You've been training hard since January and the league campaign has come and gone.
Championship week is upon you, and you want to make sure you're doing everything you can to perform to your best ability.
Your training plan for the week will probably consist of a few easy sessions to keep the legs ticking over and keep the skills sharp, as you wind down towards the end of the week, making sure you're as fresh as possible for the weekend.
But you know training is only one aspect of optimising your performance, and nutrition is another.
I like to break championship nutrition down into 4 phases:
1. Championship week
2. 1-2 Days before the match
4. Pre-match/during the match
1. Championship Week
The goal in the 7 days leading up to a championship match is to make sure you are fully recovered and prepared for the match, and in order to do that, it's important to focus on the basics.
This entails things like making sure you are hydrated, getting enough sleep and making generally good food choices. "Good food choices" means different things for different people. For some people, it might mean only having one chocolate bar instead of three, and for others, it may mean being extra diligent with their calorie intake. Either way, it's important not to bring in any drastic new dietary changes in the week of championship.
As well as that, an element of preparation is going to help. It can be valuable to take 15 minutes at the start of the week to plan out your week: when you'll be working, training, sleeping and eating. This will allow you to make any preparation that you need to, whether that is buying food to have on hand on match-day, or making sure you have organised to be finished work on time to get to training early.
All these little things will add up and avoid adding to the potential nerves and stress that can come with an important match.
2. 1-2 Days before the match
In the couple of days before the match, it can be beneficial to look at a strategy of carbohydrate-loading. Simply put, this means increasing your carbohydrate intake in the couple of days leading up to the match. The reason we do this is to increase the stored glycogen (carbohydrate) in the muscles so that there are sufficient energy stores to fuel your body optimally when it comes to the match. (more details in this article)
This could be as simple as adding in an extra portion of carbohydrates to each meal. For others, who are used to counting their carbohydrate intake, it could mean having a specific number to aim for.
Generally, the recommendations for carb-loading are around 8-10g/kg body weight per day, meaning that someone weighing 80kg could be eating up to 800g of carbohydrates per day. However, these recommendations are generally for long-distance athletes, so they are probably higher than needed for GAA athletes.
Obviously keeping good habits in place, such as getting enough sleep and rest, as well as keeping hydrated are going to be important in the days before the match.
On match-day, in my opinion, the biggest focus is simply on avoiding messing up. I know that may be seen as a negative mindset, but the hard work is done. This can be hard for people to accept and they can feel the need to turn to new foods and supplements that they've never used before.
There's been a myth going around for at least 20 years that chicken and pasta is the only acceptable meal to have before a match, and I've worked with people for whom the only time they'd eat chicken and pasta was before a match, despite that fact that it made them feel bloated and lethargic. I've also heard a few disaster stories about pre-workout supplements that were being used on match-day for the first time.
The point is to keep things simple on match-day. Stick to familiar foods and supplements that you know are easy to digest.
Also, it has been shown that having some carbohydrates in the pre-match meal can, not only improve physical performance, but also mental performance and even things like central nervous system fatigue. This meal can be the usual favourite of chicken and pasta, but it certainly doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be if you don't usually eat it.
4. Pre-match/During the match
Again, the caution around trying new things continues right up to the match, and with any of the recommendations here, you should have trialled them previously, either in training or in a less-important match.
There are two performance aids we can include in the 30-60 minutes pre-match that have been shown to have a beneficial effect on performance. These are fast-digesting carbohydrates and caffeine.
Having some sugary foods or drink (think sports drinks or jelly babies) before (and during) intense exercise increases the availability of glucose for energy production. Given that glucose (a simple carbohydrate) is the primary source of fuel in high-intensity exercise, this can be beneficial.
Caffeine has been shown to improve mental cognition and physical performance when taken before sport. This could be achieved by having a coffee or ingesting caffeine in another way, such as caffeine tablets, gum, or in a sports gel. (more of caffeine can be found here)
I'd advise limiting caffeine later in the day since it can have a major effect on sleep quality.
Do the Simple Things Right
It's pretty simple when it comes to championship nutrition. Doing the usual things right and making the few subtle changes outlined can go a long way to giving you that extra edge, so that you can go out and focus on performing to your best ability.
Conor O'Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition