While the principles of healthy eating apply to athletes and non-athletes alike, it is widely accepted that athletes have particular nutritional requirements for performing at their peak. Sports nutrition is a growing science and is now a degree program in some universities. Sports nutritionists are regularly employed by professional sporting teams and clubs to ensure that athletes are doing all that is possible to fuel themselves efficiently for their activities.
Rugby League is a strenuous and physically demanding sport that is played primarily in Australia, New Zealand, and England. The game is characterized by the strength, skill, and speed of its players, and combines ball movement, both kicking and passing, running, and heavy tackling. Teams score points by grounding the ball over their opposition’s try-line, by kicking ‘conversions’ after a try, by kicking penalty goals, or by kicking field goals. Games are 80 minutes long, with a half-time break, and are played by two teams of 13 players and 4 reserves.
A Rugby League year is divided into three phases: the pre-season, the season, and the off-season. At the professional level, the off-season is very short: only 1-2 months.
The game itself is physically demanding due to its physical nature, but as it is played in short bursts of activity, it is unlikely to deplete fuel resources. Players themselves are generally muscular and strong. There is now only a slight difference in the body types of forwards and backs, with forwards being slightly bigger, with a higher percentage of body fat.
These days, Rugby League clubs are more often employing the services of a sports nutritionist, although entrenched cultural values, including drinking with teammates, mean their efforts are not always as successful as they could be. Astute clubs provide dietitians for their young members, teaching them about appropriate foods and how to prepare them. Rugby League players require a diet that focuses on supplying energy through nutrient-dense carbohydrates, with moderate amounts of lean protein, such as lean meat, along with smaller amounts of fat and refined sugars. While Rugby League is not as taxing on the aerobic energy system as other football sports, players must work hard to renew their carbohydrate stores between training and game time to perform optimally.
Many players struggle with maintaining an optimal balance between gaining muscle mass without gaining excess body fat. Fad diets or the latest “muscle-building supplements” should be avoided in favor of considered eating habits. The extra kilojoules required for “bulking up”, should come from low-fat, carbohydrate-rich foods like low-fat yogurt, bananas, or cereal, rather than from alcohol, high-fat or high-sugar foods.
Before matches, players should consume a light, high-carbohydrate meal such as breakfast cereal and fruit, sandwiches, light pasta, or potato. Fluid intake is vital before and during matches to reduce the risk of dehydration and to ensure skill and judgment are not impaired.