Rugby Union Pre-Season Nutrition: The Complete Muscle Gain & Fat Loss Guide
With the physicality and speed that rugby is now played at, if you are not doing everything you possibly can during pre-season to be in peak condition ready for the competitive season, you risk being seriously left behind by your opponents!
When it comes to pre-season most players will have goals around body composition (muscle gain or fat loss – maybe both), as well as enhancing other components of fitness. This article shall talk you through all the considerations when it comes to nutrition, building muscle and losing fat.
Before you read on though, it is important to be aware of what is realistically achievable regarding body composition changes during pre-season. This can then inform your goals.
Previously I have outlined achievable rates of muscle gain and fat loss from which individuals can base their goals for pre-season. If you have dreams of building a physique over a pre-season to rival that of Sonny Bill Williams or Eben Etzebeth, then sorry to break it to you, this probably isn’t going to happen.
Click here and check out the goal setting and expectations article out prior to reading the rest of this article.
Now that you have an idea of realistic progress, let’s get started …
Setting daily calorie intake is the foundation from which your dietary setup is based. Once this is determined the assignment of amounts of individual macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat) can then be made.
But how many calories should you consume?
I shall talk through how to approximately calculate this, but first I need to address some principles to give meaning to the numbers.
When the goal is to increase muscle/body mass a calorie surplus is needed, which requires energy intake to be greater than energy expenditure. Building muscle is an energy costly process. By creating a positive energy balance, in combination with strength training, you are implementing the most effective strategy to optimise the anabolic stimulus to enhance muscle mass. However, this is not a free pass to raid the buffet every night!
When the goal is to decrease fat/body mass a calorie deficit will be required, where energy intake shall be less than energy expenditure. An energy deficit can be created via a restriction in energy intake, an increase in energy expenditure or both. However, if engaging in pre-season training it is important that an appropriate energy deficit is implemented. Go too large with your calorie deficit and you could find yourself struggling in training, performing poorly, risking muscle mass loss and generally feeling awful. Not ideal preparation for the new season is it?
What about if you want to gain muscle mass whilst also losing body fat?
Implementing a positive energy balance, in combination with strength training, is the most effective strategy to optimise the anabolic stimulus to enhance muscle mass.
However, in certain instances muscle can be gained when within a calorie deficit, whilst also losing fat mass. This is dependent upon an individuals age, training status, training programme design, current body fat %, size of calorie deficit and if they have undergone atrophy due to time off training e.g. injury/off-season.
Individuals that have been resistance training for a few years and of low body fat % may be more concerned with maintaining current muscle mass, or minimising its loss, compared to the gains that can be made by an individual relatively new to resistance training.
The Energy Cost of Contact Training
Research from rugby league has shown the distinctive large energy expenditures of professional academy players during pre-season, highlighting the requirement for equally large energy intake via the diet to aid targeted body composition and physical development.
When contact training is integrated within a training programme energy expenditure is elevated due to the collision induced muscle damage. Although from rugby league, such findings can help inform rugby union players due to the collision-based activity within rugby union. It is therefore important that rugby players during pre-season account within their dietary intake for not only the energy expenditure of the movement demands, but also the muscle damage from contact activity.
ACUTE VS. CHRONIC WEIGHT LOSS
Often athletes, and in some instance coaches, want results and fast!
You may often hear individuals citing high initial amounts of weight loss in the early weeks of their new dietary approach. However, only a few weeks later such progress has slowed or stalled, leading to a decrease in motivation or the end of their diet efforts. Worst case scenario a potential rebound in weight following a frustrated eating binge. It is therefore important to appreciate the difference between acute and chronic weight loss and to inform expectations accordingly.
ACUTE WEIGHT LOSS
When you set out on your fat loss diet the early rapid weight loss may solely not be attributed to a loss of fat mass. What may occur is the manipulation of body contents similar to typical methods adopted by weight category athletes the days prior to competition.
(1) Decreased Carbohydrate Intake: A common strategy is to decrease or remove carbohydrate intake. Restricting intake of this whole food group leads to a decrease in stored carbohydrate (glycogen) within muscle and liver glycogen. For every gram of carbohydrate stored within glycogen around 3 grams of water is bound with it. Therefore, if you have decreased total dietary carbohydrate intake you shall also decrease the amount of water held within glycogen. Interestingly, individuals often opt for a low carbohydrate approach based upon the carbohydrate-insulin obesity model influencing weight gain, but this hypothesis has been falsified.
As rugby player during pre-season are engaging in both gym and field based high-intensity training, carbohydrate will play an important role as a fuel source, particularly during intense, high volume training periods. Careful consideration should therefore be give to carbohydrate intake to ensure players are able to perform during training.
(2) Dehydration: Some individuals may not simply be meeting daily hydration needs. Furthermore, an increase in training intensity/volume/frequency will typically elevate fluid requirements due to exercise associated fluid loss e.g. sweat.
(3) Decreased Salt Intake: Typically individuals will tidy up their nutritional intake and reduce processed and take-away foods. By replacing food choices with added salt, and opting for foods without added salt, your dietary intake will not hold result in as as much fluid retention, as salt aids fluid retention.
(4) Decreased Intestinal Contents: A reduction in food portions or total food volume will reduce the mass of intestinal contents (food within the gut). Some individuals may even turn to ‘meal replacement’ liquid shakes which are low in fibre and therefore provide a lower residue intake. Fibre containing foods slow the transit of food through the bowel, whilst drawing water into the intestinal space.
(5) Menstrual Cycle: For female rugby players scale weight may fluctuate during the menstrual cycle due to water retention.
CHRONIC WEIGHT LOSS
This is where the focus of the rugby player should be during pre-season. The implementation of a consistent dietary approach that brings about a change in total fat and muscle mass over a prolonged period of time.
By simply ‘tidying’ up the nutritional quality of your diet you may see greater initial losses of body mass, which may also be beneficial to aid motivation.
However, for some after a couple of weeks the scales may not be moving so quickly and this is where motivation may suffer. Worst still, some individuals may see weight re-gain following a high carbohydrate or salt containing meal(s). This is where an appreciation of acute and chronic weight change is important. Set realistic body composition progress/goals focused upon chronic change.
RATE OF WEIGHT LOSS
As discussed above when some individuals set out on their weight loss journey the primary focus may be to see the numbers drop on the scale and fast.
However, it is important to consider the quality of weight loss – a decrease in fat mass and maintenance or increase in muscle mass.
When opting for a slower weight loss approach (0.7% loss of bodyweight per week), compared to a faster rate (1.4% loss of bodyweight per week), athletic individuals were able to preserve, or in some instances enhance, muscle mass and performance, with greater fat mass loss. Therefore, the greater the caloric deficit the greater the risk of muscle mass loss in athletic individuals.
However, there may be certain instances where a higher rate of weight loss may be required. For example individuals that hold larger amounts of fat mass.
In fact, it has been shown that fast initial weight loss enhanced motivation and aided dietary adherence amongst dieters. However, the maintenance or development of muscle mass should also be considered important from a health perspective and not just solely from a performance angle. The greater the amount muscle mass an individual holds the greater the contribution to resting metabolic rate. Furthermore, muscle is a glucose disposal site and for lipid (fat) oxidation. Therefore the individual must opt for an individualised approach when creating their dietary approach.
DAILY ENERGY INTAKE CALCULATION
STAGE ONE – RESTING ENERGY EXPENDITURE
We can estimate calorie intake based upon the utilisation of prediction equations. However, it is important to stress the word ‘PREDICTION’.
These equations provide an ESTIMATE of energy expended at rest – Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) or Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR).
This is then multiplied by an estimated physical activity level (PAL), incorporating work and physical activity.
These estimates are not perfect and have their limitations.
Having said that, they can provide an initial ball park figure for calorie intake, from which you can then re-evaluate progress using the tracking methods outlined in a previous article and making energy intake adjustments accordingly.
What is BMR/RMR?
This is simply the calories you expend at rest to maintain important functions for life. For example, just being sat there breathing whilst you are reading this article excited with the anticipation of what is coming next!
Note: To gain an accurate measurement of energy expended at rest a laboratory test would be required (this can be quite financially expensive, require a visit to a testing facility and therefore potentially unnecessary for most).
The three most popular equations for estimating BMR/RMR include:
(1) Harris and Benedict – incorporates height (cm), weight (kg) and age (years)
(2) Schofield – incorporates weight (kg) and age (years)
(3) Mifflin-St Joer – incorporates heigh(cm), weight (kg) and age (years)
There are also two other popular equations for estimating BMR/RMR. However, these require lean body mass (kg), which many individuals will not be able to accurately quantify (testing would be required):
(1) Cunningham – incorporates fat-free mass (kg)
(2) Katch-McArdle – incorporates fat-free mass (kg)
The purpose of such equations has been to predict energy expenditures within the general population and have also been used with active and athletic individuals. It is important to acknowledge that these equations were not based upon individuals who have large amounts of muscle mass, such as rugby players.
So are these equations suitable for rugby players?
Research amongst senior professional rugby league players found that measured RMR was 16.5% (approximately 310kcal) lower than that predicted via the Cunningham equation. Furthermore, Cunningham, Harris-Benedict and Schoefield equations typically underestimated total energy expenditure (TEE) for u16 to u24 rugby league and union players, although an over prediction was seen in some instances, highlighting the great individual variability in predictions.
It is therefore important to remember the limitations of energy expenditure prediction equations, particularly within athletes. Their use however may give an approximate initial starting point from which this can then be adapted to the individual and re-evaluated based upon progress.
STAGE TWO – INCORPORATING PHYSICAL ACTIVITY DEMANDS
As mentioned above, to calculate estimated total energy energy expenditure you must first utilise a prediction equation to estimate the energy you expend at rest.
This is then multiplied by a physical activity level (PAL) that corresponds to your self-estimated activity demands. Below is a table outlining the range of PAL values from which to inform your estimation.
Although useful, the above can be confusing for individuals when trying to estimate both their expenditure during the day (e.g. job) and training. This is where errors may occur and may lead to misjudgement of estimations. The below table outlines the estimated PAL for differing levels of activity.
A PAL of 1.6 represents the average activity level of a normally active individual, but sedentary for periods. 2.0-2.5 is considered the PAL for athletes engaging in normal training, whereas a PAL of 2.5-4.0 for athletes engaged in rigorous training/competition.
Previously a 2.0 PAL was utilised for professional Australian rugby union players during the pre-season, based upon 1.6-1.7 PAL (seated with discretion to move around) and addition of 0.3 (significant amounts of sport and strenuous activity).
For further context, an average PAL for rugby union players (U16-U24) who were training/competing in-season was 2.0±0.4.
I HAVE CREATED A CALCULATOR WHICH CAN PROVIDE ESTIMATES OF ENERGY INTAKE BASED UPON THE ENERGY EXPENDITURE PREDICTION EQUATIONS DISCUSSED ABOVE. THIS ALSO INCLUDES ADJUSTMENTS DEPENDING UPON GOAL.
STAGE THREE – GOAL ADJUSTMENTS
Okay, so you have now predicted how many calories are required to maintain current body mass. However, as you are reading this article I assume you are interested in either increasing your muscle mass or decreasing body fat.
Below are the suggested rates of muscle gain and fat loss based upon the guidelines put forward by Alan Aragon. Remember there will be inter-individual difference with regards to rate of of muscle gain (especially in those new to resistance training).
Those who may wish to gain at a quicker rate than suggested may find that this comes with an increased risk of fat mass accumulation. Whereas, those who may wish to lose at a quicker rate than suggested may find that this comes with a greater risk of muscle mass loss.
A typical strategy to decrease body mass is to utilise a weekly 3500kcal deficit to lose 0.5kg (1lb) of fat/body mass per week. Alternatively, some individuals may opt for a more aggressive strategy via a 1000kcal daily deficit.
However, caution must also be used with the utilisation of a higher than required deficits, as there is a risk that such an increase could result in increased lean mass loss in athletic individuals, especially those already lean. Further consideration must be given also to when contact sessions are increasingly implemented over the pre-season period, as collision based training increases energy expenditure, which can therefore influence the energy deficit initially implemented.
Based upon Alan Aragon’s suggested rates of loss outlined in the table above, I would encourage you to individualise any nutritional strategy.
STAGE FOUR – STRUCTURE
Now total calorie intake has been approximately calculated, how is this structured day to day?
Can you individualise your approach?
Here are how linear and non-linear methods can be applied to both muscle gain and fat loss diets.
This would be considered a linear approach, as calorie intake is the same each day of the week.
For example, if maintenance kcal intake is 3000kcal and you are looking to lose 0.5kg per week then you would need to decrease weekly intake by 3500kcal. This on average over the week would require a 500kcal daily deficit, which would bring your average daily intake to 2500kcal.
Again, this would be considered a linear approach as calories are consistently the same for each day.
For example, if your maintenance kcal intake is 3000kcal and you are looking to gain 0.5kg per week then you would need to increase weekly intake by an additional 3500kcal.
This on average over the week would require an additional 500kcal per day on top of maintenance kcal (3000kcal), which would bring your average daily intake to 3500kcal.
This would be considered a non-linear or undulating approach, as caloriel intake varies across the days of the week.
For example, if your maintenance kcal intake is 3000kcal and you are looking to lose 0.5kg per week then you would need to decrease weekly intake by 3500kcal.
This on average over the week would require a 500kcal per day reduction from maintenance daily intake, which would bring your average daily intake to 2500kcal. However, the intensity/volume of training sessions (e.g. weights, conditioning, skills) or rest day would require varying amounts of daily energy intake. Therefore, you could vary your energy intake over different days to accommodate this, but when averaged out over the week you would still be in a 3500kcal deficit.
This also would be considered a non-linear or undulating approach, as kcal intake varies across the days of the week.
For example, if your maintenance kcal intake is 3000kcal and you are looking to gain 0.5kg per week then you would need to increase weekly intake by an additional 3500kcal. As above, this on average over the week would require an additional 500kcal per day on top of maintenance kcal (3000kcal), which would bring your average daily intake to 3500kcal.
However, to fuel appropriately for the varying intensity/volume of your training sessions you could consider varying your energy intake over different days to accommodate this. When averaged out over the week you would still be in a 3500kcal surplus.
A typical strategy to increase body mass is to utilise a weekly 3500kcal surplus to add 0.5kg (1lb) of muscle/mass per week. Technically muscle is not the same as fat, as there is only 800kcal in 1lb (0.5kg) of muscle. Having said this it is an energy costly process to build muscle, so an additional kcal buffer from 3500 kcal can assist this muscle building process.
Caution must also be used with the utilisation of a higher than required surplus, as there is a risk that such an increase could result in excessive additional fat accumulation. Interestingly, it has been suggested that a 200-300kcal day surplus is more appropriate than 500kcal per day for individuals who have been resistance training for some years, as their rate of muscle gain will be much slower, and the smaller surplus will minimise fat mass gain.
Based upon the above suggested rates of muscle gain and fat loss outlined in the table above, I would encourage you to individualise your nutritional strategy.
It is important that once you have implemented your nutrition strategy that you then regularly monitor and re-evaluate your progress. The data derived from monitoring body mass and body composition can highlight whether calorie intake needs to be increased, decreased or kept the same according to how you have progressed thus far.
I have previously outlined on how to monitor progress. For a in-depth guide, please read this article.
I would encourage all players to track both gym and conditioning progress, whilst additionally some individuals may also wish to track daily wellness data to provide further insight.
It is also important to appreciate the inter-individual variation in response to dietary strategies, which can influence the rate of progression. For example, when non-obese adults were overfed by 1000kcal above maintenance for 8 weeks, on average only 4.6kg body was was gained, with weight gained ranging 1.4-7.2kg. You would roughly expect to gain around 1kg of body mass when overfeeding 1000kcal, which would equate to an estimated 8kg gain over 8 weeks.
Why wasn’t this so?
The energy expended from Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, otherwise known as NEAT (energy expended through fidgeting, maintaining posture and spontaneous/non-planned activity) varied from -98 to +692kcal. This therefore unknowingly reduced the size of the imposed surplus, which would explain why less weight was gained than expected.
A further consideration with regards to maintaining your target calorie surplus must be given if contact sessions are increasingly implemented over the pre-season period, as collision based training increases energy expenditure.
Struggled with gaining body mass or muscle mass? I have previously talked about common issues for the hardgainer and how to overcome them (read here).
When muscle gain and nutrition are discussed initial thoughts typically turn towards protein. As you shall read during this section, protein intake is indeed important.
First a little theory to set the scene with the goal to help you understand how muscle is built over time.
Let me introduce you to two key processes:
MUSCLE PROTEIN SYNTHESIS (MPS)
MUSCLE PROTEIN BREAKDOWN (MPB)
A common analogy utilised to explain their role is that of a wall.
How does this apply?
Well, think of your muscle as a wall. The bricks that comprise this wall can be compared to proteins. MPS is the process of building the wall by adding bricks (protein), whereas MPB is the removal of bricks (protein).
When at rest, and in a fasted state, the rate of MPB is greater than MPS, which results in a negative net protein balance. However, when protein is consumed there is a transient increase in MPS above rates of MPB, resulting in a positive net protein balance
Following resistance exercise MPS rates are primed for an increased sensitivity to protein feeding. The elevated rates of MPS remain above resting levels for 48 hours within non-resistance trained individuals, whilst persisting for up to 24 hours in resistance trained individuals. It is the repeated accumulation of resistance training, protein feeding and periods of positive protein balance over time that leads to muscle hypertrophy (increase in muscle size).
DAILY PROTEIN INTAKE
During pre-season professional rugby union players been reported to consume on average daily protein intakes of around 2.5g per kg of body mass. Individual intake ranged from 1.6 – 4.0g per kg of body mass in European rugby union players and 1.5 – 2.9g per kg of body mass in Australian rugby players. Note: Caution should be utilised when interpreting the protein intakes of the above European and Australian rugby players as we do not know their individual goals.
To give some context to the above numbers, 0.8g per kg of body mass is the recommended daily intake to cover the needs of 97.5% of the population. However, this is the intake to avoid protein insufficiency and therefore cannot be considered applicable to athletes seeking to optimise adaptation to training.
For individuals engaged in resistance training when eating at maintenance or in a calorie surplus a protein intake of 1.6 – 2.2g per kg of body mass is recommended. For rugby union players, this will typically toward the end of this range at 2.0 to 2.2g per kg of body mass. However, daily protein requirements may be higher than this when in a calorie deficit ranging from 2.3 – 2.7g per kg of body mass.
It is important to ensure that protein intake is not set unnecessarily high, as this could impact upon the total consumption of other macronutrients (carbohydrate and fat). For example, the underconsumption of carbohydrate could impair high-intensity performance.
Okay so we have covered what the importance of MPS and MPB and their role in the development of muscle, but what happens to these processes during energy restriction?
When within an energy deficit MPS has been found to be the main adaptive mechanism with a decrease in MPS rates found, with MPB pretty much unchanged.
Why is MPS reduced in such conditions?
Building muscle is a energy costly process. It has therefore been put proposed that in the face of energy restriction your body induces a “compensatory decrease in energy-consuming processes …with a greater relative proportion of amino acids catabolised for energy production“.
A focus of the nutritional and training intervention should therefore be to minimise the decline in MPS. This can be achieved by implementing a resistance training programme and an elevating protein intake above maintenance needs.
Where possible an emphasis should be placed upon quality weight loss, with a decrease in fat mass and increase in fat-free mass. Three key influences upon such an approach include:
INDIVIDUAL FEEDING PROTEIN DOSE
So, how much protein is required in a single meal or snack to optimise the MPS response?
Is this a saturable process?
The consumption of 20g of protein (around 0.25g per kg of body mass) was found to maximally stimulate MPS, with no statistically significant benefit by ingesting a larger 40g protein dose amongst healthy individuals with a range of training experience and trained individuals. With MPS found to be optimised at 20g, protein intakes higher than this were oxidised at a higher rate or utilised for other processes within the body.
Interestingly, recent research has suggested that a 40g protein dose is superior to 20g in optimising MPS post whole body resistance training, with the 40g dose displaying a 20% greater response.
Why the difference?
It is important to highlight that the greater amount of muscle mass recruited (whole body resistance training) compared to the previous (lower body training only) may have therefore required a greater demand for protein to optimise MPS.
Although initial suggestions stated that a protein dose of 0.25g per kg of body ass would optimise MPS, this has since been increased to 0.4g per kg of body mass to account for inter-individual variation.
Protein content of example foods:
Protein content of common vegetarian protein sources:
Protein is comprised of building blocks, otherwise knowns as amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, with 11 considered non-essential (synthesised within the body) and 9 essential (required via dietary intake). Proteins can be ranked according to their quality based upon 2 important criteria:
(1) Essential Amino Acid (EAA) Composition
EAA play an important role in the stimulation of MPS, with around 10g of EAA (equating to 20g protein) found to optimally stimulate MPS. The EAA composition of a protein source is therefore predictive of its ability to stimulate MPS, with particular focus upon the indispensable amino acids content. However, “the leucine content of a protein is the strongest determinant of the capacity of a protein to affect MPS and likely hypertrophy”.
Why is this so?
Well, the EAA leucine is often refereed to as the metabolic trigger that bring about a rise in MPS. Therefore, it is important that if looking to optimise MPS you consume foods rich in all EAA, with leucine being of particular importance.
(2) Digestion/Absorption Properties
Quite simply, this refers to how quickly a protein source can be broken down, enter the blood and be utilised by muscle for MPS. The benefit of rapid digestion would enable a quick increase in amino acid concentration, and in particular leucine to trigger MPS. One of the faster digesting protein sources is whey protein, with casein protein considered a slower digesting protein source. Both are considered high quality protein sources due to their EAA content with leucine making up 12.5% of total protein within whey and 8.5% of total protein within casein. However, it is important to consider that the majority of daily protein intake will be via meal consumption, not supplemental protein, which therefore will result in the co-ingestion of other macronutrients, which can influence the meal digestion rate.
Table data as reported by Van Vliet et al., (2015)
When compared to animal-based protein, plant-based sources are typically of a lower EAA content – see the table above. Additionally, plant-based protein have a lower digestibility than animal protein sources. Therefore, via the previously discussed criteria of assessing protein quality, plant-based protein sources can be considered of lower quality. However, this is not to say they cannot be of use – they certainly can and they can make up some quite tasty meals! However, you have to be a bit more mindful of putting your meal together, as a common solution is to combine sources to build a complete EAA profile.
If incorporating plant-based protein sources within your dietary intake, it is important to mindful that you will require a greater overall protein serving to match the EAA content of that seen in animal protein sources. Note that the the lower content of protein/EAA seen within the majority of plant-based protein sources typically also comes with a higher calorie content, typically via increased carbohydrate.
A common misconception when it comes to protein intake is the belief that more is better. You may have seen at some point the individual with the Tupperware cramming in some protein on the hour. Such people are of the belief that continually consuming protein via high meal frequencies will continually stimulate MPS and lead to continued muscle mass gains – if only!!
The ‘muscle full effect’ suggests that in the face of continued protein feeding the muscle will eventually become refractory once maximally stimulated, with excess protein either oxidised for energy or utilised for other roles within the body. Following the consumption of a saturable dose of protein, a 30 minute lag follows before a large increase in MPS, which peaks around 90 minutes before returning to baseline at roughly by 120mins, highlighting the transient nature of MPS . This is where the basis for protein feeding every 3-4 hours has been suggested to maximally stimulate rates of MPS.
As an analogy let’s take a light bulb …
An individual looking to leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of optimising their muscle gains may opt for distributing protein consumption every 3-5 hours over 4 to 6 protein containing meals/snacks throughout the day.
‘The anabolic window’ is a time period of great notoriety, particularly amongst resistance training individuals, where the timing of protein pre and post-training is considered immediately necessary for super-compensated muscular repair and remodelling.
The increased sensitivity of MPS to protein feeding following resistance training highlights that protein consumption following resistance training is of importance for those individuals with goals regarding increased muscle mass. However, such a short window of anabolic opportunity is not as narrow as the often mentioned 30-60 minute window.
Based upon the research it has been put forward that the timing and contents of the pre-workout meal dictate the timing needs of the next protein feeding due to the time course of digestion and absorption. The closer the meal is consumed to the training bout, the longer the time needed for post-training protein consumption due to the sustained delivery of amino acids.
Based upon previous findings of muscle protein stimulation every 3-4 hours, and the typical resistance training bout of most individuals lasting 60 minutes, individuals wishing to optimise their muscle gain efforts may look to consume protein 90mins pre-training and ensure protein within 90 minutes following training.
This can be adjusted based upon personal preference with regards to how close or far away you wish to consume a protein dose pre-training. Individuals opting for a large mixed meal (containing both protein and carbohydrate) should be aware that this may be digested and absorbed over a longer period of time (roughly up to around 5-6 hours).
This may further decrease the necessity for immediate post-training protein consumption if consuming a meal a couple of hours pre-training. For example, again based upon a 60 minute training session, if consuming a decent sized mixed meal 2 hours pre-training, one would look to consume protein within the 2-3 hours following training.
In the scenario that an individual opts to train fasted first thing in the morning prior to work, there should be an increased emphasis upon the timing of protein soon after the completion of training.
It is important to remember …
When setting up a diet for a body composition orientated goal once protein intake has been set, I then like to calculate fat intake and then fill the remaining calorie intake with carbohydrate.
Why is fat intake important?
Fats are an energy source for low intensity activity, an important part of cell membranes, aid the absorption of fat soluble vitamins and aid immune function. It is important that essential fats, omega-3 and omega-6, are included within the diet.
Below are just an example of some of the nutrient dense common sources of healthy fat:
The American College of Sports Medicine in their recent position stand recommend that fat intake should be between 20-35% of total energy intake. From experience working with a variety of athletes I would typically see fat intake at around 0.9 – 1.4g/kg/body mass depending upon the individuals preference and training schedule/demands.
For body composition, once protein and then fat intake has been calculated, I will then fill the rest of the calories with carbohydrate (this will change in-season where a focus is on performance and carbohydrate may be calculated earlier).
What does carbohydrate offer during pre-season?
Apart from tasting great, carbohydrate intake is an important fuel for high intensity activity.
If you are reading this then you know that pre-season is pretty intense! With both field and gym sessions being of decent intensity and volume it is important to to fuel appropriately. Chronically under-fuelling during pre-season may not only decrease training performance/progression, but may also suppress immune function, impair adaptation, increase susceptibility to injuries and resulting in potentially losing that place in the starting 15 when the season kicks off.
Previous recommendations have been put forward within the scientific research for individuals engaged in resistance training and looking to develop muscle mass and strength. This has seen a wide ranging intake of 3 to 8g per kg of body mass put forward.
For the rugby player engaged in regular pre-season training and resistance training then an intake of around 3 to 6g per kg of body mass may be a sensible initial starting point. Where you sit along this continuum will be based upon your goal (fat loss/muscle gain), training volume and training intensity and daily activity.
The key is to re-evaluate progress and make changes if necessary. This isn’t just based upon your body mass/composition monitoring, but also your training performance in the gym and out on the field. Initial dietary calculations only provide a starting point and should be regularly reviewed and adjusted where appropriate.
Example common carbohydrate sources:
CREATING THE CALORIE SURPLUS
So when comes to structuring the calorie surplus individuals often ask should this be via additional carbohydrate or fat?
With the popularity of high fat and lower carbohydrate intakes for weight management, individuals have become increasingly conscious of carbohydrate intake making them increase fat mass.
However, I want you to read this next sentence very carefully.
Carbohydrate consumption being the sole reason for fat gain is a common myth, as increases in body mass are due to the over-consumption of energy intake (calories), and not necessarily a single macronutrient group.
The majority of the time diet setup comes down to personal preference – what can you adhere to? However, as a rugby union player you should always have an eye on performance. The primary fuel for the high intensity efforts is carbohydrate. It would therefore make sense to consider building your calorie surplus through increased carbohydrate to fuel training performance.
I didn’t want to end this article without a mention of the importance of micronutrients, which sometimes can be overlooked. To support not only your training, but also your health, it is important to include a variety of nutrients within your dietary intake.