Food For Thought…

As Head of Nutrition for Ireland rugby, Emma Gardner explains how healthy eating can improve overall wellbeing and performance. Photography: Irish Rugby/IRFU

Emma Gardner has worked with leading athletes all over the world. As an expert in sports nutrition, she has helped Olympic and professional athletes keep on top of their game with her advice on what to eat and when.

Recently appointed as Head of Nutrition with Ireland rugby (IRFU), she started her career in sports nutrition after leaving university when she began working for Lucozade Sport, educating sponsored teams and athletes on nutrition.

She went on to join the English Institute of Sport (EIS) in 2012 as an intern where she supported a number of GB Olympic teams as well as professional rugby players: “It was great to have a job working across both Olympic and professional sport and I was fortunate to experience success. During my time with EIS, I attended two Olympic Games as part of Team GB – Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020,” says Emma, who also worked with Northampton Saints Rugby Club before moving on to start a role with England cricket: “I worked with the men’s team from 2017 to 2022, experiencing their World Cup win.”

Coming from a sporting background, Emma played netball and football at school and went on to play cricket for Lancashire. Having attended St Mary’s College, Blackburn, her love of sports continued at university where she studied Sport and Exercise Science at Birmingham and went on to study in Manchester and London where she studied Sports Nutrition.

Her latest role with Ireland rugby is she says, very different: “I’ve worked in team sports my entire career, but rugby is totally different. Firstly, there is the volume of players you look after – most tours involve 30 or 40 players and on a match days you’re providing nutritional support for 23 to 30 players so logistically it’s a big effort!

“Then there’s the sheer volume of what they need to eat. The senior male players eat vast amount to cater for their nutritonal needs – six times a day – which is a challenge in itself.”

Having worked in sports nutrition for more than a decade, Emma has seen how the role has changed: “When I first started most sports didn’t have a nutritionist and if they did it would be very much a part time tole. Now most professional sports have at least one full time nutritionist.

“As a discipline, the understanding around what nutrition can add to sport and performance has really increased – nutrition is aligned to other disciplines such as physiotherapy and psychology – it’s not just about food and fuelling athletes. The value placed on nutrition and the practitioners has really grown, which is great.”

Emma’s role with the Irish rugby team includes working closely with the players and liaising with the team chefs: “First and foremost they are a lovely bunch of players and staff to work with,” she says.

“Everyone buys into nutrition as they understand the importance of it for their performance. Even though they are all involved in the same sport, they each have their own needs and requirements so their nutrition will be individualised taking into account their day to day fuelling and recovery strategies, training programmes and daily supplements.

“It’s often assumed that professional sports players use a lot of supplements, but we don’t. We have a food first approach and encourage a balanced diet with lots of colours (fruit and vegetables) to provide the nutrients they need.

“During travel or tournaments, we may include a multivitamin and probiotics and in winter maybe vitamin D, but nothing really beyond that unless a player specifically requires it.”

On match days, and pre-match days, it’s Emma’s job to ensure each player eats regularly: “These are fuelling days so typically the day before a match, a player will eat breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, a mid-afternoon meal, evening meal and a pre-bed snack. The focus around games will be predominantly carbohydrates with some protein. Post-match the emphasis is on protein for muscle repair and regeneration and carbs to replenish their energy stores.”

Emma works closely with the team’s performance chefs to ‘periodise’ the players’ menus: “This means we adapt the menu to the players’ training and match day requirements. On training days we increase the carbohydrate content, on other days we may increase good quality protein and plenty of colours to support recovery. Optimising the relationship between catering and nutrition is key in my role,” says Emma. “I also work closely with the coaches to ensure we deliver an aligned approach to performance.”

Preparation for match days begins 48 hours before when the players arrive at the team hotel. The day before a game is a ‘captain’s run’ where the team do a training session together: “Other than that it’s a lot of eating and relaxing.

“On match days I go five hours ahead of the team to prepare all drinks and nutrition strategies. In the World Cup the prep took even longer as we had high temperatures and additional water breaks.”

With big tournaments, like the forthcoming Six Nations, it is anticipated that the team will arrive at camp two or three weeks before it begins: “With the World Cup we arrived in camp in June and the tournament didn’t start until September. Generally however, with tournaments like the Six Nations we will arrive, two or three weeks before as players have provincial team commitments and are training and playing there so they are always ticking over.”

Emma’s ‘food is mood’ ethos has, she says, been embraced by the Irish team: “They are easy to cater for. They just love food and lots of it! They like a steak and if they had the choice, some would have it every day. They also love a roast dinner so we have one every week while in camp, to keep everyone happy!

“When it comes to nutrition we’re very fortunate that the players set high standards for themselves. They want to be professional and they know when they need to perform.

“However, with that they know the times when they can relax and, of course, after wins and long tournaments, we always celebrate as a group.”



Tedd Walmsley

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