PADDY HEANEY: It takes more than brawn to make the perfect player

After attending the launch of the Ulster Championship in Donegal last week, I walked away from the event astonished at the physical conditioning of some of the players.

Rock-like biceps bulged out of sleeves which were screaming for mercy, while taut stomachs lay in the shadow of heaving chests. A few of the players looked like they could have stepped into a boxing ring.

Anyone who thinks that county footballers have developed their sculpted bodies solely from pumping iron knows nothing about the science of weight training. It needs to be stressed that I don’t believe any PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) were used by the players I observed in the Abbey Hotel.

However, I would be equally convinced that the players aren’t just doing chin-ups. Developing a lean, chiselled physique isn’t easy. Look at your average tradesman. There are bricklayers who lift blocks all day, and plasterers who hold a trowel above their heads for hours at a time. Tradesmen are usually strong individuals, yet, few of them look remotely like your typical county player.

Apart from lifting weights, there is another key reason why county players develop the type of muscle definition which is not found on building sites. It’s diet. More precisely, it’s a diet that is laden with heaps and heaps of protein. Sausage rolls and bacon sodas are not permitted.

The importance of diet cannot be underestimated. I know a club footballer who religiously lifted weights three times a week, but still failed to put on the bulky muscle which he yearned for.

This was during the noughties, when Armagh had launched the ‘arms race’ and players were all trying to look like Jonah Lomu.

Initially, my friend was 11st 7lbs. He wanted to get bigger. Under the guidance of an experienced lifter, he did leg weights on a Monday, his shoulders and back on a Wednesday, and his chest on a Friday. He pushed his muscles to exhaustion in every session. An obsessive type, he never missed a day. After six months, he was stronger, but he was only two pounds heavier. It wasn’t quite the gain he wanted.

A defender, he wanted to be like ‘Geezer’, but he looked more like Oisin.

His coach urged him to include whey protein in his diet. Reluctant during the first six months to put any synthetic food stuff into his body, he finally relented. The addition of whey protein was the only major change he made to his nutrition plan. Six months later, he weighed 13 stones, and by his own admission, “had the body of David” (the statue, not Beckham).

County players take whey protein. It’s perfectly legal. Donegal captain Michael Murphy is a brand ambassador for an Irish-based company which sells whey protein supplements. Last year, Murphy said: “Every team’s trying to find a little bit of an edge, whether it’s playing your game, or trying to get yourself recovered for a training session by taking the Kinetica supplements or other supplements that are out there. That’s something every management team or coaching team are looking at now. So, ourselves in Donegal, we use it, whether it be the protein after the gym or whether [it’s] just the general carbohydrate recovery after a training session. Players find them definitely of benefit.”

It can’t be stressed enough that whey protein is not a PED, and it’s not exactly a shortcut to the perfect body. Adding protein powder will not make a hoot of difference unless a player has the discipline to train hard and adhere to a strict diet.

Of course, to add muscle, it’s not essential to take a supplement like whey protein. It’s possible to get the necessary protein from natural sources.

However, this process requires a lot of eating. The basic rule of thumb for someone hoping to build muscle is that they should take a gram of protein for every pound of body weight. For example, a 13-stone player, equivalent to 182lbs or 82.5kg, would need to take 182 grams of protein per day.

What does that look like on a plate? A decent appetite is essential, because breakfast would consist of three eggs (18g of protein) and 50g of smoked salmon (12g). Another meal would include two tins of tuna (68g) while dinner would feature three chicken breasts (82g). That mountain of eggs, salmon, tuna and chicken comes to an overall tally of 180g of protein. A couple of bananas during the day would make up the missing two grams.

With our without legal supplements, there is no short cut to a body of sinewy muscle, but human nature means some will search for a softer way. Instead of working for something, there will always be a temptation to buy an easy fix.

In the bicep business, steroids provide the back door to quicker and bigger gains. Over the weekend, it emerged that a Monaghan footballer, who was a panellist at the start of the year, has tested positive for steroids.

Given the scrutiny which will surround this case, the individual deserves some sympathy.

However, the drug-testing procedures and the controls put in place by the GAA and the Irish Sports Council must be welcomed and maintained.

The superb conditioning of GAA players means it’s inevitable that some people will be tempted to achieve the same results by doping.

It’s vital to have safeguards in place. In an age when anything can be bought over the internet, there is a possibility that players could be putting themselves at serious risk. Regular drug testing at training sessions and games provides a necessary deterrent. The GAA has no reason to feel embarrassed about this positive test. Rather, this development vindicates the association’s decision to allow players to be tested. The ocean of negative publicity which will surround this unfortunate Monaghan lad should remind players about the damage they could inflict on their reputations.

Moreover, they should also realise that big muscles don’t guarantee anything. At his dream weight of 13 stones, my friend played the worst football of his life. The extra bulk meant he lost his pace. His experiment with protein taught him that light and strong is the best formula. Or, as he put it: “Strong enough to hold your own, but light enough to run all day.”

Like they say in the country, steroids are for carpets.


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