Optimal Recovery for Rugby – Part 1: Macronutrients

“Your Training is Only as Good as Your Recovery.”

Get the most out of your training with good recovery.

Dean Robertson MSc BSc (Hons)


Rugby. It is not a game for the faint of heart. It requires a lot of gruelling training sessions in order to prepare your body for the physical demands of the sport. No matter what position you play, you will likely need to prepare long and hard to produce optimal fitness specific to your given position. We know that the training is hard, but we also know the games are even harder. All of these intense training sessions and physically demanding games place a large amount of stress upon the body. We need to make sure we can recover from these bouts of stress in order to progress and get better. That’s why as a player you need to figure out what works best for you.

It’s important to remember that every person’s means of recovery will vary.

Looking at what the best athletes and rugby players do to improve their performance can be an excellent place to start, but in the end, it ultimately comes down to what is right for your body. It is most important to remember that every person is unique, therefore their training, nutrition, and other means of recovery will vary.

Grant Gilchrist, Alasdair Strokosch and Peter Horne - Scotland, during sprint training. Scotland rugby union training session
Training Drills can be exhaustive on the body. Good recovery is essential.

In order to begin this article we need to understand one fundamental principle. Your training is only as good as your recovery. It does not matter how hard you train, if your recovery is not adequate,  your body you will never reap the full benefits of any game or training session. It’s a bit like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it, you’ll get so far but there’s always something preventing you from getting all the way. People train hard in the gym yet see sub-par results in performance because they slack on their recovery strategies. If you want to be the best athlete that you can be, more often than not focusing on your recovery from your current training will benefit you much greater than just “Training Harder”.

The information in this article is designed to provide you with the advice required to improve your recovery and ultimately make you the best athlete you can be! Before we begin, it is crucial to understand that there are many different types of stress that the body can encounter, including but not limited to, physical, emotional, mental and environmental. Although each can significantly impact one’s recovery, we will primarily focus on the physical stresses due to the nature of the sport of rugby.

So, let’s talk about recovery.

Your body’s  ability to recover from a bout of physical exercise relies on many factors. The following information and strategies will be important to understand to get you on your way to optimising your recovery.  


Food

I cannot emphasise enough how important food is in regards to recovery. People will happily pour hundreds of pounds into supplements, shakes and a variety of things designed to assist in recovery, yet skimp when it comes to their diet. There are indeed supplements and other products out there that do have science to back up their effectiveness but none will ever benefit the body the way an optimal diet does.  These pills and powders are called “supplements” for a reason. They are most effective and are designed to supplement a healthy diet. If you are unsure of where to start, and are serious about your optimising your performance and recovery, a visit to a nutritionist or discussing with a coach or trainer could be helpful.  Getting your nutrition right is a sure-fire way to start yourself ahead of the pack, and make sure your body can bounce back after exercise.

Not everyone’s nutritional plan will look the same. Every body  will have individual demands therefore the following points are designed as rough guidelines that you can use as a starting point and adjust to suit your needs.


Protein

People think of protein in many ways. We need to go back to basics and understand that proteins (which can be broken down further into amino acids) are the building blocks of the human body and as humans we need a certain amount of protein per day to promote health and wellness. The recommended intake for a healthy individual is 0.8g per kg of mass just to maintain protein turnover each day. For an individual weighing 100kg that would equate to 80g of protein each day. Additional factors, such as a physically demanding job or a particularly intense training session or game, cause your body’s demand for protein to increase.

There is a bit of debate regarding how much protein is “safe” however the consensus seems to be that around 1.8 -2.2g/kg of weight will be adequate to promote recovery. It should be noted that there is evidence to suggest that an intake of up to 3g/kg of mass has been studied with no adverse effects. Despite this, I would recommend an intake based on 1.8-2.2g/kg/body weight as we also need to consider other nutrients. We could discuss all day the different levels of protein, but again, every body is different. Instead, here are some general guidelines regarding your intake to aid nutrition overall.

Proteins are the building blocks of the human body. 

1)    Spread protein throughout the day – If a male requiring 200g/day and eats 6 meals I would suggest consuming that in 6 servings (200/6 = 33.3g per meal) making it easier to consume and digest.

2)    Choose a variety of protein sources. Each protein “source” has a selection of different amino acids which aid different processes in the body therefore it is important to choose a wider selection to ensure you get all the different types. I would suggest consuming them throughout your day and including a range of a selection of (red) meats, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy and nuts. 

Protein can be found in eggs
Always have good supply of eggs in the kitchen.

3)    Don’t put protein “too high” – although I stated that there seems to be no number “too high” for protein intake, the more protein you eat, the less energy is spared for the other nutrients before you begin to utilise the excess energy as unwanted fat tissue. For example, let’s say someone has a 3000kcal/day allowance and they eat 300g protein/day this equates to 1200kcal alone leaving only 1800kcal to be divided between fats and carbohydrates which then may not be adequate to promote recovery from the other aspects of performance (e.g. glycogen replenishment) therefore eating only 200g protein will allow for more calories to be eaten from fats/carbs.

4)    Keep protein intake steady. Although I would recommend adjusting carb/fat intake based on exercise I would recommend keeping protein levels steady to ensure protein turnover demands are met on a daily basis.


Carbohydrates

Carbs. A highly debated topic in the fitness industry. We, as sports people, know one thing. Carbs are our friend. They are our most important and abundant energy supply and dropping them too low will inevitably lead to decreased performance. The carbohydrate intake of each person varies dramatically, however, I would suggest an intake of around 3-4g/kg/BW for rugby players due to the amount of energy consumption within training/game environments. Therefore our 100kg male example would require around 300-400g of carbohydrates per day. As stated previously I would advise altering these values subject to the training environment as increasing/lowering carbs is an easy and effective way to ensure optimal performance in training/games but also maintain an optimal body composition by limiting fat gain. This is highly subject to trial and error and may take a while to hit the proverbial “sweet spot”. Start with assessing where your carbs are at at the moment and adjust accordingly as you experiment to find your optimal values.

Mathieu Bastareaud - Toulon centre and Bryan Habana (L)
Most can be grateful they won’t need Mathieu Bastareaud amounts of carbohydrates.

Similarly to protein, I would recommend breaking up the amount of carbs throughout the day to ensure a steady flow of energy. Additionally, I would also suggest increasing the carbohydrate content of the post workout meal as this is a time where the body is highly receptive to nutrients and, specifically, carbohydrate intake, and will favourably store carbohydrate into muscle cells due to the fact that the body has just utilised a large amount in the bout of physical activity. 

increase the carbohydrate content of the post workout meal as this is a time where the body is highly receptive to nutrients.

A commonly recommended source of carbohydrate intake is called “intra workout”, which means it is ingested during the sessions. While this is not necessarily against what I would recommend,  the amount of carbohydrates that people consume during a session and the “type” that they consume may lead to potential issues. Firstly, someone consuming a carb-rich drink may not actually begin to receive the energy from the drink until after the session. This is due to the fact that the body must break down the energy first before the body is able to use it, delaying the process. There are carbohydrate drinks/powders available that have a unique composition allowing for rapid digestion such as Vitargo or, even quicker, Branched Cyclic Dextrin which both have considerable price tags.

As stated previously, ensure the body is adequately fuelled with carbohydrates before any exercise through appropriate nutrition and the “necessity” for intra exercise carbohydrates is significantly lessened. The latest research seems to indicate that the “pre exercise” meal yields greater performance value and recovery potential than the “post workout” meal. Despite the many intricate details of carbohydrates and their impact on performance and recovery, we know they are essential so always ensure they are a big part of your nutrition. I would suggest getting your carbohydrates from a range of sources including rice, potatoes, oats, fruits, vegetables, pastas, breads, cereals and potential carb powders which may offer a slight convenience advantage.


Fats

Fats are often blacklisted by health “experts” due to their previous demonization in the 80s and their apparent correlation with Heart Disease. One thing that has become apparent recently through a bit of well applied science is that fats are not all that bad. This applies most specifically to the fats given a bad rap years ago, known as saturated fats. The development of science in nutrition has only improved the benefits of fats in our health and, if anything, solidified their necessity in our endeavour optimal health. Once more, the complexities of fats relating to health far exceed the current article, however we will discuss their relation to recovery. In regards to amounts of fats that I would recommend, I would suggest a starting point of 0.4-0.5g/kg/BW. Our 100kg Male example would then require 40-50g/Day.

This figure is a starting point and adjustments should certainly be made subject to the individual in question. Your daily energy allowance will dictate how much fat you can consume on a daily basis while staying within your targets and without storing excess as unwanted fat. The sources of fat that I would advise to aim for would be from a range of animal products including meats, fatty cuts of fish (salmon, mackerel, kippers etc.), dairy products, nuts (almonds, cashews, brazil, walnuts etc.), avocados, and oils (coconut, olive etc.).

Avocado is a super food
“Getting your nutrition right is a sure-fire way to start yourself ahead of the pack.”

When it comes to meal allocation, I would suggest to include an even amount of fats around each meal with the exception of the post workout meal, where I would preferentially limit fat intake in order to promote a quicker rate of digestion of the carbohydrates required for glycogen replenishment as fats will slow down this process.


So that covers the key points of recovery for our macronutrients. In the next article we will be focusing on the micronutrients and their role in recovery.  Micronutrients are a very intricate area of nutrition that are often overlooked yet are vitally important when it comes to health and performance. We will be covering vitamins , minerals and fluids and also looking at other factors such as sleep and supplements and how these can maximise your recovery.

Part 2: Micronutrients and Sleep

Dean Robertson MSc BSc (Hons) is an Edinburgh based personal trainer that works with a range of clients from Elite Athletes to complete beginners. He runs a Personal Training company called Elysium Personal Training and can be contacted at elysiumpt@outlook.com

Stay tuned for future articles from the author.

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