Who are team sport athletes? A team sport athlete is anyone who participates in a competitive team sport like GAA, rugby, soccer, basketball or hockey. The team sport athletes’ season will vary in each sport but are most commonly categorised as ‘off season’, ‘pre-season’ and ‘in-season’. For the team sport athlete the focus will always be to be in peak physical condition for the final stages of their main competition but there are other key goals athletes can focus on during the off-season and pre-season periods.
Preparing for the season ahead
During the off-season an athlete’s main target should be to prepare the body for the requirements that are placed on it in-season. This means reducing the risk of injury and improving fitness, strength and power as the physical load from training and games progressively increases. A core objective of the off-season is to actively rest, physically and mentally in order to come back fresh for the next season with renewed motivation and focus. This is also a good time to resolve any injuries or other physiological issues that may limit performance or may be lingering from the previous season.
Individual targets, is fat loss going to make you perform better?
It is true that improving body-composition can improve your speed, endurance, weight to power ratio, agility and other aspects of performance, but not in all cases! Some coaches and indeed athletes themselves can put a great deal of emphasis on achieving a certain body fat percentage, yet, low body fat and high levels of performance are not always strongly correlated. It is true that excess body fat can limit performance but for some athletes it is not as critical as for others, in some situations it may be more relevant to focus on improving aspects of match play like ball skills, decision making, positional awareness and tackling. For this reason each athlete must be considered on an individual basis and the question must be asked, is focusing on reducing body-fat going to give me the best improvement in performance?
Coaches and players must sit down and work out what aspects of performance need the greatest level of attention; areas that both player and coach agree have the greatest contribution to performance should be prioritised. If that goal is reducing body fat it is important to set a realistic and practical target and work towards it by following structured training and nutrition guidelines.
The first few weeks of off season are likely to include a holiday, spending time with family and friends and no structured training. This period will usually be at least 3 weeks but could be longer depending on the sport. Once this period has elapsed most athletes need to get some focus and structure back in their lifestyle and it is then that athletes can begin setting goals for the upcoming season. It is during this phase that athletes can start to optimise body composition to enhance in-season performance.
An important reminder of the concept of improving body composition
Improving body composition means reducing body fat and increasing lean mass by selecting the right foods and following an appropriate training plan. If a team sport athlete does need to improve body composition there are a number of things to consider; some of the main factors include:
- Energy balance
- Macro-nutrient intake, (protein, carbohydrate, fats)
‘Weight loss’ is often mentioned in the media to improve performance and health; however, it is not an appropriate target for athletes. It is essential for an athlete to distinguish between reductions in fat mass (adipose tissue) and lean mass (muscle and bone). The athlete’s goal should be to reduce body fat while sparing lean tissue, as muscle is vitally important for performance, strength, hormonal profile and a high rate of metabolism (RMR). It is also essential that a sustainable approach is implemented rather than anything extreme that may involve severe calorie restriction or dodgy supplements. Get your strategy wrong and you may compromise your immune function, increase the risk of injury, not to mention the potential negative impact on your mood.
Variables that influence fat loss
Before discussing fat loss it is highly important that athletes understand that there is no set guidelines for either training or nutrition that will ensure an athlete achieves their ideal body composition. Energy and nutrient requirements are heavily dependent on each individual’s needs;
- Energy expenditure
- Training age
- Training application and intensity
- Body composition and genetic makeup
It is thus difficult to generalise guidelines for an athlete population. Nonetheless, being aware of these factors along with understanding the main principles of nutrition will help an athlete achieve their personal goal.
Getting the basics right
There are some really simple things that an athlete can implement that could make a big difference to improvements in body-composition. They may seem obvious for some athletes but less so for others. The following points are simple but hugely important point for any athlete aiming to improve their body composition.
- Avoid eating excess processed foods like sweets, chocolate, biscuits and take away meals
- Consume 2 grams of protein per kg body mass
- Ensure you have a protein source at each meal
- Drink water and maintain optimum hydration during the day
- Increased emphasis on nutrient dense foods but less calories like vegetables and fruits
- Increase fibre intake from fibre rich foods
- Avoid eating late in the evening out of boredom
- Do not overeat after training and focus on a nutritious protein – carbohydrate meal that is appropriate for the amount of calories you require
- Set realistic goals and create and follow a meal plan that is based on your personal needs for energy and nutrients
- Create a timeline for achieving your goal and keep yourself accountable by reviewing your habits and behaviours
Nutrient dense meals
The diet of the team sport athlete during periods of reduced training should be rich in foods with a high nutrient density but a suitable energy content. These foods include, fruits, vegetables and wholegrains that contain large amounts of fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
It is imperative to avoid energy dense processed foods containing processed fats and added sugar. This includes fast-food, processed foods, crisps, sugary cereals, fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes and other forms of confectionary. Consuming these foods can have chaotic effects on appetite, hormone regulation and easily increase energy intake which makes it much harder for athlete’s to sustain a calorie deficit and improve body composition.
Avoid eating the wrong foods after training
A tough training session does not mean a free licence to eat anything you like! This is the most important time to get the best nutrients possible into your body for recovery and repair. Your body naturally burns more fat in the couple of hours after training, and so food choices in this period are important for managing your body fat levels. Eating foods that are high in sugar such as white bread and pasta, cereal bars and biscuits, jellies, and sweets even after training can reduce the amount of fat that you are burning and as a result also contribute to increased body fat. Sugar-based recovery shakes can be a culprit too for the same reasons. For more information on post exercise nutrition read our article on post exercise recovery nutrition and how eating the wrong foods could be limiting you in achieving your fat loss goal.