Rugby Union Pre-Season Nutrition (Part 1): Expectations & Goal Setting
Pre-Season – An often perceived torturous time of year, which brings back flashbacks of gruelling sessions from years gone by. However, there is method behind the madness. This period of time represents an opportunity for all players to enhance their physical attributes and condition, which will enable them to be in the best possible condition for the rigours of the forthcoming competitive season.
The purpose of this article series is to provide you the reader with insight in the role nutrition can play in pre-season, particularly with regards to body composition goals. What shall we be covering?
Article 1 – Expectations & Goal Setting
Article 2 – Monitoring Body Composition
Article 3 – Muscle Gain
Article 4 – Fat Loss
Article 5 – Supplement Considerations
Goal of Pre-Season
Typically 8-12 weeks in duration, pre-season is a period of time where players will look to enhance their physical fitness, whilst optimising body composition for the forthcoming season. Programmes will typically consist of resistance training, conditioning, skills and tactical sessions – all varying in frequency/intensity/volume depending upon the club’s approach. The focus of this nutrition series moving forward will be upon body composition, rather than the specifics of fuelling the training programme, although elements of this shall be briefly discussed.
Typically, body composition orientated goals will fall into three main categories:
Muscle gain and fat loss.
To simplify this process moving forward, if you are an athlete looking to ‘bulk up’, then I shall assume that you wish to gain muscle mass and refer you to the content covered in article 3 after having read article 1 and 2. If you are a player that is looking to lose weight, then I shall assume that you wish to lose fat mass and refer you to the content further covered in article 4.
A common question that I get asked is, “Can you gain muscle and lose fat at the simultaneously?”. The simple answer … yes you can, however this comes with a BUT. What do I mean by this? Well, the ability to build muscle will be influenced by the individuals age, training status and genetic potential (I assuming you have well designed training programme already). For example, if you are younger individual, or have limited resistance training experience, then you could expect a decent rate of muscle gain. This is where the phrase, “newbie gains” comes from. Whereas, if you are an older individual, or an athlete with advanced weight lifting experience, then you may expect to gain muscle at a much slower rate. When in a calorie deficit a lean (lower body fat) advanced resistance training individual may expect to lose muscle mass or in the best case maintain muscle mass. For the record, although there appears to be an influence of genetics upon our muscular potential, this is not an excuse that you are the individual that just cannot build muscle. You can still obtain a respectable physique with resistance training and appropriate nutrition. The simultaneous gain of muscle mass and fat mass shall be covered further in article 4 of this series.
Body Composition of Rugby Union Players
Research has shown that both the mean body mass and body mass index (BMI) of forwards and backs has significantly increased at the Rugby World Cup since 1987. You don’t have to be a researcher to realise this. Simply looking at the modern day player you can gather this. A desirability for an increase in muscle mass to enhance strength and power development, combined with an ever increasing match physicality, highlights why rugby union players should look to optimise their body composition. With the desire to enhance their performance it is common for players to state their intention to ‘bulk up’. I would however caution against ‘bulking up’ in the instance where fat mass is accumulated due to it increasing the energy cost of activity (carrying greater load around the park), whilst resulting in an inability to work repeatedly at high intensities. Am I saying that front row players should look like fitness magazine cover models – no? An acceptable amount of fat is obviously position specific. However, if the accumulation of additional fat mass decreases strength/power to weight ratio, or the player cannot get around the field, then this is obviously going to compromise performance.
The body mass of professional rugby union players seems to remain relatively stable throughout the season, although this is highly individual. However, it has been shown that fat mass may increase, whilst lean mass may decrease. This makes sense, as during the season resistance training frequency/volume is typically lower due to a focus upon competition preparation, performance and recovery. This therefore further highlights the importance of a solid pre-season to optimise body composition prior to the competitive season commencing.
With the words of ‘bulking up’ or ‘leaning out’ ringing in some players ears, often based upon instruction from coaches, support staff, team-mates or family members, expectations can often become unclear and in some instances unrealistic. Thankfully the scientific research within rugby union has accelerated over recent years, which can allow us to inform the the physical preparation, performance and recovery of players. This therefore leaves the question, what body compositional change could be expected of rugby union players over a typical pre-season.
A relatively short observation period with a mean fat mass loss of 1.4kg over 4 weeks and 11mm skinfold decrease. With regards to fat-free mass a mean gain of 4.3kg was observed. It is important to reiterate that the above values are mean group changes and do not represent the individual player change over the 4 week period. An individual’s rate of change can be variable based upon numerous factors highlighted earlier. Furthermore, without knowing an individuals specific goals, makes it difficult to read much further into the data. The method of body composition assessment (skinfolds) is not without limitations, which shall be explored in the next article of this series – ‘Monitoring Body Composition’. I would therefore caution the interpretation of such body composition changes observed within these players over such a small pre-season duration. As you will see below within other studies of rugby union players, the fat-free mass gains within these players is surprisingly high for 4 weeks training. With regards to other measures, what was achieved above over 4 weeks was roughly the same as that achieved over 10-14 weeks within other professional rugby squads.
*= significant difference between pre and post
Again this study throws up a similar limitation to the previous, as only group average data is reported with no reference to data upon individual changes or their specific goals. On average body mass was relatively unchanged amongst forwards and backs. Skinfolds over the 10 weeks decreased by 5.6mm within the forwards and 5.1mm in the backs, bringing about a reduction of body mass by 0.8% in both positional groups. Finally mean fat-free mass was also increased by 0.9kg and 0.7kg within both forwards and backs respectively.
* = significant difference from baseline to end of pre-season
This study utilised an alternative body composition assessment method compared to the previous studies – Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA). This is considered to be a criterion method with enhanced validity and reliability. We shall expand upon this in the ‘Monitoring Body Composition’ article. However, again like both the above, the data is limited to reporting group average data with no reference to individual change or specific goals. However, over the 14 weeks on average players gained 1.1kg body mass and improved lean mass by 1.7kg.
*= significant main effect for time
Although the above table highlights group average data as measured by DEXA, this was also the first study to conduct individualised analysis of body compositional change during pre-season. What was found at an individual level? Well, three quarters of players decreased fat mass, whilst only one third increased lean mass. This could act as further evidence that it is difficult to add high rates of lean mass in individuals with already high levels of muscularity. However, we are limited in that we do not know an individuals goal over this pre-season period. Interestingly, 7/8 players who increased lean mass also had meaningful reductions in fat mass.
The rate of muscle gain or fat loss that was achieved over the above pre-seasons may surprise you, particularly of those individuals who had been resistance training for some years. The more advanced you become the slower the rate of muscle gain. The body compositional change over a 6 year period has been tracked via DEXA amongst 12 professional rugby league players based in the UK. It was suggested the mean overall change found could have been influenced by the varied resistance training status of the players observed. For example, when looking at individual change it was found that the 3 younger players (aged 17-20 years old), therefore of a lower training status, had the greater capacity to increase lean mass with gains ranging 7.0 – 9.3 kg lean mass. Whereas, a 30 year old player, who had been resistance training for some years, increased lean mass by only 3.7kg over 6 years – again we do not know individual goals over those 6 years. However this study adds further to support that the body compositional change of rugby players is influenced by: age, training status, genotype, previous injury, playing exposure, positional requirements and influence of coaching/support staff.
What is achievable?
We have highlighted above example body compositional changes of professional rugby union players. As you can see gaining muscle can take longer in some individuals than compared to others. It is therefore important to manage your expectations. Some players may have visions of a men’s or women’s fitness cover model body from the efforts of pre-season – unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like this, and is not necessary in some instances. Before getting into suggested rates of muscle gain or fat loss I want to further inform your expectations. Below is a graph which shows the influence of individuals who were considered regular resistance trainers consuming supraphysiological doses of testosterone combined with resistance training/no training or no testosterone and training/no-training.
Let’s put this in perspective over a 10 week training period consuming supraphysioligically high doses of testosterone, in combination with resistance training, resulted in a gain of 6.1kg of fat-free mass. That’s on average a weekly gain of 0.6kg fat-free mass in trained individuals. Compare this to the group who received no testosterone, but regularly engaged in resistance training, who gained only 1.9kg of FFM over 10 weeks of training. This works out at an average gain of 0.2kg fat-free mass per week. Overall, a 220% increase in fat-free mass was achieved consuming banned substances. Please note: This example has only been included to highlight the effects of banned substances compared to nutritional intake and what is realistically achievable. Athletes are not to utilise banned substances.
By now you should be aware that it is important to put in place realistic goals for body composition management during pre-season. When working with athletes I like to refer to the suggested guidelines outlined by Alan Aragon:
Now that we have established an expected rate of progress during pre-season, the next article in this pre-season nutrition series shall cover how to monitor and track body composition.