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Opinion: The GAA Need To Move With The Times When It Comes To Nutrition

Bord Gais Energy GAA Hurling All Ireland Under 21 Championship Semi-Final 25/8/2012 General view of a GAA sideline flag Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

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The GAA train of thought regarding nutrition is still very much old-school.

With pre-season campaigns starting earlier and earlier, as physical training begins to entail so much more than just ‘a few laps’ and ‘sprints to the 45’ and as amateur athletes are expected to perform at professional levels, even on the club scene, we examine the existing views around nutrition in the GAA and whether it needs to change.

During the past five years or so, we have seen a spike in interest in nutrition, strength training and general fitness in Ireland. This newfound appreciation for honing the body has made its way into the GAA mainstream slowly but surely. Top level inter-county athletes, particularly Gaelic footballers, have begun to resemble beefed-up backs in rugby.

Players now are expected to be lean, mobile athletes bristling with muscle in order to withstand the rigours of the modern game. A quick look at Damien Comer’s hit on Diarmuid O’Connor a couple weekends ago, or Padraic Maher’s thunderous hit on Joe Canning in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final provide the evidence behind this train of thought.

Yet, among the old-school and the die-hards, who long for a return to the days when great stickmen like Offaly’s Johnny Pilkington could smoke a cigarette at half-time, without castigation, there seems to be an unwillingness to move with the times.

DJ Carey’s recent views on nutrition show us that the GAA still seems rooted in the past, in terms of thinking on the matter.

The man known as ‘The Dodger’ possessed a silky touch, a lightning turn of pace and a deadly eye for goal, that broke many opposition hearts. In a column published in the Irish Mirror, Carey also showed a slightly naive view on nutrition in the sport today.

Carey was discussing Brendan O’Sullivan’s failed drug test and felt that the blame for the failed test lay at the feet of the modern need for supplements.

“Now, it’s got to a stage where everyone seems to be taking supplements of some sort. I remember a time when John Treacy was on TV advising against taking any of that, that you were running an unnecessary risk.”

A player runs the same risk of ingesting a prohibitive substance with most modern medication. Inhalers, for example, are notorious for setting off drug tests.

All Ireland Senior Hurling Final Kilkenny 14/9/2003 DJ Carey raises the Liam McCarthy Cup on Hill 16 Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

O’Sullivan took a tainted weight loss supplement from a company called Falcon Labs, according to an Irish Independent report earlier this month. The taking of such a product is always going to run the risk of including ingredients that may not be labelled. But Carey’s views on nutrition and supplements as a whole require updating.

“I remember this thing of taking a tablet that would give you as much vitamins as a certain amount of fruit would. Why not just eat the fruit?”

Aoife Hearne, of Operation Transformation fame, has worked with the Tipperary senior hurlers from 2009.

Earlier this year, she was interviewed in the Irish Examiner and outlined her basic rules on nutrition for GAA players.

Regarding eating patterns, Hearne had this to say:

“The key is for players to eat every three hours or so, and when they eat, that the meal contains carbohydrate and protein. At breakfast time, often people have a bowl of cereal, if anything, but some kind of protein source is important; nuts, eggs, or peanut butter on toast rather than jam.

“With the snacks, rather than having a piece of fruit, have a couple, and a good handful of nuts. Smaller portions of protein throughout the day – rather than two big portions at lunch and dinner.

“What you really want at dinner time is half the plate full of carbs – high fibre brown pasta, potatoes, rice, noodles, a quarter of protein, i.e. a chicken fillet or 4oz of steak/beef, or fish, and then a quarter of the plate with veg. At the start of the season, we also want to make sure that players are moving away from creamy sauces and fried food, to more tomato-based sauces.”

All Ireland Hurling Final Cork vs Kilkenny 12/9/2004 DJ Carey of Kilkenny gets away from Ben O'Connor of Cork Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Patrick Bolger

Eating wholesome food every three hours or so, along with taking in the recommended two litres of water, may prove difficult for some athletes. Be it timing, cost, appetite or other commitments, getting to the table every three hours may be too difficult for many.

The average athlete today requires approximately 2500 to 3500 calories depending on their size/workload to remain functional.

But what does that look like?

2500 Calories

Meal Menu

(360 )

 8 egg whites

1 whole egg

½ cup uncooked oats


(300 )

8-10 strawberries

2 slices wheat bread

1 tbsp almond/peanut butter


(550 calories)

150g chicken

200g sweet potato

One cup of broccoli

2 tbsp of olive oil

Mid-Day snack

(550 calories)

150g chicken

1 cup brown rice

3 cups spinach/mixed greens

6 slices of Avocado


(410 calories)

170g White Fish

1 cup steamed vegetables

1/3 cup brown rice

Post Workout

(330 calories)

500mls Protein Shake, 1 apple

Now, this is at the lower end of the scale, and most inter-county athletes would be in calorie deficit following this diet. Basically, they’d be burning more calories than they’d be taking in due to a heavy training schedule that could see them taking part in strenuous physical activity six days a week from November to September (if they’re lucky).

While this would be perfect for shedding weight, it’s not so ideal if they’re trying to maintain or grow muscle mass.

Based on this evidence, in order to simply maintain size and keep themselves fuelled for the necessary workload required from an inter-county hurler or footballer that athlete has to up their calorie intake.

3500 Calories

Meal Menu

(700-800 calories)

2 whole wheat tortillas each with ¼ cup or 1 slice 2% cheese,

1 scrambled egg and 2-3 oz lean bacon

1 fruit

250ml 2% milk


(350 calories)

1 whole wheat mini bagel with 2 Tbsp peanut butter and 2 Tbsp

all-natural jam/marmalade


(700-800 calories)

1 whole wheat pitta bread with 170g chicken breast, ½ cup 2% grated

cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sauce

15 whole wheat crackers or baked chips

1 banana

500ml low-fat chocolate milk or 100% juice

Post-Workout snack

(250-350 calories)

200-250 calorie energy/protein bar

Sports drink


(700-800 calories)

170-250g meat, (chicken, fish, beef, pork)

2 cups vegetables

2 cups carbohydrate item (pasta, rice, potato, sweet potato, peas,

crackers, beans, corn, fruit)

Side salad with dressing, if desired

500ml 2% milk


(350-450 calories)

Shake made with: 2 scoops high-calorie protein powder in 500ml 2% milk

1 thick and creamy yogurt

1 banana

This might be fine for the voracious among us, but what of those who simply can’t pack themselves with food? What of the players who simply don’t have time, with work, college or family commitments to prepare the necessary amounts of wholesome food needed to keep their bodies ticking over?

Thus, herein lies the need for supplements. To decide that supplements are an evil cast over the ‘pure’ GAA, based on one failed drugs test, is just outdated. While supplements should not replace a healthy, balanced diet, they are incredibly useful. Oftentimes, supplements are necessary in order for an athlete to sustain the ever-increasing demands placed upon them.

A player finishing work in Dublin at 5pm and hitting the M6 to tear back to Galway for training at 7:30pm may not have the time to pull in and load up on a trough full of pasta and chicken because he didn’t get a chance to grab much for lunch, bar a sandwich and a banana. However, what he might be able to do instead is get a protein shake in while on the road and keep himself fuelled for the training ahead.

Brendan O’Sullivan definitely made a costly error in his choice of supplement, but this does not mean that supplements are a major issue in the GAA. Kerry boss Eamon Fitzmaurice is one who agrees with this. In an interview with the Irish Times recently, this was his view.

Allianz Football League Division 3 11/3/2012 General view of a Drug Testing sign in Semple Stadium Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

“In the Kerry set up, we’ve a ‘food first’ motto, that the lads get their nutritional needs from food, as much as they possibly can.

“However, because of the nature of how hard they train, they are advised on supplements they can take. Supplement has become a dirty word. Supplement is an add on to their diet, not a replacement.”

If anyone would be in a position to damn supplements, due to the trouble they have caused, it would be Fitzmaurice, but he still holds a balanced view on their usage.

Lack of knowledge surrounding nutrition and diet are far scarier issues facing the GAA.

Noel Ryan, Pundit Arena

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