How to eat like a champion

What do professional footballers eat? Are they allowed snacks? Do they have a favourite cuisine? Coles ambassador Courtney Roulston and dietitian Elise Anderson take us behind the scenes at the high-flying Sydney Swans.

People eating from a buffet

Courtney Roulston has been creating “hearty and homely” meals for the Sydney Swans since 2010.

Elise Anderson is the Head Sports Performance Dietitian at the Sydney Swans and Coles Ambassador Courtney Roulston is the team’s chef. Together they create meals that not only enhance the players’ performance but are also delicious and nutritious.
“Courtney knows food and flavour combinations and I know what the athletes need,” Elise says. “I have enormous respect for Courtney and what she is able to achieve in the kitchen.”

Now in her seventh season with the AFL club, Elise describes her role as varied and rewarding – in addition to monitoring the diet of each player, she writes menus, liaises with hotels used by the Swans and runs online cooking classes.

Courtney has been catering for the Sydney Swans since 2010, working with the team from pre-season in January to the end of the finals. She caters for over 75 players, doctors, medical and coaching staff. “My main focus is to develop hearty and homely meals that not only fuel the players, but keep them healthy and happy also,” she says.

Here Elise and Courtney discuss how good food and a balanced diet help shape the ongoing success of the Sydney Swans.

Q: Do the Swans have a favourite meal?

Elise: “The players really love Courtney’s Mexican dishes. But then again they seem to love everything she cooks, so choosing an absolute favourite meal is pretty impossible.”

Courtney: “I put out a big grazing table of warm tortillas, corn chips, salsas, salads, hot sauces, guacamole, pickles, pulled chicken, spiced beef, rice, quinoa and black beans. The players make up their own tacos, burritos or Mexican bowls.”

Q: Is there anything they refuse to eat?

Elise: “They aren’t big on vegetables but Courtney makes them so appealing they can’t resist. Who doesn’t want maple tamari [a Japanese soy sauce] pumpkin sprinkled with cashews?”

Courtney: “I know not to smother everything in coriander if a couple of players do not like it!”

Q: What sort of healthy snacks do they eat?

Elise: “Players snack on everything from muesli bars to fresh fruit, high-protein yoghurts, trail mixes, roasted chickpeas/fava beans, mezze plates. When they are preparing for a game they might get healthy muffins, banana breads or scones served with whipped low-fat vanilla bean ricotta and chia jam.”

Courtney: “If I am cooking homemade snacks for the players it is often mix of oat and nut slice, chia pudding pots, coconut sago pudding with mango and passionfruit, date and peanut protein balls, sushi or rice rolls.”

Q: Do you alter their diet prior to a game?

Elise: “Yes, there is an increased focus on eating carbohydrates leading into a game. Because we play weekly these load periods are relatively short compared to those of, say, an endurance athlete. We also tend to reduce the fibre content of the carbohydrates to reduce gastrointestinal issues during play and to reduce satiety so the athletes can eat more. But not all players have the same level of requirement and some prefer to top up on more fuel during the game.”

Courtney: “There is a focus on fuelling with carbohydrates in the lead-up to a game. This could be pasta, rice or paella-style dishes, wheat noodles and always sourdough bread served with the lunches.”

Q: How do players achieve balance in their diets?

Elise: “For me balance is ensuring that our players are getting a good amount of fibrous carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables and lean sources of protein in their diets. But during hard training sessions or before a match they might need to eat high GI carbohydrates, such as sports drinks or sports gels [highly concentrated sachets or flasks of carbohydrate that can be quickly consumed and digested].”

Courtney: “I cook a wide variety of cuisines and meals throughout the year to keep the team well fuelled after training. I try to make vegetables really appealing and make healthy food something that is enjoyable to eat.”

Q: Does meat feature prominently in their diet?

Elise: “Not as prominently as most people may assume. Players are encouraged to consume a variety of high-quality bioavailable [meaning easy to digest and absorb] protein sources – these range from meat, poultry and fish to dairy, nuts, legumes and soy. It’s not about eating big steaks but ensuring regular servings of protein throughout the day to support muscle repair and recovery.”

Q: What can people learn from elite athletes?

Elise: “Although the volume of food consumed will be different for everyday athletes compared to elite sports people, the basic message is the same: what you put into your body determines how it will perform.”

Courtney: “Eating the right foods before and the correct food for recovery after working out can play a big part in living and feeling the best you can. It’s not about being super healthy 100% of the time, more about making good choices, eating real food and enjoying the benefits.”