By Clodagh Finn
TACTICS, talent, training. Just some of the words that come to mind when you think of Sunday’s All-Ireland football final at Croke Park.
It’s time, however, to add another ‘T’ word — tuck. Or to be more formal about it — performance-enhancing nutrition.
What players eat, and when they eat it, will be of central importance when Dublin take on Tyrone at senior level and Galway minors face Kerry on September 2.
There was a time — not terribly long ago — when the ideal pre-match breakfast was considered to be a big fry-up with all the trimmings. Not any more. It might be an exaggeration to say that diet has become a game-changer in Gaelic games, but it is playing an ever-increasing role on the pitch.
Owen McArdle, a chef whose family-run business feeds Galway’s footballers, hurlers, and camogie players, says sports nutrition is undergoing something of a renaissance. The players might not be paid, he says, but they are not amateur. “They are professional in everything they do, and that includes the care they take with their diet.”
McArdle, a chef with 35 years’ experience, and his team at FeedThePulse make sure of that. He believes good nutrition helps athletes to give that extra little bit. “It’s about minuscule changes. You might never be able to measure it or calculate it, but I wanted to introduce any [dietary] change I could that might help,” he says.
That began four years ago when he joined the Galway Centre of Excellence in Claregalway. He started by reviewing what was on the menu at the GAA’s state-of-the-art training base. He consulted nutritionists and dieticians and then decided to eliminate all packaged and processed food from the meals he was making for the county’s GAA players, among them the minor footballers who will line out on Sunday.
In April 2016, he and his wife Helen set up FeedThePulse, which now employs eight people, including the couple’s two sons, Dan and Glen, daughters Leanne and Amy, and Helen’s sister-in-law Aisling Ainsworth.
Inspired by the dedication of players, they set about making sure the food they provided would help performance and boost health. They took more advice, this time from Croí, a foundation dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke, and started to create recipes that were low in salt, sugar, and fat and high in protein and fibre.
McArdle says: “Our food is different because we reformulate popular recipes by removing salt, sugar, saturated fat, and artificial colours and flavours and we then increase the protein and fibre and natural tastes.
“We use sweet vegetables, fruit and honey to replace sugar, and herbs and spices to replace salt. Slow cooking methods release the true flavour of our foods. We use a nutritional analysis programme to ensure we are getting the right combination of ingredients.”
It has proven to be a winning formula. Galway’s senior hurlers made it to the final this year and while they were beaten by Limerick, the minor team saw off Kilkenny to become All-Ireland champions.
Thanks to FeedThePulse, the minor footballers who meet Kerry on Sunday won’t have anything lacking when it comes to nutrition.
Mind you, they will meet a side who have, in recent years, placed an equal importance on maximising their potential through diet.
Kerry sports nutritionist Kevin Beasley, who has worked with the Kerry senior team, tells Feelgood that nutrition has become an important part of the game.
The attitude to nutrition has changed dramatically on the pitch over the last five years, he says.
It mightn’t mean the difference between winning and losing, but how athletes eat can make an enormous difference to overall health, he adds. “Context,” he explains, “is everything.” For instance, what you need to eat on the day of the game is completely different to what you might need while training or recovering post-match.
And while the chef who feeds Galway and the nutritionist who advises Kerry might be shouting for different sides on Sunday, they both agree wholeheartedly on the need to apply the principles of sports nutrition to the general population.
“I think people are slowly releasing that we are what we eat,” says Beasley.