WHILE taking a break from our day-to-day lives, many of us tune in to watch our favourite sport stars take to the field, whatever their sport may be. But have you ever considered what the day-to-day life of a professional athlete looks like?
For this week’s column, I caught up with Derry senior footballer and former Hawthorn FC player Conor Glass to discuss a typical day in the life of an elite athlete, considering the impact of both on-field attributes and off-field habits on his career this far.
Having spent most of my career as a Performance Dietitian working with professional athletes, I can appreciate the consistent hard work and continuous personal development it takes to competitively excel within your sport. With this in mind, consistently working on and improving each element of your game (including both physical and mental stamina) is the key to success and competing for selection (and championships).
I met with Conor, and he provided some insight into his personal mentality during his time at Hawthorn FC: “The way I look at it, in elite sport you are only ‘working’ (training) for a couple of hours per day and it is the time off (after training) that you can fall behind. It is all well and good putting in the hard work in the gym or out on the pitch, but if you aren’t making smart choices off the pitch, then is all your hard work going to pay off?”
As we spoke a little more on the importance of sound off-field behaviours, Conor alluded to the importance of considering nutritional recovery, sleep and some well-deserved down time after the training day.
“Sleep is massively important to me. As this was my full-time job, I looked to control all elements that could affect my performance, including sleep. I would have been in bed around 10pm and got up around 8am for training when I was in Oz. Getting into a good sleep routine is probably one of the best forms of recovery you can have and something I looked to control daily.”
Conor and I then went on to discuss how it can be a common misconception that all our performance and training gains are met through physical training alone, i.e. gym and/or pitch work. However, in order to maximise our athletic development and training adaptations, considering and implementing all elements of recovery (including nutritional intake, sleep and relaxation methods to name a few) are essential.
Looking to life now as an intercounty player, we discussed the challenges he faced during the transition from a professional setting to an amateur sport, which is essentially played at a professional level.
“Since I have moved home, it has been a smooth transition so far. As you have mentioned, we (GAA players) pretty much train and play at a professional level and so there haven’t been huge differences in that regard. I suppose in terms of nutrition, a lot of lads work and go straight to training, so we need to be a little more independent when it comes to preparing food around our working day. In Oz, as training was our job, a lot of our food needs would have been met throughout the training day – we were very lucky in that regard.”
Conor and I then moved on to discuss the topic of immune health and how we should always look to support our immune function to minimise illness risk. From my own time working in sport, some players focus solely on eating for performance and body composition outcomes and forget about the necessity to fuel for health and well-being.
Further, when undergoing high training volumes and prolonged periods of competition, increased stress is put on our immune systems and therefore we should aim to support this through optimising diet, sleep and hygiene practices.
Conor added: “If you are not training and performing in front of coaches (due to illness), that doesn’t go unnoticed. The amount of time you can spend on a training field will be hugely impactful compared to always being sick and not turning up to training sessions. We always used the analogy: treat your body like a Lamborghini. You wouldn’t put the wrong fuel into it, and so would you do the same to your body?”
Conor then went on to add that he has always had a large emphasis on a ‘food first’ approach when considering his diet, with very few nutritional supplements utilised during his professional career. Further on this topic, we discussed the importance of basing your nutritional intake on a balanced diet (including an array of essential nutrients) at an elite level, as considering the type, total and timing of our food intake has greater impact on recovery, health and performance rather than worrying about our next supplement ‘fix’.
The conversation quickly moved to the topic of fuelling around match day. “I have a two-day ritual leading up to a game starting with breakfast the day before the game. In the morning, I usually go for Special K or Weetabix and then a chicken wrap and a slice of banana bread after a light training session. In the afternoon, I will have a snack or two and then go for spaghetti bolognese and garlic bread for dinner. I always finish off the day with a hot chocolate before bed.”
From my own experience, I commonly see players who feel the need to overload with carbohydrate foods the day of a match rather than effectively carbohydrate load in the 24-36 hours pre-game, which Conor has exemplified. Further, we then discussed how the day of a game should be used as a means to ‘top up’ energy stores rather than ‘load’ with larger quantities of food.
“I remember hearing rumours when I was younger that you needed to eat pasta before a game, so when I was playing u-16 I used to have a huge bowl of pasta an hour before the match. Whereas now, the day of a game I don’t eat as much. For a 3pm throw in, I will have a banana and a slice of toast with peanut butter and jam and something light an hour or two before the game. I think as you mentioned, it is so important for younger players to look for accurate nutrition information as there isn’t a one diet fits all and what we can tolerate (for example pre match) will be individual to each player.”
And on the topic of match day, what about your go to post match meal?
“Either pizza or burgers and chips. After a game, chilling and having a pizza or burgers with your teammates is important for team chemistry and banter” – and refuel of course!
To finish our conversation, I asked Conor if he had any advice for an underage footballer coming up through an age grade pathway within their county/club. “As I have touched on before, do what is right for you as everyone is individual. Invest in off-field habits and begin to develop good behaviours from a young age to support your development as a player.”
Anne Marie is a Sport Dietitian who works with Derry GAA and Ulster Rugby. Contact her for more information @theperformancedietitian or via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.