Updated 18 September 2015

Nutrition and meal plans for rugby players

Players need to focus on nutrition on both the day of the match as well as the week before the match. Here are some practical tips and meal plans for rugby players.

Players need to focus on nutrition on both the day of the match as well as the week before the match. Adhering to eating plans during the training week will ensure adequate carbohydrate stores during the game. In the Practical Rugby Nutrition guide by SA Rugby, the following tips are outlined.

In the last 24-36 hours, when training may be tapered prior to a match, it is especially important to increase carbohydrate, keeping fat intake low. This means that, as far as possible, players should plan ahead and be prepared for all situations, especially when travelling or staying in hotels, which might test their discipline.

Tips for eating before a game

  • Players should never try anything new on a match day – all dietary strategies should have been well rehearsed.
  • Use this opportunity to restore liver glycogen stores and also to hydrate.
  • Choose foods and drinks that do not cause any gastrointestinal discomfort and that will stave off hunger pangs. If any player experiences reactive hypoglycaemia and/or abdominal discomfort during a match, they should have a longer time between the last snack and the match.
  • Eat a main meal at least three hours prior to kick-off, focusing on carbohydrate-rich foods with a small amount of protein. This meal is an important opportunity to add to the body’s glycogen stores and should be light and easy to digest. Avoid very high protein and fat intake as too much fat will make players feel uncomfortable and will not provide necessary energy. Too much fibre may also cause gastrointestinal discomfort. Players who lack appetite or are nervous should opt for a liquid meal replacement.

Examples of pre-match meals

Breakfast ideas for morning games:

  • Fruit/fruit salad/fruit juices and low-fat yoghurt and cereal;
  • Porridge and low-fat milk
  • Muffins/crumpets/pancakes/toast with jam and low-fat cheese
  • Boiled eggs and toast with jam/honey/Marmite.


  • Spaghetti or other noodles with lean mince and/or vegetable or tomato-based topping (no cream)
  • Chicken a-la-King and rice, and peas/carrots
  • Grilled chicken breast with mashed potato/sweet potato or stir-fry rice
  • Baked potato with tuna or chicken or vegetable-based topping
  • Extra bread, fruit and fruit salads and low-fat yoghurt/low fat desserts can be included with this meal, plus sports drinks.

Pre-match top-up's:

  • One hour before kick-off: top up fuel stores with a small snack such as:
  • Sandwiches with low-fat cheese/ham/chicken/boiled egg/tuna/jam and peanut butter
  • Muffins or pancakes or crumpets with honey/syrup or sugar and cinnamon
  • Fresh fruit and low-fat yoghurt
  • Fruit smoothies
  • Sports bars or cereal/breakfast bars and sports drinks
  • If lacking appetite or unable to tolerate solid food, a liquid meal replacement (e.g. Ensure/Nestlé Nutren Activ) is an alternative option.

Remember to drink enough fluids:

Since fluid may not be readily available for when players may be thirsty during a match, it seems prudent to advise that immediately before the game begins players drink about 250-500ml fluid, as this primes the stomach and assists with fluid emptying.

During the match, fluid intake is important to prevent dehydration. Players should use every opportunity to quench thirst during the match, i.e. during stoppages, injury time and half-time.

They need to familiarise themselves with their fluid requirements in different environmental conditions. It is beneficial to incorporate carbohydrate into the fluid as this has many benefits towards the end of the match – delayed onset of fatigue, better maintenance of skills and concentrations – ideally 30-60 g per hour.

The effects of consuming fluid and carbohydrate are additive. A variety of options exist for carbohydrate intake, however sports drinks offer a convenient strategy for meeting fluid and carbohydrate needs simultaneously. Fluid should not be forgotten if consuming gels, bars or solid food.

Post-match recovery nutrition strategies are essential.

Eating out and take-aways

Balancing training demands for rugby with other commitments may leave little time for shopping and food preparation. Eating out may therefore provide a much-needed break. By making careful choices with clever combinations, and sticking to recommended portion sizes, dietary goals can still be met.

  • Many restaurants base their meals on protein-rich foods (meat, chicken, fish etc), with carbohydrate as an accompaniment. To boost carbohydrates, order extra side servings of carbohydrate-rich foods such as potato (not chips), steamed rice, noodles, and unbuttered bread/rolls and vegetables.
  • Limit fat intake: avoid menu items with the words – battered, fried, deep-fried, sautéed, creamy, creamed and crumbed. Rather choose dishes that are steamed, grilled, stir-fried, baked or poached. Remind waiters or waitresses that NO FAT means no oil, margarine, butter or cream.
  • Do not be misled by the word “healthy” – this does not necessarily mean low in fat. For example, salads may seem “healthy”, but may be high in fat if they contain avocado, cheese, seeds and croutons, which are high in fat. Dressings should be ordered on the side, or use Balsamic vinegar with only a dash of olive oil.
  • Avoid creamy sauces, gravies, dressings, butter, creamy foods and foods with lots of cheese (e.g. vegetarian). If ordering dressings or sauces, ask for them to be served separately to control the amount. Combination dishes such as lasagne, casseroles and moussaka are often made with high-fat sauces, so rather order plain separate food items such as grilled fish or meat, baked potato and steamed rice and vegetables. Mint sauce, jelly, mustard, horseradish and apple sauce can be enjoyed with different meats.
  • For dessert, order fruit salad or a meringue/pavlova with frozen yoghurt, fruit mousse, plain sponge or a cappuccino.

If you're uncertain as to how a dish is prepared, ask for more information and be assertive.

Source: Practical Nutrition for Rugby by Dieticians Shelley Meltzer and Cecily Fuller, courtesy SA Rugby.

(Health24, August 2011) 





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