AFL is played from a young age at a variety of levels both amateur and professional. The game is played predominantly by men, but women’s football is growing at a rapid rate with the inaugural AFL Women’s League held in 2017.
A match consists of four 20-minute quarters with ‘time on’ being added in senior games for any time the ball is out of play. This usually extends each quarter to around 25-30 minutes. Each team consists of 18 players on the ground with 4 interchange players. Players rotate on and off the bench so playing time varies between individuals.
Pre-season is an intense 3-4 months of training prior to the competition season. During this time, players will work on specific match play, skill, fitness, and body composition goals.
The AFL competition season typically runs from March to September. In addition to one match a week, players train anywhere from 2 (at the amateur level) to 10 sessions (at the elite level) each week and do a variety of different training modalities including weights, skills, swimming, running, recovery, and flexibility.
The physiological demand and ideal body composition of AFL players is dependent on their position on the field. For example, mid-field players need to have good endurance as they run ~12-15km each match, while defenders need to be strong and powerful with their position generally requiring shorter bursts of sprinting and anaerobic activities.
At the elite level, body composition depends on the position played with ruck players typically being over 200cm in height and weighing more than 100kg. In comparison to mid-fielders who are typically smaller (~180-190cm) and lighter (~80-90kg). It is important to realise that different playing positions and body types may perform well at varying body fat levels and individual goals should be set for each player.
The training diet for an AFL footballer should provide a variety of foods to promote adequate intake nutrients to maximise performance and health. The training diet typically includes a combination of carbohydrate for fuelling and protein for muscle repair and recovery. In addition, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains provide important vitamins and minerals, along with some healthy fats.
The diet will also need to consider factors such as the athlete’s body composition goals (e.g. increase lean muscle mass), training load, as well as growth for younger players.
Athletes may also have busy schedules outside of training (e.g. work, study, social and family commitments) so meals and snacks may need to be eaten ‘on the run’. This requires good planning to minimise takeaway options and maximise training goals.
Being over hydrated or dehydrated can lead to poor performance. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, poor concentration, and difficulty with decision making; while over-hydration can negatively impact sleep. All of these are essential to being a successful AFL player and therefore fluid is an important component of a player’s nutritional intake.
It is often hot during the pre-season and therefore players need to be conscious of their hydration needs. As the competition season is conducted over the colder months of the year, hydration needs can be overlooked. In order to stay hydrated, players should drink fluids before, during and after training and matches. However, body fluid needs will depend on individual fluid losses, which vary depending on individual sweat losses.
Fluid requirements vary for each player depending on factors such as their sweat rate, body size, distance run during a game, and the ability to tolerate fluid intake during sport. An Accredited Sports Dietitian can assist individuals in learning more about their fluid requirements and sweat rate during exercise.
Eating before competition
Matches can be played at various times over the day – at the junior level, games often start early to mid-morning while at senior level games are typically played in the afternoon or even evening. The match start time often dictates what (and how much) is eaten before the game.
It’s important to start matches well-fuelled. Each athlete is different, but players will often eat a pre-game meal around 3 to 4 hours before the start of the match. This meal should contain some carbohydrate for fuel as well as some fluids for hydration. A small amount of protein in the pre-game meal can help to prevent hunger.
Some suitable pre-game meal ideas can include:
- Wrap or sandwich with chicken and salad
- Bowl of muesli with yoghurt and berries
- Pasta with beef mince in tomato-based sauce
- Pumpkin soup served with bread rolls
- Chicken stir-fry with rice or quinoa
Many players will also have an additional small snack 1-2 hours prior to the game. This should be light, rich in carbohydrate and low in fat and fibre for easy digestion.
Some suitable pre-game snack ideas include:
- Yoghurt with fruit salad
- Banana and a handful of almonds
- Peanut butter on rice cakes
- Toast with vegemite
- Fruit smoothie
Eating and drinking during competition
Ideally players should top up their energy levels by eating or drinking small amounts of carbohydrate throughout the match. Half time and quarter time provides a great opportunity to re-fuel. Some players choose to have a snack like a banana or energy bar at the longer break; however, many players prefer not to eat solid foods during the game due to the intensity and for gut comfort. In these cases, sports drinks and energy gels can be helpful for topping up energy levels.
During a match, fluid is also important. While players can use the breaks to consume fluid, they can also access fluids during the game from trainers who run out onto the ground to offer drinks to their players. This is especially useful for players who are on the ground most of the match. Water is an ideal source of fluid however, as glycogen levels can run low during the course of a game sports drinks can provide an extra source of carbohydrate as a fuel. However, the need for sports drinks will depend on individual needs and preferences of the players.
Players should work closely with an Accredited Sports Dietitian to trial nutrition strategies during training and matches to find which foods work best for each player.
Recovery meals and snacks should contain carbohydrate (fuel), some protein (for muscle repair and development) and fluids and electrolytes to replace sweat losses. A recovery meal or snack should be consumed soon after training or matches to optimise recovery.
After matches, players often don’t feel like eating very much due to the strenuous nature of the game but providing easy to eat carbohydrate and protein containing foods after a match is important to promote muscle recovery. Fluids with carbohydrate and protein can be a great option in the early stages after a game when appetite is poor.
Some recovery food suggestions include:
- Chicken, avocado and salad sandwich
- Dairy-based fruit smoothie or flavoured milk
- Sushi with salmon or tuna fillings
- Burritos with beef, cheese, avocado and salad
Other nutrition tips
- Alcohol As alcohol can delay recovery, exacerbate injuries and impact body composition players should make wise choices with alcohol, especially after matches.
- Supplements In most cases, nutrition needs can be easily met through foods, however, an Accredited Sports Dietitian can help identify any supplement which may be beneficial to health or performance.