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Are you underperforming?

A lot of athletes may be underperforming without really knowing. Dealing with large numbers of young athletes in a number of sports is great for noticing trends. Many athletes underperform without ever really examining or noticing the cause. There are many reasons why one might underperform and many ways to spot it. A common issue which this article will focus on is the combination of under eating and over using high intensity training.

It may seem like an obvious problem but it can very easily occur in many athletes. Generally young athletes serve two masters. The first is their appearance. Young athletes want to look in shape and the media has had its fair influence on expectations of appearance and how to achieve it. In addition athletes want to get picked for their team and move on to higher levels of competition. The mix of the two creates an usual issue which leads to a number of problems down the road.

When athletes become concerned with appearance, an obsession with diet and their image becomes a big part of their lifestyle. The first thing that happens is they can become very concerned with eating too much and specifically start becoming concerned with carbohydrate intake. They also start worrying about body fat levels on a constant basis. Slight fluctuations in weight make them very concerned. Quite often their bodyweight and bodyfat levels may genuinely be higher than optimal. From a coaching perspective diet logs become the first point of reference. That’s the first giveaway. The athletes more often than not, are eating significantly less than expected and too little to perform well, yet they have less than optimal body composition.

When team selection draws near, athletes will look for an edge to get ahead of their peers. Often this involves adding training sessions outside of their training program. These sessions are commonly of quite high high intensity, most likely due to the massive media attention on the benefits of high intensity training on body composition and conditioning levels. Athletes also feel their sessions are more beneficial if they feel completely exhausted after. The implications of extra, high intensity work should be fairly obvious as the recovery demands are increased massively. Endurance athletes may also train out of their training zones. Designated intensity for a session will be ignored in an effort to work harder and hopefully reap the rewards.

In real life the combination of the above factors can be hard to spot but tends be quite recognizable once you put the clues together. Athletes will generally start with a stagnation in performance measures. Usually modest enough to not cause concern. Alarm bells usually ring when performance drops but not nearly as much when performance remains stable even with little or no improvements. The athlete tends to be irritable, somewhat fatigued but not to the point of raising any attention to how they feel. Usually it can only be noticed on casual questioning. In some cases the athlete will show slightly elevated bodyfat and possibly even bodyweight in comparison to norms. They are also usually pretty conscious of this and claim to be making dietary changes to manage it responsibly.

At face value nothing is extreme to cause major alarm. That’s possibly why the issue goes unnoticed. Two things need to happen in order to correct the situation. The first relates to training. It is massively important for the athlete to manage their training. They must stick to designated zones and avoid additional work. This takes out some of the recovery demands. The program should have a decent volume of low intensity work and a nice balance with the higher effort work. Additionally lower intensity work will improve fat utilization and body composition, something which may not occur if Glycolysis is the main energy system in use.


The second strategy is a little more dependent on the level of severity. If an athlete drastically under eats, they must immediately address this by increasing energy and or macronutrient intake as needed. In some cases changes can be slow as alterations in training may be enough to re-establish an adequate balance. These changes can be enough to release the brakes on their progress. It can often be met with apprehension by the individual. Training less and eating more is counterintuitive to most, but can be a simple fix.

Many of the above seem obvious and logical. It is perhaps the most common occurrence with skilled athletes who have taken a dip in form. Combine these issues with any sort of emotional stress and an over trained athlete will rapidly ensue. As a coach or an athlete it is important to think critically and logically when dealing with performance. Issues are often hidden in plain sight but ignored. Mentally tough athletes are often the hardest to manage as they suppress concerns which are quite genuine. Mature athletes are often ones who make mistakes and learn from them. They learn to recognize clues before issues occur. It is important to really learn to read the signs an individual displays. This is a skill in itself. Often a training log can be the best tool in managing your own individual performance or that of an athlete you work with. Taking time to evaluate things objectively can be more beneficial than any sort of training or dietary intervention.


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Recovery Review: Cryospa!

I recently had the opportunity to have a session in a Cryospa. Cold therapy is nothing new. It is perhaps the most utilized method of recovery in one form or another. Ice baths and ice packs have been used for decades to treat minor and acute injury and help athletes recover from tough sessions. There are now much more advanced forms of cold therapy commercially available. We have many new tools such as cold compression/pump garments and cryospas. The cryospa is very much like an ice bath except it has integrated water jets. This allows for a steady flow of cold water around the body. In the past the water adjacent to the skin would warm up a little with body heat. While a very small factor, this has now been overcome. In addition these jets help add a massage effect into the mix.

First a little theory behind cold therapy. The main mechanism is thought to be vasoconstriction. In reaction to cold stimulus our body constricts blood vessels to reduce blood flow to cold regions of the body. It redirects blood flow through vasodilation back to the core to help maintain core body temperature by reducing the blood’s exposure to cooler temperature. Doing this is thought to help reduce swelling around injuries and also force metabolites in the blood produced from heavy exercise away from the muscle. It is also thought that once the cooled areas begin to warm blood flow is increased as constriction ceases. It is theorized that this returning blood from the body’s core and organs is oxygenated and carries a fresh supply of nutrients to help aid recovery. For this reason cold is often used in conjunction with heat which has the opposite effect of promoting bloodflow.

Cooling the body is thought to help switch the body from sympathetic to parasympathetic. In short it goes from fight mode to rest mode. This should help athletes to relax and sleep after exercise. It will also allow digestion to become more efficient helping refuel the body. This downregulation of the body’s nervous system can be very important in the recovery from exercise as this is when adaptation is most likely to occur.

Ice Baths are one of the most popular forms of recovery.

Ice Baths are one of the most popular forms of recovery.

While there are some solid theories and evidence behind the use of cold therapy there is also some conflicting research. Some argue that cold therapy may interfere with the body’s natural recovery mechanisms. This review will not become a critical analysis but it is important to note there is some valid disagreement in the literature.

In order to get the most out of the session I decided from my own knowledge and opinion that it was muscle soreness I wanted to examine. Soreness from training or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is extremely common in athletes. In the days prior to the session I decided I would try and induce as much DOMS as possible so I could see how the cryopsa helped reverse or reduce it. I did the things I know cause soreness for me and it was not a schedule I would recommend to anyone. It was designed purely to enduce soreness and not for any training benefit. My training looked like the following.

Day 1- Lower body strength training (Focus on Intensity)

            5X5 Heavy deadlift @85%approx with 2-3 minute rest

            3X 15 Split squat supersetted with Walking lunges with 1 minute rest

            3X Rounds of 5 reps Front squat @50%, 10 Jump squats, 15 bodyweight squats with 1min rest

Day 2- Sprint intervals

            10X 20m sprint walk return rest

            5X 200m with two minute rest

Day 3- 60minute TT cycle with hills.

I was sore after day one but day two and three really built upon that initial session. After the cycle on day 3 my legs felt dead and aching. I felt tight and my glutes and quads had definite soreness moving around. Range of motion was also quite poor due to the tightness. On the afternoon of Day 3 I had my session in the spa.

The spa itself can be filled with epsom salts and magnesium which are also thought to help increase rates of recovery. I was given little neoprene booties to keep my toes from going numb. The water temperature was 4°C. Stepping into the spa was pretty unpleasant as expected. I felt winded and wanted out. This died down after a minute. I was submerged up to waist level but it can also be done with only ankle and knee submersion or all the way up to the shoulders. The whole cycle lasted 10minutes with the jets on full blast. The jets definitely made it feel colder than a standard DIY ice bath.

The spa was pretty user friendly despite the initial shock getting in.

The spa was pretty user friendly despite the initial shock getting in.

When I left the spa my legs were cold and a little numb. As the heat came back into them they definitely felt fresher than when I walked in. Over the course of the day as they heated back up I didn’t really notice any major soreness which was different to before I completed the session. It almost felt like the cycle session was removed from my week in terms of it’s after effects. The dull throb and deadness was gone from my legs and I felt a bit freer moving around. I did feel a little stiff still and there was still a bit of soreness but not quite as bad as before. I would love to have done some performance measure but there is plenty of literature out there and I wasn’t looking to do a full experiment. This was to satisfy my own thoughts and curiosity.

Legs were pretty numb leaving the spa but quickly warmed up.

Legs were pretty numb leaving the spa but quickly warmed up.

The bottom line is I have some doubts on cold therapy as with most things. In saying that I genuinely felt the spa session took an edge off my soreness. If I had full access I would definitely utilize it on a regular basis. This is a very subjective opinion but one cannot discredit the mental impact of recovery. If an athlete feels better and fresher regardless of their actual physiological recovery it is a major benefit.

Different things work for different people and there are tools and methods I simply find useless. The Cryospa is not one of those. I highly recommend trying it or something similar. See how you feel and if it works for you. A lot of being an experienced athlete is trial and error and simply learning your body. A certain amount of individual experimentation is necessary to do so.

I would like to thank Bodyright Physiotherapy ( and Cet Cryospas ( for the opportunity to try something new. I hope some of those who read this may find my experience useful to them and encourage them to experiment with things for themselves.

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Meal timing and frequency


We were asked by a reader to discuss meal timing and frequency, the pros cons of different strategies. There is no one definitive answer to what is better, three square meals, six spaced evenly through the day or intermittent fasting etc. It all depends. The best diet is the one which best suits your goals given your circumstances. I’ll discuss a few scenarios which may shed some light on what works best and when.

Scenario 1: Traditional Three square meals.

In this case the daily caloric and nutrient needs must be achieved through three meals. For most athletes this would mean meals would need to be quite large. Larger meals need more time to digest. If an athlete is undertaking multiple training sessions in a day the timing of these three meals may cause issues. The athlete must leave adequate time for digestion while also ensuring they are fueled for the next session. In some cases this may be possible but there would be many athletes for whom this would be impractical.

Scenario 2: Six meals spaced evenly.

In this scenario the athlete is pretty much eating before and between all sessions. This is probably more beneficial as they are fueled for activity as well as eating to recover. The smaller meals would allow faster digestion and can potentially avoid issues through choosing foods which are low in bulk or digest quickly. For high level athletes this may be difficult, as finding time to prepare and actually eat the meal could be difficult, especially in the case where an event may last several hours during a single day


Turkish weightlifter and Olympic hopeful Mete Binay, 27, poses in front of his daily meal intake in Ankara May 29, 2012. Binay is a world champion weightlifter and his daily diet is 3500 kcal. He drinks at last two glasses of milk every night. His diet is largely composed of red meat. He consumes plenty of sweet desserts everyday and takes care never to miss a full breakfast. Binay is also keen on organic food. Shortly before competitions he begins to supplement his diet with ergogenic aids and vitamin pills. Picture taken May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkish weightlifter and Olympic hopeful Mete Binay, 27, poses in front of his daily meal intake in Ankara May 29, 2012. Binay is a world champion weightlifter and his daily diet is 3500 kcal. He drinks at last two glasses of milk every night. His diet is largely composed of red meat. He consumes plenty of sweet desserts everyday and takes care never to miss a full breakfast. Binay is also keen on organic food. Shortly before competitions he begins to supplement his diet with ergogenic aids and vitamin pills. Picture taken May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

In both scenarios there are issues and benefits. Eating regularly can become a chore but leaving long periods between meals will promote hunger and cravings. From a physiological perspective foods have functions which must be considered in relation to the timing of their consumption. Carbohydrate is an essential fuel for exercise. For that reason glycogen stores must be at optimal levels when competing. In training however, exercising in a glycogen depleted state can promote fat utilization, an extremely beneficial process for an endurance athlete. Such athletes may consider low carbohydrate meals prior to some training sessions.

Protein plays a major role in recovery, so a fast digesting protein source, post training, is important to start this process. Fatty meats tend to digest slower and may want to be avoided in this case. Other micronutrients should be in good supply throughout the day.

There is no doubt that long periods without eating are problematic. They cause nutrients to be depleted and promote hunger, irritability and cravings, issues which can be major distractions for athletes. There is some debate over insulin levels and blood sugar spiking through manipulation of diet. Generally insulin promotes absorption in cells so post training these spikes are not necessarily bad as they promote recovery through rapid absorption of sugars into the cells. During rest, glycogen stores are replenished, sugar is not being burned as fuel and cannot be stored as glycogen. In this case it is stored as fat. This is not good for athletes. For this reason fast digesting carbohydrate should be limited to periods during or post training. Outside of this time slower digesting carbohydrate should be eaten.

In the case of athletes needing to lose weight there is quite a lot of debate. Does an athlete need to lose fat or general mass? In the case of fat then they could utilize some fasted low intensity training. Bear in mind training in this state will hinder performance so if an athlete is undertaking a tough session then it should not be in a fasted state. If the athlete needs to reduce overall mass then a general caloric deficit is required. Again this should impact training as little as possible and so the bulk of calories should be consumed around the training session to allow for both performance and recovery. These strategies are discussed in a previous article.

In summary, how an athlete approaches their diet depends on their goals and individual circumstances. Ideally they must arrange their diet so that they adequately meet performance and recovery needs. They must do so in a way which is both practical and sustainable. This will keep them healthy. If they must manipulate body weight and/or composition then there are added considerations. In general timing the bulk of daily carbohydrate intake around training works best. Most athletes tend to find themselves having 2-3 larger meals interspaced with several large or small snacks. Schedule will greatly dictate how you approach meal timing and frequency. Experience will show you what works best for you.


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Protein and training


In the past couple of years, there has been a complete shift in Irish people’s attitudes towards sports supplements along with a noticeable surge in the popularity of bodybuilding and powerlifting. According to Bord Bia Periscope 2013, Irish people think of themselves as one of the healthiest nations in Europe – pretty ironic considering our rising levels of obesity. There has also been an explosion in the Health and Wellness Trend in Ireland in recent years. According to one EuroMonitor report titled ‘Sports Nutrition in Ireland’, there has been a 7% increase in Ireland’s sports nutrition industry with expectant continued growth over the next couple of years. With this upswing in the popularity of gym-going and strength training has brought a reciprocal increase in protein supplement use in the form of protein powders, bars and Ready-To-Drink (RTD).

Based on this premise, Irish companies are constantly searching for ways to tap into this lucrative protein sector with Avonmore having recently launched a popular protein milk and Glanbia having acquired the US protein bar company ‘ThinkThin’ for a humble $217 million only last month. These changes and developments in the Irish supplemental market typify the growth and success of this protein category which in my opinion will only increase with time as the consumer becomes more aware of the importance of protein in not only sports performance but also as research backing its effects on muscle synthesis and immune function grows.

What is Protein?

Protein is generally considered one of the most important food groups for human survival. Every day our body changes as cells grow, divide and die – these processes depend entirely on protein to supply the vital building blocks to our cells. These building blocks are scientifically known as ‘amino acids’ and when joined together form a ‘protein’. There are two types of amino acids in the body; ‘essential’ amino acids, which cannot be formed by the body and must be obtained from dietary food sources; and ‘non-essential’ amino acids which can be produced by the body itself. Protein coming from animal sources provides the majority of ‘essential’ amino acids. However, plant based proteins (seeds, lentils, vegetables and grains) may not offer all of these essential amino acids. It is, therefore, highly recommended for all vegetarians and vegans to eat a wide range of plant based foods to ensure that they receive all the essential amino acids needed to generate proteins in the body.


Turkish eggs on granary bread with spiced chick peas and spinach.

How much Protein do we need?

The recommended daily amount (RDA) of protein for healthy adults is 0.8g/kg of body weight per day but this is viewed as the minimum amount for the average sedentary adult. Many factors need to be considered when calculating the optimal amount of dietary protein for individuals that exercise daily such as the protein quality, energy intake, carbohydrate intake, type and intensity of exercise and timing of protein intake. Protein recommendations are generally calculated based on a nitrogen balance assessment and amino acid tracer studies. Nitrogen balance technique involves assessing the total amount of protein that enters the body through food consumption and the total amount of nitrogen expended.

It is recommended that if you exercise regularly or participate in more than 1 hour of moderate to high intensity exercise several times a week you should be consuming more protein than what is advised for a sedentary adult. The International Society of Sports Nutrition states that an active person should eat between 1.2 – 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight on the days that you exercise.

  • Those that participate in endurance activities (swimming, biking, running) should try to consume 1.2 -1.4g/kg of protein.
  • Whereas those involved in strength activities (weight lifting) should aim for 1.4 -2.0 g/kg of protein.

We are constantly being bombarded these days with articles in the Daily Mail and online on how a high protein diet is touted as unhealthy and can even lead to medical issues such as chronic kidney failure. Some have even cited that high protein diets can enhance the leaching of calcium and heighten an individual’s risk for osteoporosis. However, both of these theories are still unclear as there is no substantial evidence to suggest that protein intakes within the 1.2-2.0g/kg of body weight range will harm or even have an adverse effect in healthy, active individuals.


Post-gym protein smoothie- packed with berries, banana and a scoop of whey protein.

How to Up Your Protein Intake from Food Sources?

Although there are multiple protein supplements available in the Irish market, many athletes would rather eat whole foods to meet their protein needs. For instance a sedentary woman weighing 127 pounds will need about 46 g of protein per day – this can easily be achieved by eating a 3 oz chicken breast, 1 egg, a handful of almonds and a slice of cheddar cheese.

 Here is a list of common protein foods that can easily be consumed on a daily basis;

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Protein Supplements

When it comes to protein, most of us don’t need supplemental help and can easily meet our needs from a well-balanced diet. However, those that have above average protein needs and find they are not achieving the desired effects from exercise should consider protein supplementation.

The most important issue to consider when purchasing a protein supplement is its quality. This is the main reason why scientists came up with the ‘protein digestibility corrected amino acid score’ (PDCAAS) which tells you exactly how complete the protein is and how easily digestible it will be in order to attain the necessary amino acids. This scoring system rates protein from 0 to 1. For example egg whites actually have a score of 1 meaning they are fully complete in the 9 essential amino acids and are easily digested and absorbed. It is important that your protein powder supplement should score as close to 1 as possible.


  1. Whey protein exhibits the highest PDCAA out of all the protein powders because of its high levels of essential and branched chain amino acids to encourage muscle building during strength training. If you are looking for a protein that will help increase muscle and size then whey is the best powder. It is inexpensive and a high quality product that will reach your muscles faster leading to desirable results.
  2. Casein and soy protein isolate are also considered high quality sources and score with a value of 1.00 on the PDCAAS scale. Soy protein is an excellent alternative for vegans who can’t take whey or casein.
  3. Plant based proteins such as pea (0.69), rice (0.47) and hemp (0.46) score lower on the PDCAA scale as they don’t consist of all 9 essential amino acids. For this reason they are normally mixed together in a plant based protein supplement.

What about Protein Bars?

The main difference between protein powder and bars is that bars generally contain more calories, carbs, fat and salt for any given amount of protein. However, bars also provide a quick and easy way of getting that post workout protein snack into you. I would generally advise to always read the back of protein bars and see what exactly is in each product – you may be surprised by the hidden fibers, sugars and artificial sweeteners. I, personally, love protein bars until I realized a few years ago that I was gaining weight fast and read the back of one bar and saw that one bar was nearly the equivalent of an entire meal! However, bear in mind that these bars are manufactured for different types of exercise – choose higher carb bars (20g per serving) when you participate in higher intensity aerobic activities (running, swimming and cycling) and opt for lower carb bars (< 20 grams) for non-aerobic exercises.


Author: Christina Higgins

Supplementation and sports

The supplement industry is massive. It has also become a major component of the fitness industry. It can also be a very misleading source of information. Much like the food industry it is a business and sometimes the information available is either biased or inaccurate. This article is going to approach the subject of supplements from a physiological perspective. It will discuss the role of supplements in physiological processes and mechanisms which can influence our performance in sport. I will approach things from a mechanistic point of view and not from a dietary perspective. It will cover some of the more popular and well established supplements on the market. There are literally thousands of pills and formulas on the market. If they are not on this list then in our opinion they probably are not worth the money.

Carbohydrate supplements.

Without a doubt these work. They are very simple. They are usually made up of fast acting sugars which enter the bloodstream very rapidly. They are particularly useful in scenarios where there are prolonged bouts of high intensity exercise. They slow the rate of glycogen depletion and can provide energy substrate for glycolysis when glycogen stores are running low. They are very well supported in scientific literature and can be very convenient during exercise to prolong time to exhaustion. Not something that’s required for rest days but can be helpful in recovery.

Protein supplements.

Another well established supplement. We should all be aware of how essential protein is in the diet of any athlete. While not essesntial, protein supplements are a very convenient way to ensure adequate protein intake without taking in too much fat. Many athletes can get enough from regular foods but strength and power athletes may struggle with the volume of food required. The relatively low volume of protein shakes and bars allow athletes to avoid gastrointestinal distress while achieving desired intakes. It is also a cost effective method. We recommend a high quality whey powder from a reputable brand. There are many blends and types of protein powders but a good whey protein will cover most needs.


Creatine has had a lot of bad press in recent years. It is our opinion that lack of education is to blame. Creatine is naturally stored intramuscularly. It provides rapid energy supply along with intramuscular ATP for sprint type activity and rapid muscle contraction. It is naturally found in many meat products. We consume approximately 3 grams of creatine per day. For many athletes supplementing with creatine allows stores to stay full. This will simply ensure that their capacity for high intensity movements is kept at optimal levels. This requires no more than 3-5grams to be taken per day. It is not uncommon to see young athletes consuming 20g and upwards daily. When used properly there is no evidence of serious side effects. Overconsumption can however, result in gastrointestinal issues and discomfort. As with most substrates in the body it is soluble in water. Like glycogen it will result in modest water retention and slight increases in bodyweight. This is not nearly as drastic as some would suggest but should be considered where body weight is important.


Caffeine is a well established ergogenic aid. It helps muscle contraction, mental alertness and fat utilization. Most athletes would benefit from caffeine supplementation. The major issue is that some individuals are more sensitive to it than others. In some cases people can react badly to caffeine. We recommend that it should be used in training before competition to establish tolerances. Dosage is dependent on individual tolerance. We can build a tolerance to caffeine so generally it is better to use it sparingly and only when needed. In cases of heart conditions or known caffeine allergies it should be avoided, and medical advice obtained.


Nitrates are found in many foods. The most common is Beetroot but they are also found in most vegetables and some commercial supplements are available. Nitrates can help reduce the oxygen cost of exercise and lower blood pressure. They can be beneficial in aerobic type exercise and can improve overall endurance performance. There is no evidence of side effects and there is no established recommendation for required intakes.



Tart cherry juice (Montmorency Cherry juice)

This is a relatively novel supplement. There is relatively little research conducted on its use, but findings so far have been extremely positive. It is claimed that supplementing with this juice has potent anti-inflammatory benefits. It is claimed to have quite a significant reduction of muscle soreness. Some studies also suggest that it acts as an effective pain relief through reduction of inflammation.

Beta Alanine

Beta Alanine is a relatively new supplement and research is still a little incomplete. It is a limiting amino acid in the resynthesis of Carnosine. Carnosine acts as a lactate buffer in the muscle and helps keep intramuscular pH levels low. It can be beneficial during high intensity exercise where it may improve time to exhaustion. There is no evidence of any major side effects. Overconsumption may however, lead to tingling sensations in extremities. Recommended dosages range from 3-6 grams daily but there is little research completed on the optimal amount.

Iron supplements

These are perhaps a more overlooked supplement. They can be extremely beneficial to endurance and female athletes. Oxygen is carried by red blood cells, one of the main building blocks of which is Iron. Iron deficiencies can be common in both sexes and may have a major impact on performance. Tolerances for supplementation vary between individuals. The best natural source for iron is liver and red meat. It is recommended for endurance athletes and female athletes in particular as it can help keep performance levels optimal.

Omega 3 fatty acids (Fish oils)

These are an extremely popular supplement. There are many claims as to their benefits which include mental function, Anti inflammatory properties, joint function and sports performance. Unfortunately there is very little peer reviewed scientific research showing any benefits to their supplementation. While we know fatty acids are essential for cell function, there is little evidence to show that supplementation is beneficial or necessary. A healthy diet would more than likely supply adequate amounts of these fatty acids. However, these fatty acids are predominantly found in fish, which many people dislike. In this case there may be some argument for their use but again they are unlikely to be the miracle drug they are claimed to be.

Zinc and Magnesium

ZMA is the commercial name for Zinc and Magnesium supplements. There is great debate over its effectiveness. There have been many conflicting studies conducted. The general trend is for there to be no performance benefits whatsoever. However, anecdotal evidence suggest it may help with sleep patterns which may help with recovery.

Fat Burners

We do not recommend the use of commercial fat burners. They are usually a cocktail of stimulants and substances which have shown a modest increase in metabolism or fat utilization. They will not magically burn away fat. They simply help keep metabolism slightly elevated if at all. They are a risky supplement as some ingredients can potentially be harmful.


Supplements can often be touted as miracle drugs. The reality is that only in some cases do they play a role in natural physiological mechanisms. Most of the time they do not directly improve performance but instead aid the mechanisms which lead to performance. For example Creatine is often associated with hypertrophy. It has no direct influence on muscle growth. It does however, allow muscle contractions to have adequate energy substrate which allows for better muscle function and endurance. This results in better strength and strength endurance. The resulting improvement in training quality can then result in improved rates of hypertrophy.

There are thousands of supplements on the market. Many have solid scientific support and evidence. Others are marketed based on weak or incomplete evidence. Unfortunately athletes and individuals under pressure or desperate to reach their potential may feel that they need every little possibility for progress. As a coach or athlete you must realize that patience is important and one must concentrate on the process rather than the goals. It is also important to note that there are many supplements and substances that are banned and harmful to health. It is essential that athletes choose reputable “drug screened” brands. Often paying a little more for quality can prevent issues later.

Bang for your buck: Girls new to the gym

This article was a request from a close friend who wanted simple advice for a girl starting out in the gym. No fashion or beauty advice just straight up practical advice. Normally we focus on team and sports training but the principles that ensure progress are still the same. This article will put you on track or even back on track if you’ve become lost in the vast sea of female training advice that we see in the media.

1) Lift heavy

Your number one goal in the gym should be to become stronger. In order to do so you must challenge yourself enough so the body must adapt. The weights must be heavy enough to tax your body enough that it promotes it to adapt to be capable of lifting heavier weight. In order to prevent injury you must first learn proper technique and how to lift safely. At the beginning it is a very good idea to get a few sessions with a trainer so you can learn proper and safe technique from the beginning. Choose a reputable trainer and exercise common sense. Have confidence and know that everyone gets stronger if they give it time. Don’t be put off by lack of experience; you must start somewhere.

2) Eat

There is an exceptional amount of dietary and nutritional advice out there. You must eat for fuel. You must also ensure you eat protein in order to recover from weight training. This helps grow and maintain healthy muscle. Many females believe that eating is the enemy when achieving a beach body. Eating less can often stall fat loss and muscle gain. Often eating a little more and ensuring adequate protein can kickstart the progress you want to see. Check our nutrition articles to help you learn the basics about eating for exercise.

3) Have a plan

This may sound obvious but it is essential. There are days when the gym is the last place you want to be. Having a plan keeps you on track and making progress. It cuts out having to decide what to do, often you may not want to ask as it shows inexperience. Never hesitate to ask for help, we are always learning. It is hard to know where to start but there’s no point wasting time being lost in the gym. Ask a trainer at your local gym for a beginner plan; you can always contact us for advice on training if you need to.

4) Log your training

This may seem like it’s for the hardcore trainers but it is a great tool. We are motivated by progress. Progress is often hard to see on a daily basis. By keeping a log of what you do in the gym not only does it motivate you to keep training but it also helps with your plan. You know what weight you can lift and what a reasonable increase is for you each week. This can be a very powerful tool in achieving your goals.

5) Enjoy it

There are few places in the world where your efforts and dedication will be so visible. Results in the gym are very consistent and more obvious than other aspects of life. Enjoy your time in the gym and see it as a productive and healthy way to spend time. It’s easy for a beginner to be nervous and a little standoffish when it comes to lifting weights but this passes with time. The more you enjoy it the easier it will be to commit. Don’t let the fear of the unknown stand in the way of your goals.

Getting started with gym training can be daunting. Advice in the media can also make the gym very confusing. Know that we all start somewhere, follow these basic tips and things will be a lot easier. Find a trainer who you respect and trust but more importantly gives you the time and effort required to get you to your goals. Don’t be afraid to shop around with gyms and trainers so that you find one that suits you. Once again, enjoy it and good luck.

The Importance of Carbohydrate Consumption

One of the main questions I get asked from friends, family and sports enthusiasts is how much should an individual be eating before training and does this differ from your meal base in the hours running up to a match. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that different sports and exercise routines demand a range of energy and nutrient requirements. As a result, the quantity and quality of foods consumed should be adapted according to the type and intensity of sport.

In general, energy expenditure during exercise increases because of the energy needed to assist in the contraction of skeletal muscle, allowing the athlete to move faster. In most cases, the exercise rate is dependent on the availability of these energy reserves supplied by nutrient intake. For example, with many forms of endurance sports, energy or carbohydrate depletion is the most common cause of premature fatigue. The amount of carbohydrate consumed is, therefore, essential in preventing the early onset of tiredness during match play.

In order to comprehend carbohydrate metabolism, it is important to have a small understanding of energy expenditure. Energy can be simply described as the potential to do work or produce force. This ability to do work, especially using skeletal muscle, requires a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), where three phosphate groups are joined to one adenosine group. During the breakdown of ATP, this energy is released (mainly from the phosphate bonds) and is used to power all types of work, exercise and movement. Of particular interest, the energy from ATP breakdown supports muscle contraction during sports. This breakdown of ATP to its smaller unit ADP (adenosine di-phosphate) releases about 31 kilojoules (kJ) of free energy. However, these stores of ATP are very small and only adequate for about 2 seconds of maximal exercise. In order to regenerate these energy units (ATP), several processes must occur;

  • Phosphocreatine Degradation – This is a fast process where the amount of energy derived from phosphocreatine breakdown is rapid.
  • Glycolysis – This is slower than phosphocreatine degradation and involves the metabolism of glucose-6-phosphate derived from glycogen in muscle or glucose in blood.
  • Carbohydrate, Fat and Protein metabolism – these units enter into the TCA cycle and are broken down to form carbon dioxide and water (aerobic metabolism). This produces the products necessary for the re-synthesis of ATP. This is one of the slowest forms of energy production.

Simply put, when energy levels (ATP) begin to fall during exercise or training, the phosphocreatine is first broken down releasing the energy needed to restore these ATP levels. This is sufficient as a short-term solution for shorter exercise programs or training. However, during longer exercise sessions, carbohydrate and fats are your more important fuels. These tend to be stored in the body and used when demand is necessary. Both of these energy supplies are broken down to form Acetyl Co-enzyme A, which then enters a series of reactions in the TCA cycle. However, if we relied solely on carbohydrate as a substrate, we could probably only run between 20 and 30 km, whereas using fat as an additional fuel source could increase our distance to about 1000-2000km. During lower intensity exercises, fat is considered the substrate of choice. However as the intensity of exercise increases, it is recommended to enhance your consumption of carbohydrates. It is always important to bear in mind the two sides of energy expenditure;

  • Exercise Intensity – It is found that exercises of higher intensity require more carbohydrates and less fat. Carbohydrate supplies are used at rates of up to 4g/min and can be broken down at a rate of 7g/min.
  • Exercise Length – As the duration of exercise increases, fat oxidation increases and carbohydrate oxidation decreases. This increased fat oxidation may be due to a reduction in muscle glycogen stores during the end of exercise sessions.


Avocado on Two Slices of Brown Bread Topped with Tomatoes, Spinach and a Side Portion of Tuna.

Avocado on Two Slices of Brown Bread Topped with Tomatoes, Spinach and a Side Portion of Tuna.

The Importance of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are generally the best source of fuel for high impact sports like rugby. They are initially stored in the body (as glycogen) and are the most effective food source for prolonged activity carried out at a high intensity. A player’s diet needs to be high in carbohydrates in order to ensure that the glycogen stores are full and replenished after exercise. Approximately 60% of total calories consumed should come from carbohydrates alone. However, many forms of carbohydrates (jams, sweets, Jaffa cakes, wine gums) are also low in nutritional value and should only be consumed post training and in small quantities. In general, the players diet should consist of complex carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables, rice and wholegrain cereals.

Carbohydrate consumption is especially important during longer exercise intervals (>90 min) with the depletion of carbohydrate stores being a major cause of premature fatigue. This can be observed in both the muscle (peripheral fatigue) and the brain and nervous system (central fatigue). It is, therefore, imperative to consume carbohydrates before, during and after prolonged exercise periods. A lot of research suggests that consuming carbohydrates before and during high intensity workouts of 1 hour will assure maximum performance benefits. However, the individual’s carbohydrate stores must be sufficiently filled beforehand to help fuel the event. It has also become evident that carbohydrate intake has a beneficial effect on both the brain and central nervous system in helping the player to ‘feel better’ during training. Some studies even suggest that doing as little as rinsing your mouth out with a carbohydrate drink will produce the same performance benefits. This is said to trigger sensors in the mouth, which then transfers the message to the brain saying that food is en route.

Carbohydrate Intake before Exercise (Carb-Loading)

If an athlete wants to perform at their best in the lead-up to a match, it is best practice to ensure that carbohydrate stores in the muscle and liver are adequately filled. Carbohydrate loading aims to maximize muscle glycogen stores up to twice the normal resting period (500-900mmol/kg dry weight). Early studies show that carbohydrate loading in longer running events (like marathons) enhances overall sports performance. What is interesting to note is that carb loading does not allow the athlete to run at a faster pace but instead sustains the length of time they can run at maximal speed (endurance). In essence, carbohydrate loading helps to postpone fatigue and extends the duration of exercise by nearly 20% while improving overall performance by 2-3%.

Pre-Event meal –meals and fluids should be consumed in the 4hrs before a major event to ensure that muscle glycogen stores are restored and filled since the last exercise session. It is recommended to eat 200-300g of carbohydrate in the 2-4 hour window before exercise or training. It is normally not advised to eat any carbohydrates one hour before an event as it can lead to a rise in plasma insulin concentrations, which can prevent fat oxidation as an energy fuel. This results in increased dependence on carbohydrate oxidation and faster depletion in muscle glycogen stores and glucose concentration.

So what should you do?

  1. Consume a substantial amount of carbohydrate (>75g) so that any additional intake will more than compensate for the increased rate of carbohydrate breakdown during exercise.
  2. Choose a carbohydrate rich meal that has a low-glycemic index. Low GI foods will provide a more sustained release of energy throughout the exercise session.
  3. Try to consume carbohydrates throughout the exercise session or event.

Many athletes in the lead up to a match prefer foods with a low fat, low fibre and low-to-moderate protein content as they are less likely to cause stomach upset especially if you suffer from nerves or anxiety before a match. If this is the case, liquid meal supplements or carbohydrate containing drinks are a viable option.

Pre-exercise meals – 3 to 4 hours before training

  • Pasta with tomato-based sauce with meat, fish or lentils
  • Baked potato with cottage cheese, tuna, baked beans or chilli con carne
  • Sandwich or roll (wholegrain) filled with chicken, egg, tuna, peanut butter, honey, jam or banana
  • Baked Beans on Toast
  • Rice or noodles with chicken or lentils
  • Meat, vegetables and potatoes
Pre-Exercise Meal: Scrambled Eggs on Brown Bread with Coriander

Pre-Exercise Meal: Scrambled Eggs on Brown Bread with Coriander

Pre-exercise snacks – 1 to 2 hours before training

  • Yogurt and fresh fruit
  • Peanut Butter and Jam sandwich
  • Cereal bar
  • Breakfast cereal with milk or yoghurt and banana
  • Fruit and a glass of milk
  • Vegetable Soup with bread
Bowl of Pineapple with Cinnamon topping alongside Fage Yogurt

Bowl of Pineapple with Cinnamon topping alongside Fage Yogurt

Carbohydrate Intake During Exercise

Eating carbohydrates during exercise intervals can also extend sessions of moderate to intermittent intensity exercise and improve overall performance. The main role of carbohydrate uptake during exercise is to maintain plasma glucose concentrations and allow muscle to sustain high rates of carbohydrate oxidation.

Research into the different types of carbohydrates show that there is no major discrepancy in the consumption of moderate to high GI carbohydrate on rates of oxidation during extensive exercise. It is found that the carbohydrate consumed during exercise is oxidized in small amounts during the first hour of exercise and then sustained at a rate of 1g/min. This is mainly the case when one type of carbohydrate is consumed (i.e. glucose). However when more than one carbohydrate is eaten (glucose and fructose), it can lead to higher rates of carbohydrate use by muscle. It is found that a starting intake of 30-60g/h of carbohydrate will enhance performance.

During exercise, there are many methods of carbohydrate consumption using sports drinks and energy bars. Sports drinks are the most popular as they both hydrate and replace carbohydrate loss simultaneously.

Post-Exercise Meal

It is always important for athletes to replenish low muscle glycogen stores after exercise with carbohydrates. It is essential that athletes consume about 7-12g/kg per day depending on the intensity and propensity of exercise. The main reason to encourage athletes to consume a carb-rich meal promptly after exercise is due to the fact that effective refueling does not begin until an adequate amount of carbohydrate is consumed (about 1g/kg body weight). It is, therefore, beneficial for the athlete to consume a mixture of medium to high GI carbohydrate, as high GI foods are able to boost overall plasma glucose concentrations. This leads to a higher rate of glycogen re-synthesis, which brings the athletes muscle back to pre-exercise mode and promotes recovery. For a post exercise meal, it is recommended to eat carbohydrate rich foods like rice, pasta and potato over sweeter substitutes like sweets and chocolate.

Recovery Snacks (Immediately Post Match or Half Time)

  • Fresh fruit – bananas, apples, grapes, orange
  • Fruit yogurt or yogurt drink
  • Chicken or Cheese Bread Roll
  • Biscuits – Digestives, Jaffa cakes, Fig rolls
  • Wine Gums
  • Cereal bars

Recovery meals (1-2 hours post match)

  • Baked beans on toast
  • Baked potatoes with meat or cheese
  • Pasta or rice with meat or cheese and tomato-based sauce
  • Meat or fish, vegetables and potatoes
  • Pancakes
Recovery Meal: Pancakes Topped with Banana, Blueberries and Peanut Butter

Recovery Meal: Pancakes Topped with Banana, Blueberries and Peanut Butter

Overall, try to eat a balanced diet with nutrient-rich carbohydrate foods so that they will also supply the essential nutrients for performance. This includes; wholegrain breads, brown rice, cereals (oatmeal or porridge), pasta and noodles. Always think brown over white. It is also important to eat plenty of fruits, starchy vegetables (potatoes and corn) as well as dairy products (whole milk, skimmed milk and yogurt).

Always have on hand during games sugar-rich foods, which will act as a convenient source of carbohydrate refueling, especially when energy demands are high. You can also try to combine carbohydrate-protein meals to aid other means of recovery. This includes; cereal with milk, sandwiches with meat or dairy filling, sweetened dairy products such as flavored milk or milkshakes, rice or pasta based meals.

Lastly, throughout the day the player should drink about 200 mls of water at regular intervals (every 15-20 minutes) if possible.

Hydration is crucial in lead up to match or exercise. Try adding fruit to encourage more fluid intake.

Hydration is crucial in lead up to match or exercise. Try adding fruit to encourage more fluid intake.

Nutritionist Christina Higgins

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