When Arsene Wenger arrived on these shores in the autumn of 1996 he completely revolutionised how athletes thought about training, tactics and, perhaps most importantly of all, nutrition. He stopped his Arsenal players from drinking heavily and eating fast food during the week (we know, different times!) and results on the pitch drastically improved. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so when the rest of football took note, other sports did as well. From that moment on, diet and nutrition has been vital to the performance of elite athletes.
These days every athlete knows the basics, keep the carbohydrates coming in for fuel, and lots of protein for muscle recovery. But here's a question - are there some superfoods that certain professional sport stars simply can't operate without? The answer is a big fat yes. We caught up with Ozcan Esen, a lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition at Manchester Metropolitan University, to find out more...
Rugby - Cottage Cheese
You what? We can’t imagine Owen Farrell or Maro Itoje tucking into a pot of cottage cheese at night but, according to Esen, it is the perfect food to help repair those tired and battered muscles.
“Rugby players already know they need to consume carbs immediately after the match,” he explains. “Usually protein powder or a shake. Cottage cheese contains good protein sources and my suggestion is to eat it when they go home, before they sleep. It will provide specific recovery for their muscles during sleep because overnight our bodies stay without food for the longest period. In the past bodybuilders used to wake up in the middle of the night to eat eggs, it is important for recovery.
“What cottage cheese does is, compared to whey protein or powders, it has leucine, less than protein. It absorbs the minerals in your blood for a longer period and slowly. This is what we need during sleep. Recovery takes up to 48 hours for the muscles.”
Football - Milk
‘Accrington Stanley… who are they?’ That famous saying has stayed with us over the decades but perhaps they were onto something. You see that advert was for Milk, no brand in particular, just the Milk Marketing Board to increase sales, and as it turns out, there is serious scientific evidence to back up that ‘cheesy’ advert.
“After the first football match [of the week] everything is about recovery,” says Esen. “I think the best food in sports nutrition, if there is a magical food, is milk. The milk has really high and good quality protein, it is exactly for repair. It also has a high content of carbohydrates, that is what we need for fuel for our muscles. For rehydration, we need to replace how much we lost from the sweat, it is not only about water, also electrolytes and sodium, which milk contains.
“If you don't like to drink milk, or are vegan, drink soy milk. If you don't like the taste of milk, you can have chocolate milk. It tastes good!”
F1 - Beetroot Juice
Lewis Hamilton is going to bloomin’ love this one. The proud vegan claims his plant-based diet eradicates energy dips during the day, but beetroot juice could be the secret ingredient that separates him from the rest of the pack.
“There is a focus on muscle contraction and even in my own study what I’ve found is there is an effect in the explosive power, plus it affects the cognitive performance so you can keep your concentration always on a high level,” Esen explains.
“All these things actually benefit a Formula One driver in training, outside the car. However, in the car, concentration is key and they experience high G-force during the turns. This can increase blood pressure and what we know is that beetroot juice affects the cardiovascular system, particularly for blood flow. All the sports stuff comes from there.“It’s easy to explain, everyone in the world watched one of the Fast and Furious movies. There is a driver, they start to compete and in part of the competition they click one button - nitrous. This nitrous provides increased fuel flow to the engine, this is why the car speed increases. What beetroot does is exactly the same, beetroot juice has a nitrate inside, this nitrate increases dilation, this dilation increases the blood flow and the blood flow actually delivers the fuel to your muscles.”
Boxing - Cherry Juice
Drinking cherry juice can be the perfect thing to stop your face swelling up like Antonio Margarito’s did against Manny Pacquiao. “It can be effective because it can fight inflammation," insists our expert. "Basically, cherry juice has quercetin. This is a kind of antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties. This provides some decreased muscle soreness, plus it can help decrease swelling, mainly athletes like to use anti-inflammatory drugs but this can be problematic as they can have side effects especially if you have allergies. The cherry juice provides the same effect but it is a natural food.”
Tennis - Bananas (but not too many)
Turns out, tennis players have had it right all along. In every match you see all of the top players chomping on bananas in the breaks between games, while staying hydrated with a swig of water. Esen confirms this stereotype is backed up by science.“Banana is a really great option because it contains a really high amount of carbohydrate, but also potassium and sodium. These two help for muscle contraction but more importantly prevent cramps and also dehydration.
“If we are talking about matches up to five hours, then no matter how many bananas you eat, it will not provide you with what you need. The reason here, for example, think about medium sized banana that has 30g of carbohydrates inside. If you eat five bananas, which means 150g, that's way more than what we suggest per hour. However, the key point here, can you really absorb this amount of carbohydrates? Unfortunately not. We can absorb a maximum of 60g carbohydrate per hour in our muscle, no matter how much carbs or glucose you eat.”
However, there is a way to get round your body's natural limits to give yourself more energy.
“If you intake multiple carbohydrates sources, then we can increase the 60g up to 90g,” Esen adds. “This is why you could combine banana and apple for example.”
So there you have it, budding pros. The grocers and health food stores are calling.