Fifteen years ago the IRFU started on a journey to understand the value of nutrition in high performance sport and back in 2006 Ruth Wood-Martin, the IRFU’s Head of Nutrition, was the sole protagonist preaching to the uninitiated. Today Irish Rugby employs six full time performance nutritionists while also funding a further five part-time roles.
Wood-Martin is responsible for the central coordination and delivery of service across the provinces and the national representative teams. The IRFU employs a Performance Nutritionist to service the national 7s and women’s 15s programme while another is employed to provide support to the elite pathway players. The provinces have Performance Nutritionists supporting their senior squads and all four have a part-time position supporting the Academy players.
The evolution of performance nutrition within the IRFU’s high performance framework has accelerated in recent years as its practitioners have established themselves as influential and valued voices amongst the established leaders of the multi-disciplinary teams that support the professional game in Ireland at both provincial and national level.
Looking back at where the IRFU started Wood-Martin can clearly see the benefit of the investment in her field of expertise.
“When you consider nutrition as a discipline, of all the ‘ologies’ or the services, it’s probably the youngest in terms of the how it has both come about and developed. I came into this role in 2006 as a one woman band and from there it has developed into what it is today.”
In 2018 Wood-Martin, a veteran of four Rugby World Cups with the men’s squad, developed a performance nutrition strategy which aims to support player wellbeing, performance and rehabilitation through safe, evidence based nutrition programmes.
“Our vision is to be fully integrated as part of the high performance multi-disciplinary team to provide player centred nutrition programmes, the focus of which is to optimise health, maximise performance and deliver world leading competitive edge performance nutrition.”
In Wood-Martin’s view nutrition’s role is threefold and about adding value to performance.
‘It’s about athlete wellness, it’s about their performance and it’s about their rehabilitation. What value can we add in each of those areas? We need to communicate the value we can add to the key stakeholders such as head coaches in a language that links to pitch performance. From a wellness point of view the performance impact is simple – that you will have your players available more often. They are more healthy, you’ve got them more of the time.
In terms of performance, which is the core of what we do – how do we make sure they get the most out of their training so you are optimising training adaptations? It’s a support to their training. In fact, the training programme is your go to in planning the nutrition programme.”
“Some players will admit they eat the same type and amount of food every day. That is not the way it should be; it should be mapped around what you are doing, how hard it is, how long it is and how long you have got to recover. You are looking at optimising the training experience for the player so that they have maximum adaptations from that training. That’s about looking at smart food and fluid choices, the timing of it and the quantity of it. Recovery should be a key focus that lasts until the next training or competitive session.”
“By understanding what it takes to win, then the nutrition interventions are matched to the determinants of performance.”
A key driver of the strategy is the clarity for Performance Nutritionists (PN) on their role within Irish Rugby and the importance placed on successful integration into the high performance interdisciplinary teams at the provinces and with their respective national teams. It is a core responsibility to drive that integration and illustrate the value of the service delivery.
“It is a work in progress and continues to be so as I said from the outset given 15 years ago there really wasn’t any substantial nutrition service in any of the provinces or at any of the age grade levels. There might have been a bit here and a bit there but it didn’t allow for any defined model to be put into place.
It’s about having clarity with the PN staff about what their roles and responsibilities are and then measuring that. This is where from a leadership point of view the way I view it is taking care of those in my charge rather than being in charge.
Pre COVID I would have done the round the country trips at least once a month with in between phone calls. With the onset of COVID in March 2020, I really do believe that the team has got closer. We have weekly meetings with the Academy nutritionists and monthly meetings with the Provincial Leads and I can see even with them that they are talking more with each other.
It used to be back in the day where provinces didn’t talk to each other at all because you weren’t allowed to share trade secrets. As far as I am concerned and I have always had the premise in nutrition – any practitioner worth their salt will have the theory, will have the knowledge, it’s how they apply it in order to add value that really makes the difference.”
“I think that adding value is huge for nutrition because it’s still in a phase of development. There are still people out there who may think that we make sandwiches so it’s the element of getting into their mindset what is of value to them.”
Wood-Martin says that education is one of the main focuses of the Performance Nutritionists working in Irish Rugby. It is an area where the IRFU continues to invest with a new e-learning programme recently launched for the National Talent squad players.
“Education is the cornerstone of what we do as practitioners. It has always been focused on behavioural change which is not a quick fix thing. With players it’s about using motivational techniques to help them see the value of investing in their nutrition knowledge, understanding and application
People can have very fixed ideas about nutrition – what’s good, what’s not good and sometimes it’s about trying to debunk that and have evidence based conversations. However, if we were to wait for the gold standard, double blind scientific studies for everything we do the players would have been retired at that stage so you need to listen to them and that’s part of the process of education.”
Gary Sweeney, the IRFU’s National Talent Development Pathway Performance Nutritionist has just completed the delivery of an e-learning platform for NTS players. This resource builds on an investment in sports nutritionist expertise in this area which started five years ago. Wood-Martin explains the genesis of this targeted investment and the benefits Irish Rugby is starting to reap.
“The support systems for the age grade, particularly the National Talent Squad (NTS), were started in the beginning of 2016. At that time we secured funding to place a part-time Academy Performance Nutritionist in each of the provinces, the focus of which was to support the NTS development.
Certainly what we have seen over the past few years is that these young players are more academy ready by the time they are in a position to potentially join the academy structure.
Understanding nutrition is an ongoing process and so the education around it needs to continue throughout the player’s career. Even when our NTS players have completed the e-learning course that is not sufficient.
This knowledge needs to be backed up by re-enforced messaging by the Academy PNs to elicit behaviour change to support the young player’s growth and training demands. Just as you have an individual training programme for a player, individual nutrition programmes that develops with them are important.
I do believe that players coming into those structured professional programmes are much more nutrition aware than they would have been 15 years ago. How to measure that is always challenging but you are looking at it in terms of robustness, their ability to maintain the training they are being asked to do, that they are recovering well and that they are staying well.”
“There is a greater expectation amongst the players now; interest in nutrition has been sparked. They will often come to the Nutritionist with their own nutrition theories and beliefs. They are inquisitive and hungry for information; it is our job to provide them with what is best for them to support their health and performance.
Aside from being integrated into their respective multidisciplinary teams, there is a collegiate cooperative ethos driven by Wood-Martin amongst Irish Rugby’s Performance Nutritionists. Developing as individuals and as a collective is a primary driver.
“I really see myself as supporting those nutritionists to be able to the job to the best of their ability and whether that is in their own personal or professional development. We have our own in-service CPD and we have one coming up in June with the Sports Institute where we will look to cross-pollinate ideas. There needs to be a level of autonomy but also a level of accountability in the service that we are providing.
CPD is a real core element for our people development and as a profession we are audited on the CPD that we do so it is one of our key KPIs. In people development I firmly believe that you surround yourself with good people and give them the opportunity to develop themselves.”
Wood-Martin sits on the IRFU’s Research Committee and although performance nutrition is involved in some interesting projects she feels that this is an areas where there is significant scope to expand in the future.
“We have been looking at gut health in players at both national, provincial and academy level. There is a project that is looking at lean body mass changes through long term injury. We have a number of students in working on theses from the Masters in Dietetics course in UCD which is supervised by Marcus (Shortall) from the Sevens programme. There are a number of projects going on but it is an area where we can focus more attention in the future.”
Marcus Shortall is the IRFU’s full-time Performance Nutritionist servicing the sevens programme and the women’s XV squad. Wood-Martin is cognisant that female athletes and particularly those not in full-time programmes require a different service to their male counterparts.
“Core nutrition principles apply across all populations. Their modus operandi is very different, their programme is different – they are potentially working as well as well as training but also the fact that they are female brings different demands.
The focus of attention started in the Sevens programme when it was just the women’s programme before the men’s programme came on stream. The service provision is manageable across those two programmes but they are two very different programmes in terms of the nutrition support that they need and receive”
A further significant milestone in Irish Rugby’s performance nutrition journey was the appointment of a full-time Performance Chef Maurice McGeehan in 2020 to service the national teams at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on the Sports Ireland Campus. Wood-Martin has seen great value in creating a positive atmosphere around food that is not just about the functional need to refuel.
“That position that Maurice came into in January 2020 has just helped to support the nutrition message. The importance of and the enjoyment of good food. In the dining area of the HPC I was clear that it would be an area that didn’t have to have a link to performance. It wasn’t going to have messages on the wall like ‘Eat to Recover’ or anything like that. It’s a place where you go in to recover by eating tasty food in a social environment that also marries in the sports nutrition principles that we are trying to impart. It’s important to remember that food is more than just fuel for the body; food and mood are strongly connected.”
Despite all the turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the IRFU is currently seeking to fill performance nutrition positions around the provinces which again illustrates the progress that has been made since the journey began back in 2006.