Wales: Eating their way to the Grand Slam
Written by Connor Southwell — March 16, 2019
FELLOW residents at the Vale Resort may have thought Wales’ players were just attacking the buffet last week, but there was science behind everything they ate.
The man behind the meal plan was performance nutritionist Jon Williams, who has worked with Warren Gatland’s side for the past decade.
It’s his job to ensure the players had maximum energy, were not bloated and had retained muscle mass when they took to the field for their 25-7 win over Ireland on Saturday. Victory landed the third Grand Slam of the Gatland era, making him the first coach to ever achieve such a feat.
Williams worked in football for 10 years before joining Wales, serving Cardiff, Leicester, West Brom and Bolton, and also runs a hugely successful supplements company, Pro Athlete Supplementation, with former Olympic gold medalist Darren Campbell.
Williams told TGG about how he has managed Wales’ nutrition in the run-up to their big game, and how a product called Colour-Fit, devised and developed by Preston Head of Performance Dr Tom Little, has helped him.
WEEK BEFORE THE GAME
Jon Williams: I plan out a weekly menu in terms of every meal. Then I sit down with the team chef, Andre Moore, and he’ll give his input.
Andre will say ‘can I try this?’ It’s a two-way conversation. We did a Japanese theme night a few weeks ago to give the players a taste of what’s coming at the World Cup in Japan and they absolutely loved it. That was Andre’s idea.
It’s so important to have a good performance chef - more important than a good nutritionist in fact. If you have taste and variety on a daily basis combined with good nutrition then it has such a huge impact on morale among the players.
I can send on a menu, but if the chef isn’t great it doesn’t matter how much detail and flair I put into it, it will come out as slop. There is a lot of work in prepping for 60 people four days a week. For me to prepare the menus is half an hour’s work; the chefs are working 10 hours a day. They have to own it and control it. I give them the starting point and they take it from there.
In each meal you’re trying to achieve a certain balance of protein, carbs and good fats. I tend to have a buffet of mixed options, but then you have to work with each player to educate them so they know which options are best for their goals and needs. There is a lot of science involved in nutrition, so the key thing is to be able to convey that to the player in terms they can understand.
This is where Colour-Fit has been so beneficial for me. They have a huge bank of recipes for breakfast, lunch, evening meals and snacks. The snacks menu is great because they’re really quick and easy things for people to do.
There’s a great data bank of recipes they’ve put together. The thing you always tend to be asked by the players is ‘can I have some different recipes, I’m bored of the four you’ve given me.’ Colour-Fit helps me to provide that variety.
The other thing is it’s an education resource. They’ve put together a range of infographics, whether it’s travelling nutrition, injury nutrition, illness nutrition, and that helps to explain to the players what they're eating and why.
There's different information like nutrition for travelling, nutrition for injury, and you could print that out and stick it up in your physio room for the players.
It allows the nutrition to work a lot more effectively, it’s a resource to make the players and practitioners better at what they do.
WHAT IS COLOUR-FIT?
Colour-Fit was set up by Preston Head of Performance Dr Tom Little in 2017. The product aims to help players and practitioners make better choices about nutrition by dividing dishes into three food goals: green (fuel), red (lean muscle) and gold (health).
The company has more than 70 sport and academic clients, including 10 Premier League teams. Colour-Fit has just unveiled a number of improvements for 2019 after partnering with wellbeing company hero.
A new app, described by Williams as a "game changer" has been launched.
"The app will be perfect for the players to use," he told TGG. "A lot of my players use Google Drive for the menus and recipes, but this will open it up to a massive audience."
There are meal plans and builders; a new intuitive calorie load function; a food database and diary; health score rating; and shopping list.
In all there are more than 300 meals, along with video diaries. And Colour-Fit has partnered with tech giant to launch artificial intelligence features.
There is also the possibility of having dishes made for you, after Colour-Fit brought a food prep company on board.
For Wales, our chef is there for every home game and travels to away games too. For home games we’re at the Vale Resort. We send the menus to the hotel and they order the food. We give them certain specifications - grass fed meat, free range eggs, locally-sourced vegetables - and the chef will arrive the day before to double-check everything with the hotel head chef and make sure everything is available on arrival.
If we’re at an away game, we always have a steak before we fly to get the boys nice and full so they’re not hungry. On Thursday evening we have a meal at six and snacks. Friday, the day before the game, the players have a breakfast, lunch, a team run in the stadium in the afternoon, an evening meal and then another snack before bed.
If it’s an early kick off, like it is against Ireland at the Millennium, then I’ll tend to go more carb-based and lighten it up, with chicken and fish instead of red meats. For a late kick off, I can go a bit heavier and protein-based on the meals.
On Saturday, as it’s an early match against Ireland (2.45pm kick-off), we will have breakfast at about 8am and a little top-up around 10.45am. Breakfast is pretty standard - omelette or scrambled eggs and a bit of toast and maybe a little bit of bacon, sometimes some beans. We have omelette chefs at the hotel. Some of the players will have porridge with fruit.
Then, at 10.45am, the boys will either have something light like an oat and banana pancake or we do an overnight oats - oats soaked with protein and some fruit chopped in. It’s light and easy to use. For a later kick-off we’ll do things like spaghetti bolognese or pasta with chicken, but not many players want that before 11 in the morning.
One of the key things you try to do is make sure the players’ glycogen stores are filled up.
Often that’s not hard to do, because Friday is quite a light training day and they have all day eating to refuel. Then all you’re looking to do is top up.
What we also do is try to make sure we keep some protein in on game day, because otherwise you find you can start to lose muscle. The players are used to eating protein throughout the week, so you need to try and keep that in on match day. You then try and make sure the meal is a balance of proteins and carbs, so you get a slow, steady release of energy into the game.
We track the players’ body weight throughout the week and never want them to be lighter on game day than they were two days before. If they are lighter in the morning of the game, then we will check their hydration. If they are hydrated, it would likely be a glycogen store issue, so we’ll increase carb intake over the next couple of hours.
Eating too many carbs can make you feel lethargic, so it’s always about eating as much as you need to maintain your weight and those glycogen stores.
We can weigh in before and after the game, but you have to be careful about that, because if they’re down it might affect them psychologically.
At half time, it will be an isotonic drink and/ or an energy gel. There’s too much adrenalin to eat too much. There might be some grapes out as well, but no more than that.
When they come in immediately after the game they will get a recovery smoothie with whey protein, frozen berries and cherry concentrate to reduce inflammation. There will also be a range of protein bars or flapjacks and snack food like chicken goujons or pizza pieces, to stimulate appetite with the eyes.
You hear about some teams having pizzas after the game, but in the four hours afterwards I want the players to be putting as much good nutrition into their bodies as possible. The body is crying out for good quality nutrition after a physical, intense game like we'll have this afternoon.
After that four-hour window we say they can put other things in. The amount of fat in junk food makes it slow to digest and one of these stuffed crust pizzas might have 60g of fat, so it will sit in the gut for ages.
We’re looking to get all the nutrients back into the muscle as quick as possible to replenish muscle glycogen, to repair muscle damage, to reduce inflammation, and chances are you won’t get that with a four cheese pizza.