“Yes, we are Irish, and we do like our potatoes,” says Ruth Wood-Martin, the sports nutritionist for Ireland’s national rugby team. “But not every day: we mix it up with whole grains, couscous, and quinoa.” I’m not sure what’s more surprising: that a national rugby team employs a full-time nutritionist, or the thought of a massive, broken-nosed lad from Limerick eschewing spuds for a plate of couscous and quinoa. This is the state of modern professional sports nutrition.
Whether it’s international professional rugby or American football, we have seen stratospheric advancement — and money spent — on equipment, specialists, practice facilities, and work-out rooms, all designed to achieve the competitive advantage. Yet nothing is more instrumental in helping premium athletes stay at their peak performance than a nutrient-based diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Today, most professional teams in America and Europe have a sports nutritionist on staff, either as a consultant or a full-time employee.
Ruth Wood-Martin has a Master’s degree and over 20 years as a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist. She has been full-time with the Irish Rugby Football Union, the national team of Ireland, for the past eight years. She counsels every player, translating the science of nutrition into a practical way of eating. “Wellness” is the number goal of a sports nutritionist, Ruth says: “To delay fatigue and enhance recovery. The power of food is amazing.” She notes, “because these are elite athletes, their energy requirements are quite high.” Filling those extreme energy requirements with nutrient-rich meals can be a challenge for players with a predilection for high-fat, processed food. When the team is in camp, or traveling for games, Ruth Wood-Martin oversees every team meal. “Variety is key,” she explains. “Last evening was our Asian-themed night.” In this regard, the Irish certainly have it right. “Food is more than just fueling the body with nutrients: there is a social aspect as well,” Ruth says. This is Irish rugby, after all, not a table of elite athletes ingesting flavorless nutrition with the automatronic fervor of some 1980s Soviet Olympic team. Eating healthfully can be fun, delicious, and entertaining.
Similar considerations are made in the NFL. The New York Giants employ Tara Ostrowe, their team nutritionist, to counsel players on individual nutrition plans. “In the NFL, a player’s size and role on the field vary tremendously, and, therefore, the nutrition plans vary to meet their specialized needs,” says Ostrowe. Additionally, “the Giants have an unbelievable dining hall with a wide assortment of healthy, fresh food for post-practice meals.” It’s hard not to picture these massive players corralling a 64-ounce prime rib with hulking biceps, triceps, and forearm, their fists standing sentry with a large knife while their other arm shovels in buttery, bloody meat between occasional grunts. That carnivore era , with a capital C, is mostly gone, retired around the time Michael Strahan traded ubiquity in opposing backfields for ubiquity on television. Today, Ostrowe explains, at the New York Giants camp, “the meal consists of a few different lean protein choices such as roasted fish or grilled chicken, colorful cooked vegetables, a large salad bar with many nutrient toppings, fresh fruit salad, and whole grain carbohydrate choices such as brown rice and quinoa.”
Professional teams employing a nutritionist is a relatively new practice. As you might expect, Ruth Wood-Martin and Tara Ostrowe see a huge difference in the dietary habits of the younger and older athletes. Yet both nutritionists have found that the skeptical, old-school veterans are rapidly buying into the program, because they see the benefits of nutrient-based diets. “As they get older,” says Ruth, “they tend to focus more on their nutrition; they can’t get away with it anymore.” The “it” is eating whatever they want, whenever they want. There’s a big difference between a 25-year-old professional athlete and a 35-year-old one in energy, endurance, healing, and recovery. All of which is greatly enhanced with a proper diet.
The competitive tool that Ruth and Tara are asked about the most is sports supplements. In the NFL, supplements are exhaustively monitored. Any Giants player considering a sports supplement not on the approved list, even if it was purchased at the local Rite Aid, must consult with Tara Ostrowe first. On the Emerald Isle, the reconnoiter over sports supplements is by a national sports authority, and the process is so rigorous that every athlete under 18 years of age is strongly dissuaded from taking any. In the end, both nutritionists are in agreement: although there are times when a professional athlete can benefit from a sports supplement, their mantra is always “food first!”
Every NFL team has some sort of dietary consultant, but, of the 32 teams, only seven have made sports nutritionist a full-time position. The NFL season has ended, and the dietary demands of football players are adapted to the off-season. Rugby, however, is just beginning. The premier rugby championship in Europe is the 6 Nations tournament, comprised of the very best teams in the Northern Hemisphere: Ireland, France, Scotland, Italy, Wales, and England. This is where Ruth Wood-Martin’s job goes from dietary consultant and advisor to logistics table general.
When traveling to different countries, Ruth liaises with the hotel chef in each country, smartly forwarding her guidelines and asking for their menu options. This allows the host country’s hotel to create a menu they are comfortable with:, no Draconian demands from this nutritionist. Ruth works with each hotel’s existing bill of fare, whittling it down to a nutrient-dense optimum menu with the proper mixture of health and variety. Even in countries that don’t often host international rugby, the hotel’s chef is typically quite amenable, Ruth says. What’s universal, however, is the continued amazement of the staff at the sheer volume of food consumed by the rugby team.
Like the NFL, the 6 Nations teams each use their sports nutritionists in different ways. Scotland, for example approaches sports nutrition with a seriousness similar to Ireland. The cuisine of France matches their rugby team’s excellence, haughtiness, and secrecy: the team remains evasive about what, exactly, their players eat.
Says Ruth Wood-Martin about the dietary guidelines of the continuously victorious, French rugby team, “I’d love to be a fly on the wall in those meetings!” Since 1909, France has bested Ireland 55 times; Ireland emerged victorious in only 31 matches.
Saturday, February 14, Ireland beat France 18-11 in a brutal match where endurance was the determining factor. Well, maybe couscous and quinoa aren’t so bad after all… or was it Asian night?