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Interview with AFL Sport Dietitian – Samantha Coppinger

Samantha Coppinger - Western Bulldogs Football Club Sports Dietitian

We’ve been communicating with Sam for the past few seasons based on her role as a sports dietitian, working with AFL footballers at Collingwood FC and now Western Bulldogs FC. We are very grateful to Sam for sharing her experience and professional insights as a Sports Dietitian with AFL Club Western Bulldogs.

Can you offer us a quick snapshot of your experience and what led you to work in the AFL?

I have loved AFL since I can remember. I grew up going to every Essendon game with my family and watching any game of AFL on TV that I could, I just loved the game. When I was 16, I completed work experience at Essendon Football Club with their Sports Dietitian for school. It was this experience that made me realise I wanted to be a Sports Dietitian at an AFL club.

My experience includes working with numerous sports including State Netball teams, Melbourne Victory NPL teams, elite basketball and many individual sports including athletics and iron man athletes.

My experience in football began at Williamstown Football Club in the VFL when I graduated from University. I worked for Williamstown for 5 years where I developed my skills and learnt the workings of an elite football club. For the 2019 AFL season I worked at Collingwood FC in a maternity position as their sports dietitian, and the end of the 2019 season I was lucky enough to gain employment at the Western Bulldogs FC which I am absolutely loving.

With AFL footballers and athletes in general - Can you give us an overview of the key aspects you deal with as a sports dietitian on a daily basis?

On a daily basis the key aspects I deal with include player education. Educating players on all aspects of nutrition is extremely important. Even though some may have been an elite athlete for a long period of time, there is always areas for improvement. Menu planning and catering is another large part of my job. Planning menus for training, snacks for training and travel and home and away games to ensure players get the appropriate nutrition. Other daily tasks include individual nutrition plans for players, overseeing the supplement program, body composition testing and management and snack and meal preparation.

What are the main challenges the athletes you work with face - e.g. player diets, knowledge around nutrition and hydration or compliance?

The main challenges the athletes I work with face include knowledge around nutrition and hydration and putting it into practice. Education is so important when it comes to athlete nutrition. Constantly updating their knowledge on different aspects of nutrition so they can make any necessary changes to their diet with my guidance. The nutrition space is constantly changing and adapting so I need to help my athletes follow accordingly. Providing athletes with as much support as possible including cooking classes, recipes, supermarket tours, meal ideas and many interactive education sessions is the best way to overcome these challenges.

Supplements are definitely a challenge for athletes. The biggest challenge is new food products coming onto the market that contain supplements such as protein powders. Educating athletes in regards to reading food labels and understanding what they can and can’t have is really important.

Nutrition and hydration are really important pillars relating to AFL footballers performance, what improvements do you see when athletes make positive changes in these areas?

We see numerous improvements when athletes make positive changes through nutrition and hydration. Increased energy is a major improvement we see that benefits an athletes performance. Improved recovery and immunity is also seen when athletes make improvements to their nutrition and hydration. We see positive changes to body composition which includes decreased body fat and/or increased or maintenance of muscle mass. Changes also allow athletes to get through games without cramping or discomfort.

Working through the following phases of an AFL season, can you explain how you manage players nutrition & hydration protocols:

Pre-season training:

– Heavy training loads
– Combating fatigue 
– Backing up training

During pre-season our players have their highest workload. During this phase of the season they have the highest energy requirements with carbohydrates being of high priority. Our main focus during pre-season is fuelling for training, recovering optimally to allow players to back up training sessions and following hydration protocols. As our pre-season is completed during summer, hydration plays a major role. The warmer conditions often mean increased sweat rates which equals greater fluid and electrolyte losses. This was when I saw the benefit of trialling PREPD with my athletes. During pre-season I focus on helping individual players with their nutrition and hydration practices to set them up for the season ahead and help them achieve their goals.

In season training:
– Week leading into a game – Daily guideline for nutrition & hydration

The week leading into a game I recommend players eat to their training load. On a higher training day they require additional carbohydrates compared to a light training session or a rest day where they require a smaller amount. As a general rule, on a rest day I recommend players following a plate model of ¼ carbohydrates, ¼ protein and ½ plate vegetables. On a higher training day players would increase their carbohydrate portion to ½ a plate and reduce their vegetable portion to ¼ plate.

– Pre-Game – Importance of preparation 24hrs before & do you take any measurements, weight, urine sample, etc.

Player preparation is extremely important prior to a game. The timing of their meals prior to a game is important to prevent any gastrointestinal discomfort and to ensure optimal energy levels for the game. I give players general recommendations relating to when they should consume their pre-game meals and snacks, but their timing is very individual. I work closely with each player to determine what works well for them and make any necessary changes. The day prior to a game we take a urine sample. The urine sample allows us to test their hydration levels and gives the players enough time to make any necessary changes before the game if they are dehydrated. Prior to warm up all players are required to record their weight. After the game all players will do the same. This allows us to see how much weight a player has lost during a game. This is all hydration losses the player has experienced. Every 1kg of body weight lost, is 1.5L of fluid the player needs to replace. Taking the players weight allows us to know how much fluid each individual player needs to replace for optimal recovery.

– In-Game – Fuel / energy supplements + hydration strategies.

In-game the players use a range of hydration drinks including water, cordial, Powerade and Koda / Shotz. Every player has different preferences for what they like to drink during a game, with some players preferring different drinks depending on the time of the game. Pickle juice is used during games to help prevent/stop cramping. Players swig the pickle juice in the throat and a message is sent to their muscle to stop cramping. Energy gels are used in all games by some players to provide additional energy. Gels provide a liquid form of glucose to help top up energy levels during a game.

– Post-Game – Recovery aspects / measurements.

Post-Game the nutrition focus is on the three R’s. Refuel, repair and rehydrate. Refuel with carbohydrates to replace depleted energy stores, protein to repair damaged muscles and fluid and electrolytes to replace fluid losses. Our aim is for the players to have a snack within 30-60 minutes of finishing the game. We also recommend players have a meal within 2 hours of completing the game to help follow the three R principle.

You have recommended PREPD to some of the playing group - Can you explain how this came about and the benefits / improvements you were able to validate, e.g. cramping and fluid loss.

I had a few players who were struggling with hydration. They would do all of the right things but still lost large amounts of fluid during a game and had issues with cramping. I wanted to look outside the box and see what else I could do to help these athletes. I came across PREPD in some studies and decided to give it a try. The biggest benefit my athletes found with PREPD was the reduction in fluid losses during a game.

You have recently trialled the PREPD powder how did the players respond - what was the feedback on the powder?

The players responded really well to the PREPD powder. I trialled it with a select group of players who had tried PREPD previously but didn’t like the texture or consistency. These players responded much better to the PREPD powder. They mixed the powder into a smoothie which they found much easier to drink. We saw the same results as PREPD but offering another option proved beneficial.

The PREPD Recover powder formula has an optimum serve of electrolytes, resistant starch to boost hydration and fluid absorption, plus added protein and leucine for muscle recovery - what are the benefits of using this post exercise?

The benefits of consuming the PREPD Recover powder is that it contains the added protein. The added protein and leucine make it a great recovery drink as this will help with muscle repair and recovery post exercise as well as hydration. It is beneficial to have it all combined into one product as athletes don’t have to drink many different products to get the same benefit.

What are some of the traps and pitfalls athletes need to watch out for during this period of isolation away from the club and changed training circumstances?

One of the biggest areas is a change in their training regime. Majority of athletes are still training at home and have programs to complete but their overall energy output will be decreased. Therefore, they need to decrease the amount they are consuming. Changing their intake on a day to day basis to match their training is even more critical during the isolation period to ensure athletes aren’t over-eating and seeing large changes in body composition.

Maintaining muscle mass is also essential during this time. Ensuring an even spread of protein across the day and timing their protein intake around their training to help maintain muscle mass. Athletes are the same as everyone else. Avoiding boredom eating during isolation is one of the biggest challenges. Everyone is home a lot more and has direct access to the fridge and pantry 24/7. Avoiding sugary, highly processed snacks and having nutritious alternatives available is essential during this time.

Looking forward with some positivity, an AFL season may start later this year. What challenges do you expect the players to face returning from an extended break?

I believe one of the biggest challenges the AFL players are facing is isolation. I don’t think it will take them long to get back into their usual routines once we begin training again. We know that once we start training again, we won’t have long before the season will resume. This means players need to be staying on top of their nutrition and training now, or it will be very hard to get back to where they were once we return.

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