What powers a Black Ferns player: How to get nutrition right to impact sports performance

Putting enough fuel in the tank to get through sport is vital, just ask Black Ferns Selica Winiata and Alana Bremner, who have just finished their first season of professional Super Rugby Aupiki.

Eighty minutes of big tackles, bursts of energy and runaway tries can be exhausting, so nutrition plays a vital role in keeping them fit, healthy and match ready.

The night before, it’s about active hydration, then a good breakfast, Bremner said. Her go-to on game day is spaghetti on toast. For Winiata it’s poached eggs, avocado and vegemite.

Avocado on toast is a favorite for Black Fern Selica Winiata on game day

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Avocado on toast is a favorite for Black Fern Selica Winiata on game day

“And later in the day, make sure you’re getting the balance of carbs and protein and throughout the day staying hydrated,” Winiata said.

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Winiata said players were taught the drink bottle should be like a drip – dripping liquid throughout the whole day instead of sculling back the whole bottle before getting on the pitch. It’s not so nice running around with a lot of liquid sloshing around and ending up cramping, she said.

Then there are electrolytes and supplements that also aid performance and recovery.

Selica Winiata said early in her career nutrition didn't play a big role, but that's changed now she's a Black Fern.

Phil Walter/Getty Images

Selica Winiata said early in her career nutrition didn’t play a big role, but that’s changed now she’s a Black Fern.

Nutrition wasn’t something that came into play early on in Winiata’s career, but now she’s a top flight athlete, there’s been more accessibility to help and education about when and how to fuel.

“I think we underestimate at times what having a protein bar or protein shake straight after [exercise] can do. Sometimes you don’t feel hungry, and so you think ‘I won’t have anything’, but to learn why we need to do that for our body, we get huge gains,” she said.

Some of those gains are being seen in the recently concluded inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki competition. Winiata said Super Rugby was a great opportunity for the next generation of girls and boys to see women playing the sport.

Alana Bremner, captained Matatū during Super Rugby Aupiki and likes to fuel with spaghetti on toast before a big game.

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Alana Bremner, captained Matatū during Super Rugby Aupiki and likes to fuel with spaghetti on toast before a big game.

“On the nutrition side of things, my advice would be, don’t get into it when you are in primary school or really young. While you’re a kid, be a kid. Get out there, try everything. Don’t put a huge amount of pressure on yourself to become a high performance athlete before your time and burn out,” she said.

“As you get older you’ll start to know the path you want to go down, and when you get to a matured age that’s when you start thinking about the gym and nutrition.”

Alana Bremner game day meal plan, pre 7pm kickoff:

● Breakfast – spaghetti on 2x toast, with 2x scrambled eggs

● Snack – A smoothie (banana, berry, oats, milk, yoghurt + peanut butter)

● Lunch – tomato sauce-based pasta, chicken, salad

● Pre-game meal – wrap or sandwich with chicken and vegetables, nuts

● Halftime – Healthspan energy gel

● Post-game – Healthspan elite performance cherry, sushi, chicken sandwiches

● Hydration tablets throughout the day

Black Ferns nutritionist Dr Kirsty Fairburn writes a food menu for the team on game day, but it’s diverse to ensure it caters for everyone’s tastes.

“Our priorities are to maximize carbohydrate and fluid intakes, plus reasonable amounts of fruits and vegetables and protein to prepare them. The foods each player likes to eat to get those nutrients is variable, and Alana’s is a great example of that,” she said.

Nutritionist Nikki Hart recommends a pre-game meal three to four hours before a match and a small snack one to two hours before the game, particularly if matches are later in the day. Then fueling straight after exercise, just like the Black Ferns.

“A wonderful way to think about this is imagine your muscles are a dry sponge. If you take a dry sponge and put it on a wet bench, it’s going to suck up the nutrients really quickly. So it’s all about the timing,” she said.

Straight after a game, in the first few minutes, glucose is important and accessible via sports drinks, jelly beans or jet planes. Then, in the 15 to 30 minutes post-game a ratio of carbohydrates and protein helps with muscle recovery. That’s when protein powders come in, she said.

For younger athletes and children she recommends chocolate milk, creamed rice or practical foods kids can grab on the go. One to two hours after sport, she recommends another meal.

Nutritionist Nikki Hart recommends food straight after exercise

Nikki Hart

Nutritionist Nikki Hart recommends food straight after exercise

Hart said you need about a gram of carbohydrate per minute of exercise.

“It doesn’t matter what sport you play, those components are valid,” she said.

Supplements can help, but for those who are weekend warriors, Hart recommends seeking guidance from registered sports medical practitioners first.

“What’s your nutrition baseline first?” she said.

“If you want to play around in this [supplement] space, we’ve got to make sure there’s nothing that’s going to contraindicate. What if you’re on a medicine? What if you’re a mum, and you’re on a statin for cholesterol, do you know what supplements could be contraindicated for that.”

A lack of fuel can lead to Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). It’s caused by a mismatch of energy in and energy out while exercising and can lead to reduced body function.

Leading expert Dr Sarah Beable said between 22 and 50 per cent of elite athletes – both men and women – suffer with RED-S.

For recreational athletes high risk groups include those in their teenage years in sports including triathlon, running, dance, cycling. She’s also seeing spikes in sports such as weightlifting, crossfit, and some team-based sports.

“It is becoming increasingly common in the fitness industry with the popularity of intermittent fasting and an escalating obsession with ‘eating clean’… [that are] orthorexic tendencies,” she said.

“In my clinic, it is very common to see an active female who is exercising two to three hours a day, with intermittent fasting, and a gross underestimation of the calories needed to support their activity, let alone their life. This can lead to a range of health consequences.”

Dr Sarah Beable said both men and women can be impacted by RED-S

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Dr Sarah Beable said both men and women can be impacted by RED-S

Early signs might be fatigue, trouble sleeping, irritable bowel symptoms, recurrent colds, low mood, anxiety, recurrent or slow to resolve injury, and lengthening or loss of the menstrual cycle, she said.

“Quite worrying, and sadly increasingly common with a big spike in Covid times, is the increase of disordered eating practices which can lead to a clinical eating disorder,” she said.

For supplements, she said athletes should be able to get nutrients from a balanced high quality diet, but will recommend supplements when there is an obvious deficiency. Recent research from the High Performance Sport NZ’s women’s health group found 47 per cent of elite female athletes had been diagnosed with an iron deficiency.

Dr Beable recommends working with medical professionals and avoiding long periods without eating.

“Education is key … focus on high quality fueling rather than restriction with prompt eating after training,” she said.

“Avoid weight as the measure of ‘athletic success’ – your body composition will go to where it needs to go when fueling appropriately for the demands of your sport. The number on the scale should not be a measure of self-worth, and sadly I am seeing this frequently.

“Get help early, this is very common. It is entirely reversible and can have a very favorable impact on long term health with the right help.”

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