want to replace this energy (see Table 1).
Your muscles are more sensitive to storing nutrients immediately after training, so take advantage of this. As the intensity and volume of training increases (i.e. game day), include carbohydrates with your whey protein after training to kick-start rapid recovery. MRM contains quality protein and fast absorbing carbohydrates making it an ideal recovery drink.
Table 1. Recovery options after training and on game day
1 serving Big Whey
+ 1 banana
1 serving MRM
Chicken breast with sweet potato and vegetables
Salmon fillet with stir fried vegetables and noodles
Spaghetti Bolognese or chilli con carne with basmati rice or jacket potato
A lot of semi-professional teams will train late in the evenings, however recovery should never be neglected. Always have something after training and this doesn’t have to be a big meal as some athletes struggle to eat late big meals late at night. Therefore having an MRM or a protein smoothie is easy and practical to get something on board to support recovery.
Does it matter what I eat before and during training?
Training with low carbohydrate availability can suppress immune function. Fuel your training session with a good carbohydrate and protein rich meal 2-3 hours before. If it’s an intense field session, then you can also include carbohydrates during training to top up your energy levels and improve post-exercise stress hormone and inflammatory responses (Nieman et al., 2017). This can be with a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink or gel, which typically contain 25-30g carbohydrates and are proven to attenuate suppressed immune response to heavy training (Lancaster et al., 2003). If you’re conscious of weight gain, then opt for an electrolyte-based drink such as Hydro+ effervescent tablets with reduced carbohydrates and still promote hydration.
What foods or supplements ‘boost’ immune function?
There aren’t any single foods or nutrients that will, on their own, ‘boost’ immunity and prevent illness. Certain nutrients can greater support immune function, however, unless there’s a clear deficiency, supplementing a non-deficient athlete will not boost the immune system or prevent exercise-induced immunosuppression (Bermon et al., 2017). High performance athletes require extra nutrients to support increased energy requirements and this can be achieved by eating a varied and nutritious diet on the whole. Plenty of fruit and vegetables (vitamins, fibre, polyphenols, magnesium), oily fish (omega-3 fatty acids), lean meat (protein, zinc, iron) and whole grains (carbohydrates, fibre) all contribute to a healthy immune system.
Vitamin D is primarily obtained through sunlight exposure to the skin and is important for immune health. Vitamin D deficiency is common in UK athletes during winter months due to increased cloud coverage and this is associated with increased risk of respiratory tract infections in athletes (He et al., 2013). For best results it is advised to get a blood test to check your vitamin D levels and based on your need for supplementation, 1,000-4,000IU/day is recommended to correct deficiency and maintain vitamin D levels throughout winter.
What else can I do to avoid illness?
Good basic hygiene practises are highly advised to prevent spreading germs. Remembering to do the little things like washing hands before and after eating and using the toilet really help to kill germs, and for team based sports like rugby, not doing this increases the likelihood of sharing harmful bacteria amongst teammates. Sharing water bottles and towels should also be avoided in case a teammate has a cold or symptoms of an infection.
Sleep quality is also very important. Sleeping less than 8 hours per night means you are 1.7 x more likely to get an injury (Milewski et al., 2014) and you are 4.5 times more likely to catch a cold if you sleep for less than 5 hours compared to 7 hours per night (Prather et al., 2015). Getting more sleep enhances stress hormone levels and improves performance in rugby players (Swinbourne et al., 2018).
Bermon, S. et al. (2017). Consensus statement. Immunonutrition and Exercise.
Cunniffe, B., H. Griffiths, W. Proctor, B. Davies, J. S. Baker, And K. P. Jones. (2011). Mucosal Immunity and Illness Incidence in Elite Rugby Union Players across a Season. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 388–397.
Gleeson, M., Nieman, D., & Pedersen, B. (2004). Exercise, nutrition and immune function. Journal of Sports Sciences, 22, 115-125.
He, Cheng-Shiun et at. (2013). Influence of vitamin D status on respiratory infection incidence and immune function during 4 months of winter training in endurance sport athletes. Vitamin D status and infection incidence in athletes.
Lancaster, G. I. et al. (2003). Effect of feeding different amounts of carbohydrate during prolonged exercise on human T-lymphocyte intracellular cytokine production. Journal of Physiology, 548, 98-104.
Macnaughton, L. Et al. (2016). The response of muscle protein synthesis following whole-body resistance exercise is greater following 40 g than 20 g of ingested whey protein. Physiol Rep, 4, e12893.
Milewski, M., Skaggs, D., & Bishop, G. (2014). Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. J Pediatr Orthop. 34, 129–133.
Moore, D. Et al. (2009). Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr, 89, 161–168.
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Prather, A., Janicki-Deverts, D., Hall, M., & Cohen, S. (2015). Behaviorally assessed sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. Sleep, 38, 1353–1359.
Saltin, B. (1973). Metabolic fundamentals in exercise. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 5, 137-146.