In association with the Leaders Performance Institute’s official Nutritional Partner
David Dunne is in the middle of his fourth season working with Aviva Premiership team Harlequins, one of English rugby union’s most famous names. As the club’s Performance Nutritionist, he spends two days a week monitoring and refining players’ dietary habits and educating squad members at all levels.
By David Cushnan
The culture of appreciation
The crux of Dunne’s job over the past few years has been developing and instilling a “culture of appreciation” around food. “For me it was about getting to know the players and starting to build that culture around food and its impact,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute, “not just on health but performance, reducing illness rates, improving recovery times or reducing return to play times following an injury. The first year or two were really spent building that culture and it’s only in the last year or two that we’ve probably got it to a place that we wanted to.”
A critical appointment was that of Performance Chef Omar Meziane, brought in from British Rowing. “I’m convinced now we have the best food in the Premiership,” Dunne says, adding: “I’m sure every nutritionist will vouch that a good chef goes a long way.”
Harlequins’ training facility, located within the Surrey Sports Park owned by Surrey University around half an hour’s drive from central London, is peppered with reminders of the club’s values, which are laid out at the start of every season by Director of Rugby John Kingston. Dunne’s approach to player nutrition takes its lead from them, too. As he puts it: “Are they [the players] making the right decisions at the right time of day or week, given their situation with regards to their training load or when they’re leading into a game?
“We give the players phenomenal food here – Omar prepares between five and 10 fresh mix salads per day, two hot and two cold protein options at each mealtime, a range of carbohydrates, a range of fresh fruit and vegetables. They have everything at the club they will possibly need. Their individual supplementation is done daily, laid out every morning – they know what they’re taking and how to take it. We try and make it simple.” The food room at Harlequins has recently become a more social environment, too, courtesy of club captain James Horwill’s decision to ban mobile phones.
Education, education, education
Dunne works with players in groups, covering the big topics, but also in smaller bunches and, of course, on an individual basis, reinforcing the guiding principles and updating players on anything new and relevant. “We’ve got quite a clever group,” he says. “A lot of our players come from private school backgrounds, there’s quite a good base of education anyway. We have a lot of senior players – players who have captained Australia, Wales and England amongst our internationals – and they’ve been around the block, they know what to do and it’s just about smaller tweaks. Those players within the group help facilitate the education even more – academy players look up to what they’re doing; they’re reiterating the same messages we’re giving to players in one-to-ones or small groups. It works really well.”
The nutritional education process begins when young talent are still at school, as part of Harlequins’ player developmental programme. Between 14 and 18, young players will receive what Dunne describes as “infrequent sessions” during the year, offering basic information about food groups, recovery and hydration.
“At 18 we start to get more specific around why protein is important,” Dunne explains. “We hope that when they come into the academy full-time they actually have a base level of knowledge; then it’s about getting them to cope with the demands of full-time training and really refining how they fuel and recover from sessions and fuel and recover to optimise their performance.”
Young players sent out on-loan to other local clubs – a common occurrence in English rugby union – are encouraged to think carefully about adapting their own nutritional programmes. “We try to get them to come up with solutions themselves as opposed to us always having the answer.”
The art of periodising
A key element of the player education process is periodising, the process of matching food intake with training of varying intensities or game days. Working closely with Meziane, Dunne builds menus to fit training and coaching schedules. “There are distinctly higher volume training days, lower volume days and rest days,” he explains, “so we look to alter the food schedule day by day, meal by meal according to what the day’s requirements are.” A Monday, for example, would be, in Harlequins’ parlance, “gameday plus two” with some recovery work and lighter intensity sessions. “We’re not going to have a hugely high carbohydrate intake on a Monday,” Dunne says. “It might be reduced on Monday morning as the guys take part in more skill-based and recovery activity sessions, and we’ll have a big push on plenty of fresh vegetables, high antioxidant food, high nitrate vegetables and some high quality proteins. That’s the day of the week we’d probably look to include more red meats and more oily fish. As we transition into Tuesday, which would usually be a higher volume training day, we’d look to ramp up the carbohydrate intake – the evening before and in the morning – and throughout the course of that day look to easier-to-digest protein options; the salads might be more couscous-based, the proteins will be more white meat and white fish-based as they’re between sessions. The last session of the day tends to be the heaviest so we don’t want something that’s going to cause a GI [gastrointestinal] upset in between those.”
When Harlequins are on the road, the club sends menus to hotels – many are very familiar to the team and have become regular stopovers – and speaks to local chefs. Dunne isn’t part of the travelling party, but is central to the planning process. Of the away game routine, he adds: “Before a game we’d look to ramp up our carbohydrate intakes a bit – some high-energy carbohydrates to help top up their muscle glycogen stores the day before a game. Players will have a bit of input if there’s anything they want the day before or day after a game. We plan for the length of the journey – do we need snacks on the way? If so, we’ll prep them and make sure they have everything in their room. They might look at consuming some additional antioxidants. Everything seems pretty much second nature now, which is good.”
The feedback system
Although he is part time at Harlequins – he splits his time with other performance work and studying for a PhD at Liverpool John Moores University – collecting and collating information from players is clearly an important part of Dunne’s role. He’s worked to build mutual respect with the player group and is now building a process for qualitative and quantitative feedback. “We’re starting to look at how has the food been, is there anything they’d like to change or improve? There’s also quantitative data – we send out surveys to get player feedback on some of our process and what they would like more/less of as well as quantifying changes in anthropometrics. For example, if someone wanted to gain some lean mass, did he actually gain that lean mass? We’d like to do DEXA [X-ray measuring bone mineral density], but we don’t have that at the moment, but we do have skin folds and body weight data to be able to track that consistently, seeing where players have progressed.”
He adds: “Another big part of where we’re at now is refining all our processes around injury and illness strategies. We are very fortunate we now have Victoria Benford join the team while she completes her PhD with ourselves and Surrey University exploring these domains and what we can do to optimise them in our applied setting. It’s key not only myself and herself are aligned in our delivery to the players but also that we are aligned with the S&C coaches and the physios to help support that player from the start and throughout the duration of their injury and optimise return to play time. That’s the next bit now I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into. We have good processes in place now, we just want to try and make them as thorough as we can.”
The Sport Performance Summit
2 March 2019