Nutrition is always key ingredient in our success
The pre-season period is probably one of the busiest times for the coaching and playing staff in Munster and it's certainly no different in the strength and conditioning department.
There is a perception that because there are no matches taking place, that players and staff are on holidays, but if anything the two months before the season starts is the busiest of the campaign.
That time presents an opportunity where we can effect the most change and trial strategies that we may hope to use throughout the competitive season.
At the end of last season, before the players left they were all given targets on where we expected them to be when they returned from holidays. These included weight, body composition and fitness targets. While we do want the players to switch off and get some time away from rugby, it is also important that they come back ready to train well for pre-season.
The days of showing up with some extra padding are long gone.
As soon as the squad returned, our Head of Fitness, Aled Walters, gave everyone detailed weekly plans and their daily schedules. My role is to look at the daily schedules and devise nutrition plans to support the demands of training.
Our focus was around achieving optimal weight and body composition for each individual. We had to have players in prime condition and ready for whatever challenge they next faced in pre-season, be it speed, strength and endurance training, or on-field training.
To achieve those goals we had to have plans for pre-fuelling and nutrition during training, but, most importantly, we need strategies to support recovery and adaptation to the training undertaken.
Players were given meal plans with weighed measurements on ingredients used to help achieve this. I also worked closely with the different caterers both in Limerick and Cork who supply to us to ensure the best-quality ingredients and the best nutritional composition of the meals they provide.
Supplements of course have a role to play in this, but at Munster we adopt a 'food first' approach, where we aim to get the nutrients required from food, and we only look to supplements when players are unable to meet their requirements from food.
This might be the case for particularly heavy players as many recommendations nutritionists give are done on the basis of body weight. It is much easier to meet the needs of a 90kg back than a 120kg forward.
During pre-season we assess the body composition and weight of each player at three different time points: at the beginning; halfway through the pre-season; and again at the end. We use callipers and anthropometric measurements to assess the amounts of fat that players have stored subcutaneously.
Different positions require different body compositions - a winger needs to be leaner than a prop - so the targets differ for everyone. We use mathematical algorithms to estimate lean muscle mass and these figures, along with the speed and strength assessments undertaken, provide us with objective data on whether we are achieving what we set out to.
The boys are taught lifestyle and cooking skills to help them to plan better, execute plans and achieve goals. My role here involves developing cookery classes, providing recipes and meal plans, sometimes doing supermarket tours with the players, speaking with their partners (or parents for the younger lads) to make sure food choices and portion sizes at home, food preparation and cooking are all aligned with our policies.
I get asked all the time about what the players eat, and we aim to refuel the players with healthy foods while delivering the required sustenance and energy that they need to perform.
For example, a typical dinner for the players at Munster Rugby is baked salmon with greens and couscous, which includes: asparagus, runner beans, peas, broccoli, lemon juice, fresh mint, olive oil, black pepper, salt and plain Greek yoghurt.
So pre-season was a busy time, but it's very gratifying to see the boys back out on the pitch, performing and winning games. To know that nutrition is one of the cogs that has helped them to achieve results is a real pleasure.