Rugby Fuel: Nutrition Tips for Maximum Performance on the Field


Rugby is an intermittent field sport which has repetitive, short, high intensity bouts of running, accelerations, decelerations, directional changes and high-impact collisions (Bridgeman & Gill, 2021).

Fuelling any intermittent, high-intensity activity is largely based around carbohydrate intake (Bradley et al, 2016, Thomas et al, 2016). The approach to fuelling a team sport will be periodised throughout the year. Fuelling isn’t a linear thing, and as the season progresses, there can be different focuses from a nutritional perspective.

Players have an off-season, where nutritional habits can be much different to in-season, leading into pre-season which is all about building your engine to navigate the demands of the game. After pre-season, competition starts and the focus changes from chasing training adaptations and body compositional improvements to peak performance (Mujika et al, 2018, Stellinwerff et al, 2019).

Rugby is currently reaching the business end of the amateur and professional club season. The international game runs on a bit longer and therefore the demands are even harder for those that are privileged enough to compete at that level. The players’ main focus is fuelling optimally and recovering repeatedly during the week to perform at their best.

There’s a lot more to sports nutrition than fuelling and carbohydrates. First, you must focus on being a healthy person to become a high performing athlete. That includes consuming your 5-7 portions of fruit and vegetables, eating a high fibre diet for gut health and vitamin and mineral absorption, and consuming adequate protein servings to repair and recover from training. However, under fuelling is one of the main contributing factors to both acute and chronic underperformance, and therefore it’s always a topic of conversation for players and nutritionists.

A weekly training schedule for most teams will include two main pitch sessions, two or more gym sessions and a match at the weekend. As you progress through the professional ranks, there can be multiple skills and units sessions added to that workload. As the training frequency and intensity increases, so too does the need for food, fuel, and carbohydrates specifically.

Periodising your week means differentiating the energy and carbohydrate requirements needed on pitch days, double session days, rest days, carbohydrate loading days (game day -1) and the game day itself.

Training day requirements of carbohydrate would be in the region of 3-5g per kilo of bodyweight (Burke et al, 2011, Bradley et al, 2016). Rugby players can generally range between 85-120kg, give or take. For heavier training days, a 100kg athlete would be aiming for around 400-500g of carbohydrates to support their fuelling and refuelling strategies. In food terms, this is the equivalent of 7 large potatoes or 1.5 loaves of bread.

This could increase to 3-6g/kg for professional athletes that have multiple sessions on the same day. The body’s storage capacity for carbohydrates is limited at around 500g and therefore it is vital that players replace any used carbohydrate during training with carbohydrate-based foods afterwards (Acheson et al, 1988).

In practice, not all players will approach their nutrition with a focus on the numbers. Some people love the details and use numbers to control their intake. Others don’t want to know anything about that and would prefer to use habits or a general guideline based approach. Both can work quite well.

There are some easy ways to change your carbohydrate and energy intake without having to track or use a calculator! I usually try to lay out a baseline diet with players so they can tick off the essential and non-negotiable guidelines around their diet. As training increases, we can then start adding more foods in a positive sense. If we start with a carbohydrate loading or heavy training day and then pull foods out for light days, it can have a negative effect on a players mindset around their nutrition intake.

For example, breakfast in the morning could be a medium bowl of porridge with toppings such as nuts and seeds with fruit. Players may use whey protein alongside cereal-based breakfasts to bump up their overall protein intake. On a heavier training day, a player might add honey to the porridge with a glass of orange juice on the side and more oats if appetite allows. The mid-morning yogurt and fruit bowl could be increased by adding a serving of granola. Main meals can be added to by increasing portion sizes of pasta, potato, rice, breads etc. An evening snack using cereals and breads are easy ways to increase carbohydrate intake.

As players finish their last training session of the week, their focus should then move towards preparing for the match at the weekend.

On the day before a match, players will load up on carbohydrates in an attempt to maximise their carbohydrate stores for the match the next day (Bussau et al, 2002). This will include adding more carbohydrate-based foods such as potatoes, pasta, rice, breads and cereals, while including lower fibre foods such as pancakes, juices, sauces and cereal bars to ease the digestive load.

The main aim of a carbohydrate loading day is to do the fuelling early, so you can eat a bit more comfortably on match day. Players can often lose their appetite on match day due to nerves and distractions. To ensure adequate fuelling on game day, simpler forms of carbohydrates can be relied upon, such as cereals, pancakes, smoothies and lower fibre carbohydrate sources such as white rice, even jellies, biscuits and sports drinks play an important role in easing the fullness of one’s stomach.

Carbohydrate loading strategies would increase players’ carbohydrate needs to about 6g per kilo of bodyweight, or a total carbohydrate load of 600g, to ensure carbohydrate stores are maximal before embarking on match day (Bradley et al, 2016).

As match day rolls around, players prefer to eat to comfort and the challenge for nutritionists is finding foods that can allow a comfortable digestive situation while ensuring the player is consuming enough carbohydrates to facilitate their performance.

The meal that gives structure to a match day routine is the pre-match meal. This is the last big meal that a player will eat and a lot of the team schedule will rely on the timing of the pre-match feed.

The American College of Sports Medicine advises to consume your meal 1-4 hours before the game. In practice, if this is a main meal, it should be consumed 3-4 hours before the kick-off time to give time to digest. The aim is to consume 1-4g/kg carbohydrate, while keeping the meal low in fibre and with a moderate protein intake (Thomas et al, 2016).

Meals or snacks should be consumed every 2-3 hours before this main meal, depending on the time of kick-off. A snack can be consumed up to 1 hour before kick-off, reducing in size as the match gets closer.

The dressing room is the last opportunity to get a top up of carbohydrates. If you watch rugby on TV, you’ll see the nutrition table caught on the dressing room camera. There’ll be small snacks such as fruit, energy bars, cereal bars, jellies, plain biscuits, energy gels, electrolyte tablets, sports drinks and water. There are guidelines to consume 20-25g of carbohydrates at this time, however, individual preferences need to be considered (Oliveira et al, 2017). Kinetica’s Energy and Caffeine gels can support this recommendation as both contain 24-27g carbohydrates respectively.

These foods and drinks will be available at half-time as well, where the focus is more on fluids and gels than on foods, depending on a players ability to digest condensed sources of carbohydrates. The aim is to get 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour of exercise (Pfeiffer et al, 2010, Thomas et al, 2016). That includes a mouthful of sports drink during breaks in play. Field sports tend to focus their refuelling strategies at half-time when there’s a break in play and players can sit down to consume beverages and gels. It has been shown that consuming carbohydrates during exercise can improve exercise performance and reduce fatigue (Casey et al, 2000).

Once the game is over, players should be aiming for carbohydrate and protein based recovery meals and snacks. 1g/kg carbohydrate is the target each hour for the first 3-4 hours post-game (Thomas et al, 2016), therefore there are different stages of recovery. Post-game, players can take some time to sit, chat and discuss in-game events. The main aim is to get their first phase of recovery started as they are doing so, as it can often take some time before they consume their post-match meal. Carbohydrate/protein drinks in a 3:1 ratio are ideal for this time (Kerksick et al, 2008). Chocolate milk or recovery drinks can help here. A Kinetica ready-to-drink (RTD) protein shake or Recovery powder with a banana and/or cereal bar can also tick this box.

While the focus is on carbohydrate-based foods, easy to consume supplements such as carbohydrate powders, recovery drinks and carbohydrate gels can help to ease the burden of carbohydrate needs during competition.

Other supplements that are convenient and relatively important on match days include caffeine sources, electrolytes and protein powders.  Kinetica has range of products to support these needs including their Electro-C electrolytes, Clear Whey protein powder and Pre-Workout alongside those that have already been mentioned.

While fuelling with carbohydrates rarely gets the headlines in the realm of sports nutrition, it is one of the most important fundamentals for players to master early on to allow them to unleash their performance on the pitch.



Jonny Holland

Written by
Jonny Holland

Jonny Holland is a performance nutritionist who works with Cork senior football with both the men and women’s teams and Tipperary senior hurling as well as a host of recreational to professional athletes in sports like MMA, rugby, golf, athletics and everything in between.


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