This article is a result of a recent talk a did to a group of 16–18 year old lads who were part of their secondary school’s gaelic football team.
When talking to students about nutrition, I’m always conscious of the fact that I’m probably talking to someone who has consumed 3 sausage rolls and at least 2 bars of chocolate or other confectionery that day, and so, telling them to completely cut out pizza, or start eating celery and carrots instead of muffins and mars bars is going to go in one ear and out the other.
Often, it’s not even clear why they would want to change their nutritional habits. These guys fly around the field, train 7–8 times per week, and are often fitter than their senior team-mates when they go back to club training! For this reason, it’s crucial to emphasise the importance of nutrition, and how it can actually put them in an even better position than they’re currently in! Not to mention, bad habits may not be affecting the student athlete right now, but you can be sure that if they keep the bad habits going into their 20s and 30s, they will feel the repercussions.
So if you’re a student who is involved in a GAA sport, I encourage you to read on. Take from it what rings a bell with you, and disregard the rest.
The Importance of Nutrition for a Student Athlete
There are 4 main ways in which you, as a student athlete (or any athlete really) can benefit from addressing nutrition:
We’ve all probably heard of the analogy of the body being like a car, in that, the quality of fuel determines how well the car drives, and the quantity of fuel determines how far the car can go. The more you optimise the type and amount of fuel you are giving the body, the better you can perform, and the longer you can perform for.
Providing adequate recovery nutrition to the body means that you are likely to have better adaptations to training, fewer injuries and you will be able to train harder in subsequent training sessions.
3. Avoiding Sickness
Let’s be honest, living a long, healthy life isn’t necessarily your biggest focus right now. However, if we have a healthier body, that means less time being sick, which means more time playing matches and training, which means more time to stake your claim for a place on the team, more time working on your skills and getting fitter, and less time standing on the sidelines watching on.
4. Body Composition
All else equal, more muscle and less fat is better. Someone at 70kg with 13% bodyfat is going to likely be faster, fitter and relatively stronger than someone who is 70kg with 25% bodyfat. Plus, who doesn’t like being able to see their abs?
The 4 Building Blocks of Nutrition for Student Athletes
Nutrition can be complicated, so I find that if we can break it down to the few important factors and explore each of them further, we can have a clearer picture in mind of where we need to start.
I like to break nutrition down into 4 blocks, in order of importance. Those 4 blocks are:
Let’s look at each separately and get clear on what that means for you.
1. Food Quantity
The energy balance equation dictates that if someone is consuming less energy (fewer calories) than they are expending, the body will use it’s own energy stores to get the required energy. This usually results in weight-loss. However, it can also result in tiredness and fatigue, particularly in someone who is very active. I like to think of this as the body forcing you to stop outputting so much energy, since you aren’t giving it enough energy supplies to keep up with the demands you are putting on it.
I think it’s part of the reason student athletes often feel sluggish and sleepy during the day (lack of sleep is obviously also a big factor here).
The calories that we consume can be broken down into the 3 main macronutrients: Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates.
Protein is used in the recovery and building of muscle tissue as well as other tissues in the body. Obviously then, getting enough protein in daily is going to lead to better recovery as well as helping in your muscle-building pursuits. Generally, for student athletes, rather than recommending a certain amount of protein in grams, I recommend you aim for about 4 fist-sized portions of protein-rich food per day. Examples of good protein sources are chicken, beef, pork, eggs, greek yoghurt and other dairy.
Fat is used in the absorption of vitamins, hormonal regulation and to a smaller extent, it is used as an energy source. You probably don’t need a huge amount of fat in your diet, but you do need enough to facilitate the above processes, as well as making your food enjoyable, and allowing you to have some of your favourite foods. Think about having a small amount of fat with each meal. With this in mind, the sources of this fat should be things like nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, egg yolks, fish and the fat that may already be on your protein source.
Carbohydrates are the main energy source for the body in high-intensity activity, such as the usual gaelic football or hurling training sessions you’re likely to go through, as well as matches. Gaelic athletes often under-eat carbohydrates compared to the amount of high-intensity training they undertake. As a rough guide, I recommend about 2 fist-sized portions of carbohydrate-rich food per meal. Increasing that in times where training load is increased will likely be advantageous. Example sources would be things like rice, potato, sweet potato, pasta, bread, oats, fruit, dried fruit.
If you are gaining unwanted weight, or are losing weight and when you don’t want to, you will need to decrease or increase your total intake accordingly.
2. Food Quality
The likelihood is that if you are following the recommendations in the food quantity section, you’ll probably be covering a lot food quality-related aspects of nutrition.
However, in order to make sure you are avoiding any deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, aim for an intake of a wide range of fruits and vegetables. As a rough recommendation, aim for 3 of each per day.
Also, from a food quality standpoint, start to reduce or avoid foods that make you feel lethargic, bloated or cause other reactions such as gas or skin rashes.
I’ll also include hydration in here. Getting in 2–3 litres of water can be a good place to aim for. Also, aiming for 5 clear urinations per day can be a good target to aim for.
3. Food timing
The importance of how many times you should eat per day is often over-stated. The main focus when deciding how many times to eat per day is this: “What frequency of eating would make it easy for me to meet me nutritional targets?” With that in mind, 3–4 meals will usually be ideal for you as a student athlete, with snacks where required.
Eating before training and matches
The aim with your pre-match/pre-training meal should be to aid in fuelling that session, whilst avoiding the feeling of fullness during the session. With that in mind, this meal should usually contain a source of carbohydrates to help fuel the session, and a source of protein to help avoid the breakdown of muscle and to help with the recovery process afterwards. Keeping fat and fibre relatively low in this meal will allow quicker digestion of the meal, and will also help avoid the feeling of discomfort of having a full stomach during the session.
Eating after training and matches
The post-training/post-match meal should be pretty similar to the meal before the session. Carbohydrate will help replenish the glycogen (carbohydrate) stores that you’ve just used. Protein will facilitate the recovery of the tired muscles, and the low-fat and low fibre aspect will again allow for quicker digestion and absorption.
Being the fourth block, supplements are probably the least important aspect of your nutrition plan, and possibly won’t even be very relevant to you as a student athlete.
You may benefit from some health supplements like a multivitamin, vitamin D3 and Omega 3 fish oils, simply because most people tend to have deficiencies that can be addressed by these.
There likely won’t be a need for performance supplements, such as creatine or caffeine, since you will get a lot more of a benefit from getting your food intake on point! Plus I’d rather you saved your money to spend on better food. However, if you do have all other aspects of nutrition on point, it may be worth looking into whether thesemight be suitable for you.
When it comes to protein shakes, whilst there is nothing wrong with whey protein shakes and they are a convenient source of protein, you can probably get enough protein from your food alone.
So What Does This Mean Practically?
Eat roughly 3–4 bigger meals per day.
Each of these meals should contain a fist-sized portion of protein-rich food, with about 2 fist-sized portions of carbohydrate-rich food, with a small bit of a fat source. The meal should also contain plenty of vegetables. (eg. Chicken, rice, cashews, spinach, peppers and tomatoes)
Drink 2–3 litres of water per day.
Eat snacks like fruit and nuts where needed. (Not chocolate bars and sausage rolls)
Increase carbohydrate intake in weeks where training load is increased.
The 30-day challenge
Take a sheet of paper and divide it into 5 cloumns, and put these as the headers to the columns:
Number of fist-sized portions of protein eaten? (aim for 4)
Litres of water drank (aim for 2–3)
Portions of fruit and veg eaten (aim for 5–6)
Did you eat breakfast?
Did you sleep 7–9 hours last night?
For 30 days, each day enter your answer for each of these headings.
For the first few days, you might only hit your target for 1 of these, and maybe halfway through, your hitting 3 of the targets, but hopefully by the end of the 30 days, you’ll have created a set of habits that will take your performance, recovery, health and body composition to a higher level!
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