Colm Cavanagh: Find what fuels you not what the latest fad is at the time

'I am still guilty today of seeing food as fuel rather than something to be enjoyed. I find myself more often than not having a meal finished and not actually taking the time to really taste anything on my plate' Picture: PA
Colm Cavanagh

OUR diets, like everything else change in trends and cycles. If someone had told me even three years ago that I would be asking for smashed avocado and poached egg on sourdough for breakfast, I would have looked at them sideways.

As a minor. my pre-match ritual was a chicken burger and a gravy chip from the local chippy the night before the game – no mention of carb-loading or protein shakes in those days. It did me no harm either – we won an All-Ireland and I was playing full-forward at the time. I was probably the heaviest of my playing career but nutrition wasn’t part of the game then, things have moved on a lot in the meantime.

Pre-match meals became the biggest bowl of pasta and chicken we could physically consume before changing to high-protein, then keeping it light and filling, usually eggs, to currently being a high-sugar meal timed to release energy just in time for the game. I am not a nutritionist and will never claim to be, but I know that, for me, balancing carbs, protein and sugar is a minefield and players generally just follow the trend at the time.

I didn’t have a nutritionist as part of the Tyrone team until the last year or two and I wish they had have been around earlier in my career. I started out quite heavy in 2007/2008, and leaned out over the years. I have gone through all the fad diets -gluten-free, high-protein, low-carb, keto - so much so that in 2013, I went from nearly 14 stone to around 12 stone. I was really restricting my carbs and following a completely gluten free diet. I was skin and bones and I really noticed it as, being in midfield, I was getting pushed around easily. I see it all the time in players, taking nutrition to the extreme and becoming so wrapped up in what their body looks like rather than how it is functioning and it usually ends up being to the detriment of their performance. I see the importance of it as a big picture now, it helps that there is so much more good information readily available and I have seen young lads transform and develop so much by following a good balanced plan without overdoing it.

I am still guilty today of seeing food as fuel rather than something to be enjoyed. I find myself more often than not having a meal finished and not actually taking the time to really taste anything on my plate. I have a fear of being hungry and subconsciously plan my day around food because I have been using it purely as fuel for the last 17 or 18 years, waking up and having breakfast immediately, planning my morning snack and my lunch while eating my breakfast. I’m so used to timing my meals around training and matches that I am not sure I will ever get out of that mind-set but now I can look forward to a pizza at the weekend for enjoyment rather than categorising it as a recovery food.

Protein, creatine, caffeine drinks, beta alanine, magnesium, omegas…the list of supplements is endless and I know I have never researched any of the above to see what they are supposed to do for my body or if they are the correct supplement for my needs. I couldn’t tell you the recommended dietary allowances (RDA) of any of them, yet if I was recommended a vitamin or a specific protein that worked for a team-mate, I would have likely taken it regardless of whether it was what I needed or not. The issue I have with the supplements is the range of options available and just how unregulated the industry is. The number of pre-workout, during workout and recovery shakes/supplements/gels available to buy is mind-blowing and being able to buy online without any knowledge of ingredients and potential effects is just wrong.

It is so important at a time of random drugs tests that we are aware of what we are taking and the effect that it will have on us. The fact that these tests don’t take place at club level still baffles me. Effectively club players can take whatever they want with no repercussions.

I remember having a heavy head cold in the lead up to the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry so I took a Lemsip to try and help me get it cleared. I ended up being selected for a random drug test on the Tuesday before the game. Talk about a panic. I had trying to find the specific packet of Lemsip I had taken so I could provide the label for ingredients. It is mad to think that a humble cold remedy could lead to a failed drug test, spelling the end of your year, or even career, depending on the length of the ban. Luckily my results came back negative and I was cleared to play Kerry.

Nutrition, whether to do with food or supplements, is a key element of performance but the hard truth of it is that everyone is different, everyone’s body reacts to food and supplements differently and the adrenaline, sugar high and energy buzz are all different too. What works for me won’t work for others. We need to take on board any advice we are given but eat and drink to fuel ourselves as individuals rather than what is the go-to meal plan trend at the time.

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