Food for thought: Norton feeding Munster hunger

If Munster Rugby had any doubts they had made the right move in appointing a full-time nutritionist this summer their decision received some very public backing during the November internationals.

Food for thought: Norton feeding Munster hunger

Ireland back row Tommy O’Donnell gave new appointment Catherine Norton the best possible endorsement by crediting her with helping him lose four kilograms in order to regain the form that earned him a recall to Joe Schmidt’s national squad.

“Having Catherine there is very good because she’s constantly monitoring what’s in your hand and what you’re eating, are you bringing the right resources to training,” O’Donnell said after he came off the bench against South Africa, “She’s just upped my knowledge on how to refuel and rebuild muscle.”

Despite the much-heralded input of UK-based nutritionist Graeme Close, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University and former rugby league player, over the previous five seasons, Norton’s daily presence at Munster training since pre-season appears to have made a difference, changing the emphasis of the interactions with players.

“When we started off it was a lot more structured,” Norton said. “It was going to be that we would educate on this or that on a weekly basis but because I’m around all the time it tends to be chats in the corridor, ‘have a look at what I’ve brought for my breakfast’ or ‘what about this as an option for lunch’. So it’s a nice way to work and the players seem to be getting the benefit from it.

“Because they haven’t had a full-time nutritionist involved before, previously it was a case of when they guys came over from the UK, players would sit down with them for 40 minutes or an hour and address issues that they had. So if something wasn’t pertinent at that time, they might not have gone to see Graeme whereas at the moment they can stop me in the corridor or show me what food they’ve brought and it seems to work well for them.”

Norton has quickly tuned into the Munster players’ competitive natures, turning it to their advantage when trying to fine-tune their eating habits. “Three days a week we have, it was never meant to be a competition but it’s kind of turned into that, of bring your own snack. On the days when the squad is all together the players have to bring their own snack for after training and it’s become very competitive, where someone will bring in quinoa chicken and somebody else will bring a tuna salad and it’s ‘well, who’s is better?’ It’s actually become a very good way of educating the players. You can see what good food looks like and then know what to bring yourself in order to emulate what the senior players are doing.

“They are hugely competitive. One of the things I was very keen to do was set very definite targets for body composition, whether it was changes in fat mass or from pre-season to in-season. We’ve now got a DEXA (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry) machine which is used in clinical practice to diagnose osteoporosis but gives us very definite measurements on changes in body composition, how much of you is fat, bone or muscle.

“We do that four times a year and there’s no hiding from that and it gives us very definite benchmarks.”

Norton, a PhD dietician and performance nutritionist who studied at University of Limerick and was yesterday making a presentation to the Olympic Council of Ireland and Irish Institute for Sport in Dublin, sees her remit with the Munster players having three strands.

“The first is general health, making sure they’re eating well and know what they should be doing for their well-being. The next thing is body composition, making sure they’ve got the right nutrition to ensure they effect the changes they’d like to see in terms of body mass and fat mass. Then the last level is specific to match day, their performance, what do they need to do around training time and competition time to perform at their best.”

For the senior players it is a case of preaching to the converted but when it comes to new arrivals in the academy, Norton is confronted with a lot of habits in need of change from the outset and that requires providing the next generation of players with plenty of education.

“For our academy players, we partner with Greencore, and only a month ago they brought in a chef and a nutritionist and with myself and an academy strength and conditioning coach we ran a cooking skills course for two full days. A lot of the lads are recently moved from home, they’re young guys trying to balance college commitments and the training demands of the Academy. We gave them skills on how food shopping and preparation, how to do it smartly, how to cook on a Monday and have enough on a Thursday.”

An important lesson is teaching the players the value of knowing what goes into the foods they eat, that making your own dish from scratch is way more preferable than buying a ready meal off the shelves of a supermarket.

“That was something we covered with the Greencore chef, rather than buying a chicken breast, buy the whole chicken. It’s more economical and this is what you can do with the breast, thighs, legs and even the carcass to make stock. The boys were very surprised at what you could do with one chicken rather than buying the pieces.

“We’ve also done a supermarket tour where the lads will fill their usual basket and we’ll say to them, for instance, ‘what can we buy instead of dried pasta that might be a better option?’ It’s lovely to work with the academy because you can see changes in their mindsets. They might have gone off to the petrol station before for a snack but now they all have a slow cooker and a knife set and a chopping board and you see them all now bringing in soups they made at the weekend or ‘this is what I’m using in recovery’. It would be nice to be able to stand back and see them become healthier, more self sufficient young men but ultimately the goal is making them athletes.

“What we’ve spoken about up to now really are the lifestyle and education for day to day living but there’s a whole other aspect to it that’s specific to match preparation and what do we do on match days to give our players the edge. That’s the information the under-age players tend to take on board because they think the match day stuff is the most important but really the preparation that you do on match day is really the icing on the cake.

The shopping list for healthy eating

By Simon Lewis

One of the first orders of business for new players in the Munster Academy is to learn how to shop and eat well. Here are some of the better options Munster squad members are encouraged to take, according to Catherine Norton, and which all of us might benefit from taking.


A grain-based protein that can be used as a building block for muscle and can be used in place of rice and cereals. “The thing about quinoa, it’s a better type of grain but the reason it’s better is it’s got about 20g of protein per serving. So if you compare that to pastas or rice, they’re just very carby. Up until the last three or four years the emphasis for all athletes was a need for high carbs but now the science is changing and we’re realising they might not have that same requirement for high carbs. So if we can switch from using rices and pastas to quinoa you’re getting a little bit of carbohydrate and also a good whack of protein in there. So its been classed as a super food with good reason.”

Fish oils

“The amount of research being done into cardiovascular disease and the long lives the Eskimos have and all the benefits of fish oils, when you translate that into high-performance sport, when they get a lot of knocks and niggles and small stresses and strains on their muscles and tendons, fish oils can help with that.

“So if you’re going to eat fish, try to include a good oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, sardines) three times a week and if our players don’t eat fish we suggest they take fish oil. I think it’s the University of Bath who have very good research on the effects of fish oils specifically on rugby players in helping with concussions. But I’m always trying to stress to the players I’m not talking about deep fried battered cod. It’s not that kind of fish!”


Fish oils are not the only foods with naturally anti-inflammatory properties that Norton recommends to players as part of an injured players’ pack she has put together in conjunction with physiotherapy and strength & conditioning staff at Munster.

“It has practical information on nutrition strategies to support recovery and rehabilitation but it also gives players something to focus on that’s proactive and positive rather than just sitting there being injured and feeling helpless and not in control of the situation. We have a strength and conditioning coach who looks specifically after rehabilitation and I sit down with him and see how long a player needs to be off his feet for and then we build a pack around that to reflect how different their days might look to when they’re physically training twice or three times a day, what they’re calorie intake is going to be like. And one of the most important things to provide in recovery is protein, so players will be given specific guidelines on the right intake of that in their daily meals and snacks they can have throughout the day as well.

“There would also be an integration of fish oils, bromelain and turmeric. Bromelain is nutrient with known anti-inflammatory properties found in pineapple and turmeric is a spice used in Indian cuisine that has similar benefits. We suggest they eat pineapples or drink the juice, which contain bromelain; turmeric, which is an Indian spice which they can add to their food. They’re also given specific amino acids such as glutamine, which helps support immune function, an essential nutrient when the body has undergone trauma. It comes in powdered format.

Natural foods better option than supplements for younger players

By Simon Lewis

One of the chief concerns for parents when considering whether rugby is the right sport for their child is the apparently increasing use of supplements in the game with suggestions that some young players are being encouraged to take them. Munster nutritionist Catherine Norton shares those concerns and is helping to spread the message within the province that age-grade players can find all the nutrients they need in natural foods.

“My job isn’t just to look after the senior players. I also work with the academy and sub-academy and age-grade levels and one of the things that I’m putting together at the moment is a training resource for all our staff who go out to age-grades and schools and clubs so they all have the correct information and the same messaging on where we stand when it comes to supplements for under-age players.

“The very important thing to remember is that all the research that is done on performance-enhancing supplements is done on high-performance, adult male athletes.

“There’s nowhere that you’ll find any research that says this is safe for use in under-age players. The research has all been done on adult male athletes who are already performing in a high-performance set-up.

“I can see why under-age players would look up to their heroes and say well, every time you see certain players on television they have an isotonic drink or they look like they’re sponsored by somebody and that makes it appear that you have to have supplements to succeed. But that’s certainly not the case. And what we’re trying to do now is to ensure that even our senior players are aware that yes, supplements are there and, yes, there’s a certain amount of protein or amino acids or whatever it is that’s in them but they’re also there in natural foods.”

She added: “We adopt a food first approach where we emphasise the importance of meal frequency and composition. These fundamentals are at the cornerstone of performance nutrition. Adding ergogenic supplements in without addressing basic dietary inadequacies makes no sense.

“The other thing that’s important to remember and something that I’ve been very keen to push strongly since I arrived in Munster Rugby is the personal responsibility the players must take for their supplement use.

“All our players are aware of the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) policies and they know that the Institute of Sport will send in drug-testing officials frequently.

“There are strict regulations and protocols around the supplements we use to support both general health and performance, and these guidelines determine whether or not I can give a supplement my seal of approval. With any of the supplements that we use, whether it’s something that players would get from a pharmacist, like a vitamin supplement all the way up to match-day high-performance pre-match or recovery supplements, they all have to come with a certificate of an approved laboratory that WADA has nominated. If I don’t have that cert of approval the players are not allowed to take that supplement.

“I have a six-year-old who’s playing rugby and my advice to parents would be to try and steer your son or daughter away from supplements until they get to the stage where they actually need them. If they’re destined to be props, scrum-halves, locks or whatever, they’ll get there on their own using food first.”


Munster nutritionist Catherine Norton’s key messages for young players


“Get a good distribution of protein in each daily meal. I did my PhD at the University of Limerick and was looking specifically at nutrients and optimal timing of nutrient intakes to maintain or increase muscle mass. We knew protein was very important but we didn’t know whether the patterns in which you eat protein or the amount you take would make any difference. From the research we were doing we now know that you have to have between 20 and 30 grams of protein on about six eating occasions a day in order to switch on muscle mass growth or even to maintain it in a more elderly population. Now, the way most players would have done it was to have a small amount of protein at breakfast, say 10g, maybe about 15g at lunchtime and in the main evening meal of steak or chicken or fish you might have in excess of 60g. You may have calorie requirements for that amount but if you’re specifically trying to create muscle mass, you may get to 30g and the muscle’s ‘full, it can’t take any more. So you’re better off just having 30g and adding another snack later on containing a similar amount of protein.”


“Try and make sure you get a very broad intake of fruit and veg and salads on a daily basis because each of those different food groups will provide nutrients that support recovery, immune health, general health. So don’t just stick to green apples. The players are encouraged at every meal to have a different variety of fruit, vegetable or salad on their plate. To eat the rainbow, the greater the variety the greater the spread of nutrients they get.”


“Another key part would be to use as little fat as they can. It depends on what the players’ individual requirements are. They may need to reduce, overall, the amount of energy they’re taking in in a day and the easiest way to do that is to reduce the amount of fat. The science behind that is fat has double the number of calories of any of the other nutrients such as carbohydrates or protein. You may use fat but you need to use the smallest amount you can get away with. We also encourage use of healthier fats like avocado, nuts, olives rather than animal fats.”


Manage hydration status, and drink to meet demands. Five per cent dehydration has the potential to negatively impact performance by as much as 30%. For the senior players it’s not an issue, they’ve had it beaten into them and they’re very good at matching their fluid loss with fluid intake and they’re generally on top of their hydration. But the younger players might struggle with that so we do hydration assessments every so often, using urine analysis to see how well or how poorly hydrated they are before and after training. That teaches them how to monitor their fluid intake on a daily basis.”


“Pre-fuel in advance of training, and tailor the meal to suit the demands of the session – strength needs high protein and just a little carbs, where pitch/conditioning sessions will need moderate protein and a moderate or high carbohydrate (dependent on body composition aims). And recover well. Eating within about 20 minutes of stopping any session facilitates more efficient recovery and allows physiological adaptations to occur, which means you benefit more from the training you have just done.”

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