Changing habits both on and off the paddock
With most of the senior squad off last week, there is always the temptation for players to put nutrition on the back burner for a few days.
Like any sport where there is a large squad involved, you will get quite a mix in terms of who might manage their nutrition well and who might not!
That said, I was very happy with the majority of the players on their return this week.
Food is a very social thing, so on a week off I don't expect players to stick to their usual 'training diets'.
I want them to enjoy their food and their time away from the Sportsground, but at the same time, players know that one bad week of eating and drinking can undo a lot of the good work that they may have put in this season.
That is partly why we do regular body composition, or skin-fold monitoring, with the players. This gives us an idea of how much body fat a player is carrying in relation to his overall weight, and as rugby is a collision sport, we are always trying to optimise lean muscle mass and overall body weight - those factors will influence their performance hugely.
Diet obviously has a large role to play in terms of body size and composition, but more than that, nutrition has a big impact on training and performance.
If players are not well fuelled and hydrated going into a training session they are going to find the session harder than normal, and concentration levels may decrease.
If their recovery nutrition after a session is not timely and in the right proportions, it can hamper the recovery process.
We want our players to be able to train two or three times a day four of five days a week and to be able to do this to the best of their ability. Their diet and nutrition is going to play a significant part.
Some specific nutrients such as protein, omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D might be of particular interest to rugby players as these are associated with key factors such as lean muscle mass, inflammation and immune and muscle function.
On a daily basis as the performance nutritionist for Connacht, I might be looking at GPS data to see distances covered in training, rehabilitation sessions to see what stage of rehab a player is at or speaking with the team doctor to see if any nutritional deficiencies have been identified in blood testing, all of which contributes to the player's individual nutrition plan.
Interestingly, in a training week like this, the players' energy requirements may actually be higher than that of a match week as the volumes covered, and intensity of trainings may be greater than that of a match week.
During training weeks like this it is probably even more important that players are planned and organised in terms of their food and nutrition as they have less time to prepare meals.
To help the guys make the best possible choices when they are hungry and tired after a long days training, preparation is key, hence I spend a lot of time looking for, and adjusting, recipes to help them choose wisely - this week's recipes included overnight oats, energy balls and turkey burgers!
This is the first time that Connacht has had a full-time performance nutritionist.
My role is split 50-50 between the seniors and then the academy/sub academy and National Talent Squad programme. This means that players are starting to get nutrition support, mainly through workshops, as young as 16 years of age.
So over time, the nutrition knowledge, and hopefully habits and practices, of our players coming through the academy programme will be greater than it has been before.
The players here in Connacht are very good at setting both their own, and team performance goals.
Most of these goals will rely on their nutrition being at its best, so this means that I rarely need to motivate the players to improve their nutrition.
Instead I might need to keep on their shoulder to make sure they are doing what they know they should be doing!
Good nutrition is based on changing behaviours, and behavioural change doesn't happen overnight so I think I will be busy for a while yet!