There’s a brand new addition to Team Myprotein — we’re excited to be striking up a partnership with Sale Sharks Rugby Union Club.
Sale Sharks are Greater Manchester’s leading professional rugby union side and play in England’s elite professional league, the Aviva Premiership (soon to become the Gallagher Premiership).
They’re a team that’re close to our hearts — and we mean that literally (because their home ground, the AJ Bell Stadium, is just a few minutes down the road), but mainly for the fact that they’re such a fierce squad of successful, dedicated athletes… and that’s what we’re all about.
We wanted to know more about what goes on behind the scenes to get a group of impressive individuals fit and ready to come together as a high-performing team — so we caught up with two of the professionals in charge of their coaching and nutrition.
About the staff
There’s no doubt about it, looking after a squad of Premiership rugby players is a full-time job that requires dedication and focus. The Sharks have a highly qualified team on hand to make sure every part of a player’s training, nutrition, recovery and wellbeing is taken care of — we were lucky enough to speak to two of them, Rick Swaby and Tom Whitehead.
Rick Swaby is the Head of Sports Science, and Senior Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Sharks. He’s responsible for helping the players improve their fitness (including speed, strength, and power), and for developing training programs for the team. Another key part of his role is to try to prevent and reduce injury.
Tom Whitehead is the club’s Performance Nutritionist — with such intense training schedules and challenging matches, a tailored diet and nutrition plan is just as essential to a player’s performance as training practice. Tom’s also the nutritionist for the GB Taekwondo team.
What does pre-season training look like?
Pre-season training is not taken lightly. Swaby tells us that the team can train up to three times per day — five days a week… We’re tired just thinking about it.
This training includes sessions in the gym, field conditioning, speed and agility, skills, and practice as a rugby team.
Off-pitch training is often highly dependent on the individual player and their specific focus in the gym, however the majority tend to work with an upper and lower body split during the pre-season — rather than targeting one specific muscle group.
Swaby explains, “If we have an underdeveloped player who needs to put on muscle, or a player with a long-term injury, we may opt to go with a more traditional muscle group approach for a period time. However, there is much more that can be done in the gym from an athletic development perspective than just lifting heavy weights.”
The intensity of training cools down a bit during the season, and the team will typically train twice per day, three times a week — but this is all dependent on turnaround times between matches.
What about pre-season nutrition?
So, just how much control does Tom Whitehead really have when it comes to what fuel goes into these tanks? He says it depends on the individual player — those who have a good knowledge of what their bodies require on a day-to-day basis have more freedom.
However, those with important body composition goals, or those who’ve been highlighted as having “poor nutrition habits”, receive a more detailed nutrition plan — “until they can evidence a better understanding or ability to apply their knowledge”. Sounds like Whitehead runs a tight ship.
He tells us that they adopt a “food first” approach to nutrition, meaning that where possible he encourages players to get all their macro and micronutrients from eating a well-balanced diet first, and then top this up with supplementation if needed — for example, if the nutrient can’t be sourced from food.
He stresses, “Those supplements that we do use with the players need to have adequate research supporting their use.”
The top supplements that the Sharks use are:
- Whey Protein — to help the players meet their protein needs, and also carbohydrate and protein recovery powders are used to kick-start glycogen replenishment and muscle recovery after games/heavy sessions.
- Creatine — to improve strength and lean mass
- Beta Alanine — to improve high-intensity repeated efforts
- Vitamin D3 — to help support vitamin D levels during winter
- Omega-3 — if the player doesn’t eat oily fish
On top of this, Whitehead also keeps a close eye on the player’s nutrition during their recovery window. This means “covering the four basics” which he states as being:
- Restoring glycogen (high carbohydrate intake)
- Repairing muscle (high protein intake)
- Rehydrating (fluids and electrolytes)
- Combating muscle soreness (using foods/supplements with high antioxidant and polyphenol content, like fresh berries, cherry juice etc.)
How do you prevent against injury?
After weeks of such a demanding training schedule and following a careful diet plan, it must be a player’s — and coach’s — worst nightmare to see it all go to waste because of an injury that leaves them unable to play.
Swaby says, “The whole program is built around keeping players robust and building a tolerance to help keep them injury-free during the season.”
He explains that the on-field sessions during pre-season play a part in building aerobic fitness, and the reason why they have so many sessions before the season starts is that it sets the players up to be able to handle the combination of matches and training once it does begin.
On the first day of pre‐season all players are screened and then this data is what Swaby and his colleagues use to design their positional performance sessions. The focus of these sessions are built around the scorings from the screenings and the injury history of the athlete — pretty technical, right?
He says that they complete these performance sessions twice a week, but include elements of it in training everyday — especially before any use of weights.
They also use sports science systems such as GPS technology and hydration testing to manage a player’s day-to-day program, making sure that what they’re doing is right for that given day. Swaby says that this all helps to “make them a better rugby player and more physically prepared when selection comes around”.
After games, the players have access to hot and cold baths, supplements that are high in protein and carbs, and they’re encouraged to use their compression clothing.
It seems as though they’ve definitely got this base covered.
How important is team morale?
It’s clear that these guys work hard to make sure that each individual player’s needs are properly taken into account when they design both their training and nutrition plans. But in rugby it’s not just the performance of individuals that gets results — it’s how the team works together.
The owners and the Director of Rugby, Steve Diamond, know how vital this is to success — so they don’t pick players upon ability alone. They carefully consider the players’ characters, specifically how a player’s ability and character will shape the team on and off the pitch.
This is important when building team morale as the players have to be able to trust each other and share the ethos of the club to make it a good environment to be in.
Swaby says, “In our roles, we are always positive with the players. We believe in what we’re doing and as a High Performance Department, it’s important that we don’t let results effect our daily duties in providing the best support for the players.
We have a tight group at Sale and if things haven’t worked on the pitch one weekend the players will reflect on this, put right what went wrong, and focus on winning the next fixture.”
Do they ever get a rest?
We can’t be the only ones thinking this all sounds very full on — do Premiership rugby teams get “rest days” like everyone else?
The answer is of course, yes. In fact, it’s vital for their bodies — and minds — to recover and process everything that’s happened in one match, so that they can then look forward to what they need to do in the next.
“We tend to give players two days off post-game if the turnaround allows it,” Swaby explains, “We’ve seen improved results in the players’ wellbeing when they’ve had two days in comparison to one.”
The players are given time to reflect on the game and watch their individual clips so that they have a better understanding of how they contributed.
Swaby concludes, “Rugby is a physical sport with a lot of trauma due to physical contact, so the correct type of rest days are so important. Rest allows the players to be ready for high-intensity training sessions in between games if needed.”
And finally, why did you choose Myprotein over other sports nutrition brands?
It’s fairly obvious why we’re so keen to get behind such a successful team of dedicated sportsmen — but we asked both Rick and Tom what sealed the deal for them on their end.
“Myprotein are a highly reputable sports nutrition company — with some of our current players’ personal recommendations behind them. They’re able to offer a vast, high-quality range of products, that’re already Informed-Sport approved, for the specific needs of our players.
They have an excellent reputation as a supplement supplier and are based locally to us, so it made perfect sense to seize this opportunity when it came about.”
It’s nice to know that the Sharks are just as excited about this partnership as we are. Here’s to a great season of outstanding rugby!