With the 6 Nations just fading from memory Matt Lovell the England Rugby Team’s Sports Nutritionist shows us how he prepares the squad nutritionist to be at their best. The techniques tips and strategies he advocates are suitable for other sportsmen and sportswomen desirous of weight loss and lean muscle gain.

Professional rugby has changed the sport dramatically and it’s well documented that players are bigger, fitter and stronger than ever, however rates of injury have also increased as the collisions have grown bigger. Commensurately the role of the sports nutritionist has changed and an increased focus is now placed on recovery and regeneration strategies as well as the traditional growth (bulking up) and fat loss protocols.

Pre-Season

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Nutrition

Most professional clubs have an eight-week block of hard pre-season training. As a sports nutritionist I will measure every player’s body composition as soon as this training phase starts. Every player is biochemically different and also has a different psychological profile, the upshot of this is that players come back in vastly different conditions.

We’re not talking about putting on three stones, like boxer Rickey Hatton does after a fight, but some players do return with a bit of ‘extra’ body fat. Those that come back a little bit ‘lardy’ start off on a fat-loss program. I make sure that their diet is cleaned up and they reduce the amount of starchy carbs (bread, pasta, potatoes and rice) they consume and replace them with lots of vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, these are filling but are less energy dense.

There is as much energy in one standard pitta bread as there is in 1Kg of broccoli! It’s easy to eat a couple of pitta breads, but imagine trying to eat 2kg of Broccoli. I believe that a lack of understanding about the energy density of food and how to fit that around your activity levels is where most club level athletes make mistakes. My team also ensures that the players are taking fish oil supplements, as this aids fat loss.

It’s also key to use virgin organic coconut oil as their prime source of dietary fat. You need to actively consume fat in order to lose fat, but if your body is starved of fat, then it’s more likely to hold onto it and break down muscle for extra energy.

Training

The training is adapted slightly with high intensity interval training in the evening at around 9pm (no food is to be eaten after that) and an extra cardio session as well first thing in the morning before breakfast. The body’s glycogen (a form of carbohydrate) stores are depleted first thing in the morning after sleeping after not having eaten for 12 hours, this means that the body switches to fat to fuel workouts.

Those that are set are hard and the players sweat loads. Due to depleted glycogen levels performance in speed and strength activities is reduced, but at this stage it’s not an issue as fat loss is the goal. I would expect a player to lose 4.5kg (10lbs) of fat in a 2-week intense period. Once a player is back to within acceptable levels of fat we move them into a growth and regeneration phase or if the player has come back in good shape then they start with growth and regeneration training.

“Every player is biochemically different and also has a different psychological profile”

Growth and Regeneration

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This is the area that most rugby players and lots of sportsmen and sportswomen are interested in, they want to build lean muscle mass and this helps with strength and power and will also increase confidence in some athletes. There is a lot of science involved in this area – glugging down protein shakes and eating cans of tuna and egg white omelets doesn’t cut the mustard in this day and age.

Although this is a start it’s not going to deliver rapid results, no matter how hard you are hitting the weights for example. My regeneration strategies cover six main areas and perhaps the most interesting is the  ability to manipulate your anabolic (growth) hormones through your diet and exercise strategies.

As soon as the words ‘manipulate your anabolic hormones’ are uttered many people start shifting uncomfortably in their seats and think steroids and other sorts of dangerous substances. However, nothing could be further from the truth, as just having a nap after an afternoon training session will naturally increase your growth hormone levels. Here’s an outline of the six phases of the ‘regenerate growth programme’ that I run the players through.

1) Pulsing your protein consumption: eat 3 meals with high protein content and 3 with lower protein content each day.

2) Cell Volumisation: cells are ‘pumped’ by using creatine and other supplements, this enables muscle cells ‘the room’ for new fibres to be produced, as a result of the microscopic damage that is done in response to tough weight training workouts.

3) Growth Hormone Manipulation: we produce growth hormone naturally and there are ways that we can produce more of it naturally. I mentioned an afternoon nap already and adding an extra set of lactate (lactate is produced at all exercises intensities, the higher the intensity, the greater the release) producing exercises at the end of your weights session e.g. 2030 reps at a light weight that produces a lot of ‘muscle burn’ will produce extra growth hormone.

4) Immune System Boosting and Recovery Strategies: when an athlete trains hard their immune system is often suppressed. In response the body will prefer to fight immune threats and make sure that it is fully functioning before it focuses on building extra muscle. Therefore improving your immune system and recovery increases muscle growth and allows the athlete to train harder in their next session.

5) Cortisol and testosterone manipulation: cortisol is a catabolic (eats into muscle protein, for example) hormone that is produced as a result of stress. One of testosterone’s abilities as an anabolic hormone lies with its ability to stop cortisol from working. So we aim to limit cortisol production and therefore ‘upregulate’ testosterones action. Adding a competitive element to your training session by working with a partner can help produce more testosterone.

6) Neurotransmitter support: this area of supplementation gets you into peak mental condition before and during your training sessions so you can for example, train harder lifting more and for longer in the weights room.

When these six areas are combined the net effect is a massive boost to your bodies anabolic ability and the results are often amazing even with athletes that have trained for years and are near to their genetic potential. However, an integrated approach can still deliver amazing results with mature players.

One case in point was Danny Grewcock England’s second row forward and ‘man mountain’). He’s 6ft 6in and 118 Kg. In a 10-week period following these strategies Danny was able to add 10kg of lean tissue and lose 4Kg of fat.

Preparing for Match Day

“We continue to monitor players’ body fat levels throughout the season to ensure that they are in top condition”

Once the season starts the focus turns to preparing players for matches and taking a very individualised approach. Often it depends on the demands of the position and the player’s role within the team. For example, a back row forward might find that he is fatiguing towards the end of the match, so we will look at strategies that might help him to buffer lactate and or delay the onset of fatigue by perhaps demands of any feature of the game.

This can be achieved by using alpha GPC. This is a naturally occurring choline compound that is found in the brain and in milk and has been shown to aid cognition and memory. When adopting any new plan we always make sure to test it in training first to ensure that there are no adverse effects. I must say at this stage that all these additional strategies need to be built on a sound foundation of a good clean diet otherwise it’s a bit like searching for a magic bullet.

Monitoring Body Fat Levels In Season

We continue to monitor players’ body fat levels throughout the season to ensure that they are in top condition, professional athletes are like the rest of the population and some are able to add fat very easily, while others can seemingly eat what they like and stay lean. Continually monitoring body fat levels helps players keep on top of their body composition.

During the season the challenge we have if the player needs to drop a few pounds – is how to do this and still maintain energy levels for a weekend game. This is achieved by ‘carbohydrate cycling’. On Monday after a Saturday game the players will reduce consumption of starchy carbs and do extra high intensity morning and evening cardio sessions, they will do this until the Wednesday night or Thursday morning, when they can then start adding more carbohydrate back into the diet.

This replenishes the carbohydrate glycogen stores in their muscles so they can perform at peak power. An added advantage of this approach is that it works as a form of ‘carb loading’, most people think carb loading just requires increased carbohydrate consumption in the 48 hours before a game or match, it’s not the case. First, you have to deplete your carbohydrate stores before topping them up.

Working this way the player may struggle in process. There are different supplements that have been shown to help repair wounds and speed up the healing process and even strengthen ligaments. Often when a player gets injured it’s usually an upper body injury or lower body injury, the ‘half’ that is not injured can still usually be exercised and concentration and focus shifted to this area to improve either muscle mass or strength.

So even though an injury can be devastating, additional fitness and strength can be made in other areas while the recovery process on the injured area is under way. Often players end up having to work longer and harder when they are injured and recovering from injury than when they are fit! This makes for a powerful reason not to get injured in the first place!

George Skivington, who is a second row forward for Wasps, is 6ft 6in and weighs around 115Kkg, earlier this season he was injured and only able to train half of his body. He added 4.2kg of muscle and dropped 2kg of fat in 6 weeks. Sportsmen and sportswomen from other sports and fitness trainers can use the above strategies I use with the England rugby team. However, the fat loss strategy should not be followed indefinitely and should only be used as and when needed.

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