As science continues to evolve, we’re constantly discovering more about the human body, and the complex ways nutrition contributes to our overall health. Following a hamstring injury, former Munster rugby player Jonny Holland went on to study Applied Sports & Exercise Nutrition, and now uses that knowledge to coach sportspeople, offering invaluable nutritional advice as well as running wellness workshops.
Though partaking in sport can range from a couple of gym visits a week, a fun game of tag rugby or five-aside to a more dedicated amateur or professional team commitment, Jonny says the body’s core needs are the same. “You need carbs for high intensity activity,” he begins. “You might not think your activity’s intense, but if you’re going to a spin class and your heart is going above a certain rate, you need carbs to perform.”
According to Jonny, there’s still plenty of misconceptions out there when it comes to both carbohydrates and fat. “A lot of amateur sportspeople think that to get in shape they’ve to cut their carbs, but I’d be careful doing that,” he says. “Professionals talk about the timing of food, but that might be irrelevant to your goal if you don’t control the total calories going in. Training for performance, like professional team sports or a marathon, you’d probably lean on carbs a bit more.” Think wholegrain bread, pasta, potatoes and rice. “Otherwise,” he continues, “you can split it whatever way you like – some people like more fatty foods. And when I say fatty, I mean the healthier types; avocado, cheese, things like that.”
Timing of food can be tricky, especially for the likes of GAA players, who are often balancing the sport with a full-time job. “Playing at senior level is tough,” Jonny notes. “Some clubs have two or three matches in a week, often back-back, night after night. It’s difficult, but you just need to be a bit more prepared, have your meals laid out.” Lots of players prefer not to eat a big dinner ahead of training, as it can affect their game. “It’s the meal between lunch and training time that people often struggle with,” says Jonny. “If you don’t want a big meal because you can’t digest it, have a snack about 4 or 5pm. If it’s late when you get home, try a smoothie with porridge oats, Greek yoghurt, chocolate milk, banana and berries. It’s a great one to get you recovering before bed. Sleep is important too, you don’t want to be up late at night trying to digest a full meal.”
For anyone struggling with a sports injury, there are certain foods that may speed up recovery, as Jonny explains. “After my injury, I made sure to get a lot of micro-nutrients,” he recalls. These are the vitamins and minerals we only need in small amounts, like fluoride, zinc, iodine, as well as vitamins A, D, E, K and B Complex. “Like anyone with a soft tissue injury,” he continues, “protein timing is important too. You should have a decent serving every three to four hours. Within the protein there’s an amino acid called leucine, which is the most important one for muscle protein response. After that, you need enough micro-nutrients to allow your body to repair. Anti-inflammatory foods like onion, garlic, pineapple and turmeric might help get you off crutches a week earlier, and that can then have a big effect on your position in the team. Nutrition gave me a focus after my injury, and allowed my body to recover. It’s about ticking the box in a positive sense, and giving yourself every chance.”