Rugby fever is upon us – whether you are a supporter, a professional rugby player or simply like to play a friendly game of touch rugby with mates, your diet can have an impact on your performance, one way or another.
Our ability to exercise, breathe, think and perform ordinary tasks such as lifting a knife and fork or tying shoe laces relies on the ability of the body to use energy from ingested food.
There has been a lot of coverage on Banting for endurance sports, but what hasn’t been discussed much is Banting for high intensity sports. Because the Rugby World Cup is here, we thought it would be the perfect time to focus on Banting for a sport like rugby.
Rugby is a free-flowing game that strategically requires players to move the ball into the opponent’s territory.
It is one of the few team sports that demands such a diverse and wide range of physical attributes from its players, including, in varying degrees, strength, power, endurance, speed, stability, mobility, agility and decision making.
The different demands on each player should influence the way each one trains. For example, the tight five and loose forwards require power and endurance to scrummage effectively, whereas the backline players will make more frequent sprints throughout a game and as a result require higher levels of speed and explosive power.
Switching over to a low-carb diet can be beneficial to those players who are insulin resistant and struggle to lose weight, such as Trevor Nyakane, who in his own words, “just looks at a muffin and puts on 2kgs.”
But are there other benefits to converting to a Banting diet as a rugby player?
The food we eat supplies the body with the potential energy it requires to function normally; namely carbohydrates, fat and protein.
During exercise while banting, carbohydrates, such as sugar and starch are broken down into glucose and used immediately as fuel.
Any excess glucose is sent to the liver and muscles and stored as glycogen.
When it is needed again, this muscle glycogen is converted back into glucose for use by muscle fibres as fuel. The liver’s glycogen also gets converted back into glucose, but is released directly into the bloodstream to maintain blood glucose levels – which is the most important source of energy for the brain, at rest and during exercise.
The capacity of the body to store muscle and liver glycogen is limited to only producing enough fuel for 90 to 120 minutes of continuous, vigorous activity.
As a result, the carbohydrate content of the diet and the type and frequency of training that is done influences the size of the glycogen stores.
Fat is the body’s most concentrated source of energy, providing more than twice as much potential energy as carbohydrate or protein.
During exercise while Banting, stored fat in the body (in the form of triglycerides in adipose or fat tissue) is broken down into fatty acids. These fatty acids are transported through the blood to muscles for fuel, but this process occurs much slower than when carbs are used as fuel. Fat is also stored within muscle fibres, where it can be more easily accessed during exercise. Unlike glycogen stores, which are limited, body fat is a virtually unlimited source of energy for athletes.
Most humans have sufficient energy stores of fat (adipose tissue or body fat), plus the body readily converts and stores excess calories from any source (fat, carbohydrate, or protein) as body fat.
Protein is generally not stored for use as fuel, but under certain situations, like when glycogen stores are depleted, skeletal muscle is broken down and used as fuel (amino acids are converted into glucose).
With endurance sports (low to moderate intensity), fat is the preferred fuel because it provides 50% or more of the energy the muscles need. The longer the exercise the more oxygen is available to the cells, which allows the fat to be used more efficiently. As a result stored glycogen is used slower, which prevents fatigue and helps to prolong the activity.
With moderate to high intensity exercise, the body is unable to use the fat as a fuel quickly enough because not enough oxygen can be processed, therefore carbs are required to produce energy. Pushing through a heavy work out without carbs can leave you tired and weak. It is possible to follow a low-carb diet if you play a high intensity sport, but the carb intake should be matched to training intensity. The amount of carbs eaten on heavy training days can increase to as much as 200g, depending on the intensity of the exercise, and brought down to between 25g and 50g on low training days. During off-season and injury time, 25g is adequate.
Strength and power is essential in the scrum. Trevor Nyakane, the Free State prop, was feeling sluggish and his extra weight was hampering his performance. He lost 12kgs in 3 months following a Banting diet under the direction of fitness coach, Basil Carzis. The lower carbs, coupled with cutting out juices, cooldrink and sugar – allowed him to lose the body fat that made him tired and not the strength. His extra energy meant that he was not lagging behind during training anymore.
In the modern day of rugby, which is fast paced, a prop doesn’t need to have excess weight to have power, which was what Trevor experienced. As soon as he dropped the excess weight his game improved.
Reducing carbs and focusing on healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, from oily fish, olives, nuts and seeds, can improve muscle-protein synthesis, essential for building muscle.
Production of testosterone, a powerful muscle-building hormone, is also improved by following a high fat diet.
Protein is important for muscle-building as muscles are composed of amino acids. The only way to replenish many of the amino acids that are damaged during training is through dietary protein from beef, oily fish, eggs and milk.
Muscle glycogen can become depleted after weeks of training in a ketogenic state. Consuming a small amount of carbohydrate post-workout from coconut water, bananas and nut butters can help to avoid this.
The brain is composed of 60% fat and utilises 20% of the body’s metabolic energy, therefore the brain plays an important role in rugby, not only for decision making and communication amongst players, but also for optimum motor skills.
Salmon: High in omega-3, is good for memory, speaking ability and motor skills
Avocados: Promote a healthy blood flow
Nuts: Improve brain function
Eggs: Boost memory skills and brain health
Coconut oil: Helps build lean muscle tissue, helps fat loss and helps to regenerate and heal nerve function
Skill is definitely needed to become a world class rugby player, but what fuels the body is equally as important to convert it into a well-oiled machine.
We will be sharing a lot more tips such as this – including how Banting improves recovery time and reduces inflammation – so stay tuned!
For more information, and how to eat for the best you, sign up for the free week of our online Banting course.