The revelation a few seasons ago that Hawthorn players were downing pizzas after their matches came as a surprise to many.
In an era where nothing is left to chance in elite sports performance, why would a club sully its finely tuned athletes with greasy takeaway as recovery fuel? Had a run of poor performances driven them to emotional eating? Or had they discovered something about pizza the rest of us didn’t know?
Before you reach for the phone to order that thick crust barbecue meat-lovers with extra cheese, allow a food expert to explain what the Hawks were thinking.
Sports dietitian and fitness consultant Lisa Sutherland was behind the scenes at Hawthorn for five years, and explains that the lower fat pizzas with quality, healthy toppings were carefully selected to ensure players’ optimal recovery.
“The key thing is to get some carbohydrates in, plus some protein. And for players, they actually lose a lot of salt in their sweat, so having something that’s got a little bit of salt in it after exercise is actually quite a good thing,” she explains.
Over the past 10 years, Sutherland has worked with VFL club Port Melbourne and Essendon, Hawthorn and now St Kilda in the AFL. She says the role of an AFL dietitian involves planning, research and preparation to ensure players are getting the most out of their bodies.
Pre-season is always a busy time, assessing new players and conducting talks and cooking lessons primarily aimed at educating the younger players about nutrition. Individual eating patterns are discussed and meal plans developed to help players meet specific goals related to fitness and performance requirements.
Body fat and weight measurements are taken for monitoring throughout the season.
“Body composition change is related to both diet and their training,” Sutherland says. “We monitor that pretty carefully. We also monitor hydration. We get the players to do hydration testing and monitor their fluid loss.”
The evolving science of nutrition constantly offers new insights and approaches to peak performance. Recovery techniques are being improved through a better understanding of the effects of different nutrients.
“That’s a fairly new and emerging area where a lot of research is being done, looking at micro-nutrients – antioxidants and vitamins and minerals – and how they can play a part in performance and recovery,” Sutherland explains. “That’s where the pizzas come in.”
But new technology can also present dangers. With a vast array of supplements available ranging from fads and gimmicks through to banned substances, player education is a crucial component to Sutherland’s role.
“Elite athletes need to be careful in terms of what they take so they’re not going to produce a positive drug test,” Sutherland says.
“So we need to check anything herbal or supplements that are made overseas, we need to get them checked by the doctor at the club and often run it by ASADA (Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority) as well to make sure everything’s okay.”
Interstate travel entails working in with flight and training itineraries, and phoning ahead to organise suitable catering options. Sutherland needs to be aware of player food allergies – pineapple, kiwi fruit and mushroom are some uncommon examples she has encountered – to ensure meals ordered in bulk are not a danger.
The biggest challenge is convincing younger players to adopt the right habits.
“A lot of the players coming into AFL clubs now are 17-18, at that age where a lot of their friends are out drinking and eating lots of takeaway and that sort of thing,” she says.
But in the past five or six years, Sutherland has noticed a more proactive approach from players looking to improve their nutrition. The increased professionalism of the AFL has left them no choice, as a poor diet will quickly show up on the training track.
“That’s where they’ll find they’re not getting the results they’re looking for,” she says. “In the gym, their energy levels aren’t as good, they won’t be recovering as well, so it shows up.”