Staying pitch perfect
Over a power breakfast, Carolyn Moore asks three GAA football stars how they stay in peak physical condition
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.”
ON THE BALL: Retired Cork gaelic footballer player Valerie Mulcahy, Mayo football player Fiona McHale, and Dublin captain, Sinead Aherne.