Stay­ing pitch per­fect

Over a power break­fast, Carolyn Moore asks three GAA foot­ball stars how they stay in peak phys­i­cal con­di­tion

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Feature | -

THOUGH she re­tired from in­ter­county foot­ball in 2016, for­mer Cork Ladies cap­tain Va­lerie Mulc­ahy re­mains one of the sport’s most well-known per­son­al­i­ties.

She re­cently joined Dublin’s cap­tain fan­tas­tic, Sinead Ah­erne, and Mayo player Fiona McHale at an event in Dublin to cel­e­brate Sona’s on­go­ing sup­port for ladies Gaelic foot­ball, and over a nu­tri­tious break­fast, the sports stars told me how top-level ath­letes eat for peak per­for­mance, and re­vealed their se­crets for main­tain­ing their diet and fit­ness reg­i­mens dur­ing those long, off-sea­son win­ter months.

Along with di­eti­tian Orla Walsh, the trio high­lighted the im­por­tance of fu­el­ing the body for both per­for­mance and re­cov­ery.

While Va­lerie laughs at the rec­ol­lec­tion that, 17 years ago, her team would in­dulge in a fry be­fore a big game, she says at­ti­tudes to food have evolved since then.

“Play­ers are mak­ing sure they’re more in­formed now,” she says. “To per­form at a top level, you want all the boxes ticked and all your prepa­ra­tion done.Hav­ing a bal­anced diet is part of that.”

We used to have a very sim­pli­fied ap­proach to health and fit­ness, which was ‘eat move more, says Orla.

“The fo­cus was on quan­tity – count­ing calo­ries and mea­sur­ing fat grams. Now that fo­cus has shifted to qual­ity – qual­ity of food, qual­ity of nu­tri­tion, and what has the most ben­e­fits.”

For ath­letes who bal­ance sport­ing ca­reers with full-time jobs, op­ti­mis­ing their per­for­mance on the pitch means tak­ing an holis­tic ap­proach to health and fit­ness; in­cor­po­rat­ing strength con­di­tion­ing into their train­ing, eat­ing for men­tal acu­ity as well as phys­i­cal fit­ness, and eat­ing for re­cov­ery as much as per­for­mance.

“What you eat af­ter train­ing makes a huge dif­fer­ence to your re­cov­ery and your abil­ity to get up and go again the next day, so for me it’s about giv­ing my body what it needs to per­form, but also to re­fuel and re­pair,” says Sinead.

“When you’re train­ing mul­ti­ple times per week, you have to make sure you’re not de­pleted af­ter a ses­sion,” Va­lerie agrees. “You need to be able to max­imise your per­for­mance again and again.

“Off the pitch, you might have a job that’s men­tally drain­ing, so it’s im­por­tant to feed the mind with nuts, seeds and pulses, and to al­ways be hy­drated,” she adds.“Hy­dra­tion af­fects your de­ci­sion mak­ing, which im­pacts your team’s per­for­mance.”

The num­ber one rea­son you might fail on the pitch is de­hy­dra­tion, says Orla. “And the se­cond is that you run out of fuel, your mus­cles run out of carbs, and you hit a wall.”

For this rea­son when it comes to fu­el­ing the body, tim­ing is ev­ery­thing. “It’s all well and good get­ting the proper en­ergy in,” says Fiona. “But tim­ing is key, es­pe­cially af­ter train­ing in­ten­sively. There’s a 20-minute win­dow to get your car­bo­hy­drate and protein in, oth­er­wise your abil­ity to per­form at the same level the next day is com­pro­mised.”

Protein should be in­cluded in ev­ery meal. “There’s only so much protein you can ab- sorb at any one time, so pac­ing it across the day is vi­tal for growth, re­pair and re­cov­ery,” Orla ex­plains. “That doesn’t mean a high protein or high meat diet, it just means hav­ing ad­e­quate protein with ev­ery meal, and for ath­letes that’s four times a day.”

It’s a jug­gling act, and the women agree that plan­ning plays a huge part in keep­ing them at the top of their game. Based in Lim­er­ick and play­ing for Mayo, Fiona has to be on the ball when it comes to prepa­ra­tion.

“I plan ev­ery­thing a few days in ad­vance, oth­er­wise it be­comes a source of stress,” she says. “I don’t want to end up sub­sti­tut­ing some­thing I shouldn’t be eat­ing for some­less, thing I should be eat­ing; I want ev­ery­thing I eat to be a good source of en­ergy. That in­volves dis­ci­pline, but sport teaches you dis­ci­pline any­way.”

A huge part of that dis­ci­pline in­volves not let­ting their rou­tine slide off-sea­son.

“You do reach that stage in the sea­son where you can take a bit of a step back,” Sinead says.

“But you feel the ef­fects of that. It’s en­er­gis­ing then to get back to your reg­u­lar rou­tine.”

Fiona agrees: “I’d no­tice, par­tic­u­larly around Christ­mas, that af­ter a week or two of over-in­dulging you start feel­ing slug­gish and you no­tice changes in your body. It’s great to have the blowout, but you look for­ward to get­ting back into the swing of things again.”

The women all point to the im­por­tance of ed­u­cat­ing young ath­letes on the role nu­tri­tion plays in their over­all per­for­mance, and ad­mit, even at their level, they have lots to learn. “There’s an aw­ful lot of nu­tri­tion in­for­ma­tion float­ing around on so­cial me­dia,” adds Fiona. “Some of it cor­rect, some of it in­cor­rect.”

Play­ers need ac­cess to ex­pert ad­vice early in the sea­son. “We need the right in­for­ma­tion, spe­cific to us, what we’re do­ing in our sport, and how we make that fit into our lives,” says Sinead.

It’s a work in progress for these GAA All Stars. “There are so many vari­ables on a match day that you’ll still have oc­ca­sions where you go into a match think­ing, I got that wrong,” says Sinead.

“Some days you’re hun­grier than oth­ers, and some days your nerves will come into play. Carb load­ing in the days be­fore a match is im­por­tant, so if you can’t eat as much on match day be­cause of nerves, you have those re­serves built up and it won’t af­fect your per­for­mance.

“Ul­ti­mately it’s about know­ing what works for you and your body, and that all comes with ex­pe­ri­ence and ed­u­ca­tion.”

Pic­ture: An­dres Poveda

ON THE BALL: Re­tired Cork gaelic foot­baller player Va­lerie Mulc­ahy, Mayo foot­ball player Fiona McHale, and Dublin cap­tain, Sinead Ah­erne.

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