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Rugby Body or Body Beautiful?

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I was pondering what to write about in my first official blog for FindRugbyNow (if you exclude my introductory outing!) when earlier this week, I was out for a coffee with a friend of mine who showed me an article in one of her women’s magazines about body image, and how alarmed she is with the lengths that some women go to in order to achieve ‘the’ look. As a result, it got me thinking about discussions I have had with players in the past that are concerned about body image, which sparked a question in my mind – are some players sacrificing sound nutritional practices for rugby performance in order to achieve the ‘perfect’ body?

I have worked with players at all levels of the game that, at some stage, have attempted to alter their diet, without consultation of a qualified professional/coach etc., in order to ‘get ripped’ at all costs – and my question to them is always the same, ‘Is ‘getting ripped’ rugby specific nutrition?’ In all honesty, no! It isn’t! Rugby is a game where you need different physical attributes in varying positions on the park – being VERY general, Forwards are the powerhouses and the Backs supply the speed. You are never going to meet a Prop who has 5% body fat and ultra-lean, just as a Full Back is rarely going to have 18% body fat and carry excess bulk! (my apologies to any players out there that DO have these attributes in these positions – I am yet to meet you!) The fact is that they have totally different jobs on the field and so players that want the ‘ripped’ look may well be sacrificing performance come game time in order to chase the dream of being the body beautiful.

Now, I understand the need for body composition targets to be introduced in the modern, professional game, as ultimately, these lads are now highly-paid professionals whose main objective is to chalk up a ‘W’ come game day, and as such are subjected to rigorous training regimes, which would be counter-productive if they were ‘out of shape’. However, a worrying trend I am coming across more and more (not just rugby, but other sports I have been in involved in) is that I have seen this ‘hang up’ about body image filter down to youngsters that play the game. I’ve been asked by kids as young as 7 & 8 how they can lose fat! (!??!?). These children are nowhere near fully developed and are already concerned about body composition, which may be influencing their nutritional choices – and putting my nutritionist hat on for a second, this is a major concern! With the risk of repeating myself from my introductory blog, this is where nutritional education is paramount at all ages and levels of the game – to help avoid incidences of an individual’s or group’s perceived negative body image becoming more prevalent, particularly in the younger generations of players.

So, what are safe and correct nutritional practices when it comes to optimising rugby performance? Over the coming blogs I will be talking more in-depth amount amounts, timings and periodization of nutritional strategies etc. to help optimise performance, this is just a VERY brief outline of my methodology and thoughts…


This debate rages on and on! Ever since the explosion of the Atkins Diet, people have been swearing by a no carbohydrate diet (cutting out bread, pasta, rice, potatoes etc.) in order to lose weight – I, myself have had discussions with some players that have refused to eat carbohydrates as part of their diet, in fear of compromising their (or wanting to achieve a…) ‘ripped’ physique. So I will say this now:

YES, cutting out carbohydrates DOES help reduce body fat down, however, a no carbohydrate diet is NOT a sustainable way to maximise rugby performance as you ultimately need fuel for performance and recovery, which comes from…you guessed it, carbohydrate!

Research has shown that a combination of BOTH carbohydrate and protein after exercise may be more beneficial at preventing muscle protein breakdown than just protein alone. Not only is carbohydrate the body’s main energy source and a useful recovery tool, research has also shown that a lack of carbohydrate ingestion after bouts of prolonged physical activity (i.e. – training/game) actually increases your risk of contracting an upper respiratory infection (a common cold, in non-medical terms!) and a weakened immune system. So for all you guys and girls that swear by eating/drinking nothing but protein after a game – chuck some baked beans, or a jacket potato on your plate (or whatever carbohydrate is on offer in your clubhouse post-match) to enhance your recovery and decrease your risk of getting a sore throat or the flu!

Some nutritionists lead with other methods – for example a ‘Fat Adaption’ diet (essentially replacing all carbohydrate with fat in the diet as the main energy source for the body). Now, I am certainly not criticising these methods – I know some nutritionists that swear by fat adaption diets and there is a small amount of research to suggest that this method has worked in some athletes, however I have always been taught to lead with the research, and the positives for carbohydrates in the diet far outweighs that of the fat adaption method. If a player needs to reduce body fat down, then yes, I would take a look at the amount and frequency of their carbohydrate consumption and alter accordingly, but I would NEVER recommend cutting carbohydrate out completely!

Overall, I don’t believe that ‘unsafe’ or ‘dangerous’ dieting is a widespread issue amongst players just yet, however, I am certainly seeing an increase (particularly in younger athletes) that are wanting to alter their diet so that ‘being ripped’ is THE main goal, no matter the cost to performance, or in certain circumstances, health. I might sound like a broken record here, but nutrition education and awareness really is the key to combating this potentially growing problem in the game.

By: Chris Curtis, BSc (Hons), ANutr, SENr

About ccurtis

Sports Nutritionist - who writes a monthly Rugby Nutrition blog for FindRugbyNow. Also at the moment work alongside West Ham FC Academy, have previously worked for Saracens, Newcastle Falcons and the RFU & England Rugby team Nutritionist. In addition, I run my own company (Total Nutrition Ltd.) that works alongside NHS/public health/education sectors educating communities (both children & adults) about the importance of nutrition. View all posts by ccurtis

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