Munster's food for thought

Munster Rugby assistant nutritionist Warren Bradley with the food packs for the squad during training at Cork Institute of Technology. Picture: Denis Minihane
Munster Rugby assistant nutritionist Warren Bradley with the food packs for the squad during training at Cork Institute of Technology. Picture: Denis Minihane

A team nutritionist is charged with sending players out on the field in as good a shape as they can be — a huge challenge in rugby, with the different needs of a tight head to a scrum-half.

They say an army marches on its stomach and, without casting aspersions, a quick glance at some of Munster’s Red Army would suggest the province’s loyal followers march further than most.

There was a time when the players they supported were as similarly proportioned but the modern game has turned the honest amateur into a professional athlete whose diet is as closely monitored as his heart rate, his calorific intake as accurately measured as the time spent running shuttles.

For Munster, the man who keeps the players’ bodies lean, mean and able to perform to their optimal potential is the province’s head of sports nutrition, Dr Graeme Close, a former rugby league professional who is currently a senior lecturer in exercise metabolism and sports nutrition at Liverpool John Moores University.

With nutritionist Warren Bradley a full-time presence in the camp as his assistant, Close combines his monthly visits to Munster training with keeping up to date with latest nutritional research, implementing change as he sees fit and ensuring the players are as well prepared for meals as they are for matches. And there are considerably more meals to digest than matches.

“Most of my guys, I try and get them to eat every three to four hours, even if they’re trying to take weight off,” Close told the Irish Examiner. “The meal plans change from player to player, depending on whether they’re trying to put weight on or take it off but generally they’re encouraged to eat four substantial meals with a couple of snacks in between.

“So that might be a breakfast at around 7.30-8am, a snack at 11am, lunch at 1pm, another snack at 3pm, a 5pm early dinner and a second dinner at 8pm.”

The frequency of meals would conform with the layman’s view of players horsing into several steaks a day to load up on carbohydrates but that is a far cry from the actual requirements of a 21st century professional rugby player.

“Guidelines are changing, research is better and it used to be about just getting carbohydrates into them. We’re moving away from that and it’s great to be in an organisation like Munster who are receptive to change. These are all intelligent men and constantly asking questions and always demanding high quality from you, which keeps you on your toes.

“It’s great having to stay on top of things and it’s a fun place to work in and the most professional and most challenging team I’ve ever worked with.”

And as for props spending every waking minute they’re not scrummaging stuffing grub into their faces, Close is happy to dispel the stereotype.

“They’re all athletes and if you look at the modern game, these props are proper athletes. Someone like Dave Kilcoyne, he can shift and he has good footwork and good agility, so it’s not how it used to be where all props were asked to do was scrummage.

“We’re asking so much more of these men and it’s still a case of eating the right things at the right time to move them towards that ideal body composition.”

That strikes out another misconception, that players rely on supplements to keep them at peak fitness and, says Close, good nutrition starts with sensible eating.

“The food has to come first and part of my job is to get that message across. Supplements are just that. They’re a supplement not a substitute and every athlete I work with is probably sick of me saying that ‘you can’t supplement a poor diet’.

“There may be times when there are supplements you can’t get from a diet or certain foods you can’t get so you’d get a supplement but predominantly the diet comes first and it’s our job to siphon out the rubbish athletes are constantly bombarded with in the media and on the internet and that can overcomplicate things.

“So we start with the basics, with an emphasis on really good quality fish, meats and vegetables, quality carbohydrates and build on those solid foundations.”

When Munster go on the road for away games they do not take their own food, although they sometimes travel with a chef to oversee their hotel’s kitchen preparing team meals.

“We do take our own supplements though, because that’s one thing we wouldn’t put into anyone else’s hands,” Close said. “There can be so much contamination of supplements we have a very strict policy that players can only take supplements that have been provided by the club. Anything that’s provided by the club will be approved by myself and fully tested that it doesn’t contain any illegal substances. All of our supplements are individualised to each player’s need and it has all been pre-approved and tested. That’s very important because one in 10 off-the-shelf supplement products have been shown to contain banned substances.”

Sourcing foods is also important to Munster’s nutritional philosophy as implemented by Close, with players educated to know where food is coming from, move away from processed food and start cooking their own meals.

“I’m a big believer in sourcing quality produce and where we can, we’ll try and source our meat and high quality seasonal vegetables locally to make sure the guys get the very highest quality foods.

“And the less packaging on food the better. The closer it is to its original source, the higher quality it’s going to be. We try and use a lot of what we call ‘single ingredient foods’, so when the guys are cooking for themselves they’re working with single ingredients and there’s less chance of them eating highly processed foods.

“So we get them in the kitchen when we can and teach them some cooking skills so that instead of them buying a lasagna at the supermarket they’re making it for themselves with single ingredients, starting with high quality minced meat and fresh vegetables and we’ll make our own tomato sauce from those single ingredients.

“By doing that we’re not placing our trust in the manufacturers who package it up and tell us it’s good.

“At the time of the horsemeat scandal, I jokingly said that the horse meat was probably the highest quality stuff in those burgers. Sometimes we may have to pay that little bit more to make sure we have good quality food and if the players want to eat burgers, we’ll encourage them to cook their own with high quality, fresh minced beef so they know exactly what’s going in there.”

Close’s approach is motivated by what he regards as the three basic fundamentals of good nutrition for athletes.

“Promoting health and maintaining a good immune system, a good digestive system, and making sure they’re looking after their cardiovascular health. Then it’s looking after their body composition and making sure that when the guys take to the field they’re in as good a shape as they can be, which is a huge challenge in rugby with the different needs of a tighthead prop to a scrum-half.

“So once we get those things right in terms of perfect health and perfect body composition, we can start looking at how do we fuel that game performance and optimise recovery because rugby players put themselves through hell on the field and they’re sore for almost the entire season. So what we want to do is give them the right nutrition so they can recover better and repair that damaged tissue.”

And underpinning it all is the importance of educating players to make healthy choices away from the training ground.

“Myself and our previous (head of strength and conditioning), Bryce Kavanagh, used to talk about ‘the other 22 hours’ and what we meant by that is we’ve got the players for two hours a day but if the other 22 hours aren’t right we’ve got a major problem. And that comes through education, which gives the players the ability to make the right choices.

“So, especially in my early days at Munster, I spent a lot of time in one-on-one sessions with the players, making sure the education was there and if the typical meal that they might want to eat isn’t available, they’ve got knowledge to know what to do about it and choose a healthier meal.

“So it’s not just teaching them cooking skills, we’ll take our boys to the local supermarket and walk them up and down the aisles giving them some idea of the variety of foods and what they should be looking to buy.”

Nutrition education starts in the Munster academy, as young players begin adjusting to life as a professional athlete, with Close sowing the seeds for a long and healthy career of making the right dietary choices.

“One of the things that makes you quite proud is that when I first started working with Munster, I remember having nutrition sessions with the likes of Conor Murray and Dave Kilcoyne and Peter O’Mahony as young academy kids and they’re now stalwarts of the senior team. That’s where we begin to put these foundations in place and it’s great to see that by the time they get to senior level, the work’s done and you’re just tweaking. Then you’ve got a whole cycle where the younger players want to speak to you because they know that we’ve worked with these guys who have got to that level and that ‘if these guys are taking it seriously, we should’.

“Working with academy players is fantastic, to see them progress into some of the world’s best players. If good nutrition is 1% part of that, I’ll take it.”

Close is informed by his experience as a professional rugby league scrum-half in England in the 1990s with Warrington, Workington and Leigh Centurions, when players did not receive an education on nutritional matters and the team had the same dietary regime.

While still playing and driven by a hunger for greater awareness on the subject, he studied for a degree in sports science and became fascinated by nutrition, going on to further postgraduate studies.

He retired from the game in 2001 and completed his doctorate two years later, working with various sports teams including GB Rowing, Leigh RLFC and Widnes RLFC before becoming head of sports nutrition with Munster in 2008. Close has been impressed from the word go with the attitude of the Munster players having been introduced to the set-up by former Warrington rugby league team-mate, the late Paul Darbyshire, former head of strength and conditioning at the province.

“When I first came in to Munster, the senior boys, like Paul [O’Connell], Donncha O’Callaghan and Ronan [O’Gara], were unbelievably receptive and I don’t mind saying it, probably the most professional athletes I’ve dealt with, having worked in a variety of sports.

“These guys are fantastic and the really good senior guys set an example, which makes it so easy to implement changes. When we first started, Paul would organise 30-minutes slots for the players to meet me and the phone never stopped ringing. I would come over and not be able to fit them all in and it got to the point where one senior player wanted to see me and because I was all booked up, he picked me up at the airport and we had his consultation as he drove me to the hotel.

“I have no doubt, and not just because of nutrition but sports medicine and science and the amount of monitoring players are subjected to, that rugby players are going to be able to prolong their professional careers, despite the game getting faster and stronger, into their late 30s if they want.

“O’Connell’s an unbelievable player in his mid-30s, so why can’t he go on until he’s 40?” Munster fans would drink and eat to that.

Getting balance just right

Munster’s head of sports nutrition Dr Graeme Close wants his players eating four substantial meals per day but, he explains, a 120-kilogramme front-rower will not be eating the same quantities as an 80kg scrum-half.

“It can be quite a bit different but let’s say a ballpark figure is that we’re feeding our guys about two grams per kilogramme of body mass per day in protein.

“So to some of our smaller guys that might equate to 150g of protein a day, which is about five chicken breasts. They wouldn’t have just five chicken breasts but you get the idea.

“Then, when you look at some of the guys who weigh around the 125kg mark, they’re looking at 250g of protein a day which is around eight and a half chicken breasts. Then we have to look at carbohydrate intake and again there are specific individual needs. Some guys might be putting on some size and we’ll look at putting quite a lot of carbohydrates in their diet while others might be trying to lower body fat and will be on the lower end of the scale. So there can be big variations, that’s why I don’t think nutrition can work as a one size fits all approach, certainly not in rugby.”

Providing stomach for battle

It would be fair to say that early kick-offs such as the 12.45pm start for Munster tomorrow against Edinburgh, are not celebrated by skipper Peter O’Mahony.

The Pool 6 clash will be the third time in this European campaign Munster have been handed what most would feel is a lunchtime start but for the players means a peculiar hour to be tucking into the middle meal of the day.

“They’re hard enough to adjust to,” O’Mahony said. “It is a tougher morning but I think you just have to prepare in the week, get out of the scratcher earlier and get into your day a bit earlier, some do it differently but it is probably practising getting a big meal in earlier in the day.

“We would be up at about 7.30am, have a stretch at some stage — breakfast first, but some guys give breakfast a skip and have a bigger lunch, some have medium-sized both, it is quite personal. We’d have our pre-match meal, which is full grub, at about 9am or 9.30am. All pre-match meals feel the same, they’re horrible.

“It’s nerves, you’re full as it is but you’re trying to stuff your face. It’s not pretty. Pasta, chicken, potatoes, whatever you can get into you.”

There is, however, a method to the madness. There are scientific reasons for players eating when they do at a certain hour, says Munster’s head of sports nutrition, Dr Graeme Close.

“We generally count three hours back from the kick-off and ideally you’d like them to have finished eating by then,” Close told the Irish Examiner.

“So a 12.45pm kick-off means I’d like them to be finished eating by 9.45am, which means they’d be sitting down to eat their pre-match meal at about 9.15am.

“The idea is that their food will be properly digested, and absorbed in time for kick-off. We’re trying to make sure that their liver has stores of glycogen (a form of energy from carbohydrates released during the game) and there are plenty of amino acids available in their body tissue (produced through protein to aid muscle recovery) and that their glucose, or blood sugar, is nice and stable. They’re the three major goals. We’re looking to give the guys around 100g of carbohydrate and 30g of protein. It needs to be easily digestible and some players prefer to meet those goals by choosing breakfast items such as muesli or porridge, which takes care of glycogen for the liver; they can have an omelette for the protein and make sure they hydrate well. Some players want their favourite pre-match meal of chicken and rice with a tomato-based sauce. Whatever works, as long as it ticks all those boxes.”

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