In need of inspiration for your new-year diet? We caught up with Head of Sports Science Alek Gross to discuss the eating habits of Southampton's players.
Gone are the days when a player could have a beer the night before stepping onto the hallowed turf at The Dell.
Nowadays, thanks to advances in nutrition and sports science there is an understanding that what a player puts into his body directly impacts his performance on the pitch. Alek gives us an insight into how the players fuel up – and which players fancy themselves as a bit of a chef!
How often do the players eat at the training ground?
"Typically twice a day: they eat breakfast at approximately 9am and lunch at around 1pm. This is supplemented by additional snacks and performance-based supplements in between training."
How do the chefs decide what to prepare?
"The chefs are given guidelines and recommendations for the types of foods that should be served at each meal based on the needs of the squad. For instance, immediately after games they are recommended to use foods with anti-inflammatory properties to enhance the recovery process.
"During the autumn and winter months we also recommend foods with pro-immune properties such as berries, sweet potato, spinach and natural yoghurt.
"In addition to this, our Performance Nutritionist provides advice on the preferred methods of cooking and preparation of food.
"The chefs then use this information to produce varied menus that provide a performance benefit, but also taste good."
How do the chefs keep things interesting and manage the different tastes of the players?
"Whilst the types of foods are similar – for example there is always a chicken, fish and meat option at lunch – the way in which these are prepared and presented are varied. They do a really good job of varying the flavours throughout the season.
"The chefs also use a ‘live’ cooking station that allows the players to select the sauces, spices and sides that they wish to accompany their pasta and meat dishes."
Are there any foods that are banned from the training ground?
"We generally stay clear of foods that are ‘empty’. Typically we consider these to be those foods that are high in calories and sugar but have little or no nutritional value and therefore no positive impact on performance.
"Examples would be biscuits, crisps, cakes and fizzy drinks – on special occasions such as birthdays this is temporarily overlooked, but not all the players will have a piece of cake!
"We don’t advocate a high-fat nor low fat-diet, but encourage natural fats from quality meats and dairy products."
What is the most popular food among the players?
"It varies due to the different nationalities we have. Freshly-prepared pasta with basil pesto, sun-dried tomato, chargrilled chicken with a bit of fresh parmesan always goes down well the day before a game. I’d say steak and sushi would be high up on the list as well."
Do any of the players have any strange eating habits?
"An unnamed player enjoys jam and egg on toast in the morning!"
Who keeps the best diet?
"All the players are very good with their diets as evidenced by our low body fat scores, and other relevant biomarkers – for example, blood data and nutrition reviews with our nutritionist. José [Fonte], Cédric and James Ward-Prowse are very conscientious about their diet.
"When players are fit and consistently training and playing, it is relatively easy to maintain a consistent eating pattern. It’s not quite as easy when you’re injured as the energy intake needs to match the training load associated with each phase of rehab. For instance, in the acute stages of rehab energy intake needs to be reduced to align with their relative lack of physical activity.
"When players are undertaking a hypertrophy phase they need to increase their overall calorie intake and protein intake to maximise the training they are doing. Jay Rodriguez, Fraser Forster and Florin Gardos should get huge credit as they have worked extremely hard with Mike Naylor (Performance Nutritionist) to stay on top of their diets throughout their rehab."
Who’s the best in the kitchen?
"Ryan Bertrand talks himself up as a bit of a chef. He claims his speciality dish is seafood tagliatelle, but this has yet to be ratified by any player or member of staff! Jay has also taken up baking recently but has yet to bring in any proof of his success."
Is fast food completely out-of-bounds for a professional footballer?
"It’s not completely off-limits but there are certain times when it is more appropriate. After heavy training days or weeks it is generally more appropriate to have fast food.
"It’s also important to understand that 'food is mood' and once a month fast food is important to break up the monotony of the season and keep people happy. We do encourage healthier options, though – not all burgers are made equal in terms of nutritional content!"
How much of a difference does a player’s diet make to their performance on the pitch?
"It makes a huge difference to performance as it directly contributes to the player’s ability to perform at an optimal level for training and matches.
"Diet provides the energy and nutrients for players to consistently perform at a high level, to maximise the adaptation from the training they undertake and to recover efficiently between sessions and matches. Diet also plays a key role in preventing illness and injury."
What are the most common nutrition mistakes made by players?
"Probably the most common is getting caught up in media fads, such as not eating carbohydrates after 6pm. There is a misconception that carbohydrates are bad – for high-intensity performance carbohydrates are key in supplying the body with energy.
"Instead we encourage the players to be carb-specific rather than low-carb. On the day before and the day of a match, we encourage high carbohydrate intake to maximise energy availability and on days with lower training intensity we would prescribe a lower carbohydrate intake."
How do you ensure that the players keep a good diet?
"Primarily the performance team works closely with the kitchen team to manage the foods that are offered for two out of three meals a day. We have recently brought a performance chef, Tom Kenton, into the team to increase the integration between the sports science team and the kitchen.
"Alongside this we use educational nudges to direct people towards the correct choices when they are away from the training ground. At the younger ages, this education extends to cooking courses run by our life skills and education department to ensure they have the ability to cook for themselves when they begin to live alone.
"Players are regularly assessed in terms of hydration, body weight and body composition to monitor any potential performance issues and the players have regular contact with the sports science team to discuss issues and advice around diet.
"We also undertake regular blood tests to assess any deficiencies and direct supplementation accordingly vitamin D and iron.
Do sports supplements have a role to play in football?
"We always promote a food-first approach and players in the first team through to the academy are educated on the importance of making the right food choices and on how to prepare food properly.
"Despite this, achieving the perfect diet can often prove to be difficult as the players have to eat regularly around training to meet their energy demands. To ensure that players are not missing out on any essential nutrients and that they are able to recover effectively after a match, we recommend a number of supplements to complement their normal dietary intake.
"All of the supplements that we recommend are accredited by Informed-Sport and, where possible, are provided by our Official Vitamin Suppliers Healthspan Elite to deliver peace of mind that they don’t contain anything that isn’t listed on the label."
What difference has it made having an Official Vitamin Partner on board?
"We’re delighted to be working exclusively with Healthspan Elite and that they recognised Saints as the club leading the way in player nutrition. By maximising the knowledge and expertise from both parties, we’re developing exciting new products that will have a direct impact on the player’s performance."
Which new product has made the biggest difference?
"We’ve just introduced to the players the new Performance Greens, which will have a positive impact on their gut health and overall health and well-being.
"The quality of the fruit and vegetable extracts in this product means it is a good addition to anyone’s diet not just professional athletes. It is a great way of supplementing your five-a-day to maintain your immune system, particularly during the winter months when illness rates are higher."
In association with Healthspan Elite, you can win hospitality tickets to Saints' home game against Watford on Wednesday 13th January, kick-off 7.45pm.
Click here to enter.