Keto diets, intermittent fasting, carb cycling, crossfit workouts, bodybuilding training: this time of year can be an absolute minefield for any GAA player looking to get the most out of the upcoming winter off season.

However, I regularly mention on my GAA Lean Body Podcast that this time of year is a personal favourite of mine when working with GAA players. Obviously playing games in the wind, rain (and snow in some cases) is never the best part of the season and the calling of a nice warm gym can be a lot more appealing.

But the reason I love the off-season and winter period so much is that you have a full season of feedback on how to design your winter gym program. Combine this with a lot more leeway on how you eat or train and you can really kick start your progress ahead of next year. If you’re like me, you also like the fact that you can focus a little more on body composition coming into the Christmas period too; you’re not constantly worrying about recovering, peaking, under or over training coming into the match at the weekend. The flexibility can make the winter period very enjoyable.

If you want to fill out that Christmas t-shirt you bought or get your stomach to look lean, flat or ripped in the New Year, now is the perfect time to focus on that. Mid way through the season, it’s about optimising performance – making sure you’re faster, stronger and fitter, but the winter period gives you so much more flexibility.

In the GAA Lean Body Podcast, I’ve spoken about everything from ‘ How To Get Lean, Build Muscle and Improve GAA Performance on a Budget!’ to ‘The Importance Of Sleep For GAA Players’ and everything in between really.

Today, I’m going to talk on a few key rules that can support your winter program over the next few months. The first of which lays the groundwork for two that follow it. Setting a goal and working backwards from it.

1: Set a goal and work backwards from it

The reason I love this period so much is the fact that you have a multitude of very tangible goals you could potentially work backwards from. Two examples are Christmas parties and New Years Eve. The same goes for the New Year period. If you’re back on the pitch for February 1st, then you use all of January to prepare yourself for that. So many people fall off track because of no end goal. The winter period gives you its own set of ‘mini goals’ to hit – Christmas Eve, New Years Eve, the first pitch session of the new season on February 1st etc.

However, when I say ‘set a goal and work backwards from it’ – I mean to focus your eating and training around what you’re looking to achieve right now. If you want to get leaner so that you have abs and a six pack or fit into a new dress coming into the Christmas period, make sure you set your goal around that that.

If that’s the end goal, start by getting into a calorie deficit (eating less calories than you burn), maybe even consider reducing your carbohydrates or cycling your carbohydrates so your workouts don’t suffer and thinking about focusing on higher intensity sessions in your workouts.

The same goes for getting bigger or ‘bulking up’ – eat a calorie surplus (more calories than you’re burning), focus on hypertrophy and possibly some direct strength training in your workouts (6-10 reps, 1-2 minutes rest, 3-5 sets) and cut cardio back to a minimum to allow you to stay in that calorie surplus.

It doesn’t matter what your goal is per se, as long as you design your program and plan around it, every training session and every meal should be moving you one step closer to that end goal. Which serves as a Segway for my next point. Don’t overcomplicate your food!

2: Don’t overcomplicate your food!

I’ve covered this a lot throughout Season 2 of the GAA Lean Body Podcast – questions like ‘should I do intermittent fasting if I play hurling? or ‘ can I go keto if I play GAA?’ – both great questions as its always worth considering anything that could give you a or your teammates a potential edge. They’re also great questions because it’s just as important to be aware of protocols that aren’t supportive to your performance. For example, putting your body into ketosis in a primarily glycotic based sports (i.e. you use glucose and glycogen from carbohydrate as primary fuel sources) may not be the best thing to do mid season when you need to be fuelled for games. (keto for example – expanded more in this epsiode ‘ link). Again context is key and it will work for some players, but its just not best practices for the majority so always work with a coach or do your own research to find out what will work best for you.

However when it comes to nutrition, there are a couple of basic foundation principles that you need to get right before you do anything else. One is to stick with real, whole and nutrient dense food as much as possible. The second is eat in a calorie deficit if fat loss is the goal and a calorie surplus if gaining size is the goal. If you’re trying to do both, consider staying at calorie maintenance and manipulating your macro nutrient timings (carb cycling for example) and training protocols that could allow you to do both (hypertrophy mixed with strength work and metabolic conditioning etc.).

Personally, I have a lot of the people that I work with in my GAA Lean Body Program doing what’s what I mentioned above – ‘carb cycling’ – meaning you match the amount of carbs you eat on a specific day based on the intensity of the workout for that day.

In the program, its all designed and calculated for you – low carb with higher fat to balance calories on rest days and high carb with lower fat to balance calories on leg days but you can design it yourself. If you want to play around with carb cycling, just make sure that balance out your calories (i.e. 3,000 each day if that’s your daily intake) and eat more carbs on the days of hardest workouts and eat less on the days of easier workouts or rest days.

If you only did these two things: eating high quality ‘real/unprocessed’ food in a calorie deficit, maintenance or surplus based on your goals; then you’ll get pretty good results over the off-season and winter period.

Here are some of the foods that I use with my players.

CARBOHYDRATE: sweet potato, brown or basmati rice, quoina, porridge oats, baked potatoes

FATS: Avocados. Olive oil, coconut oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds

PROTEIN: Fish, beef, poultry, eggs, whey or rice protein

That’s not to say there aren’t other great foods to include, they’re just some that jump to mind. I also add in unlimited vegetables and fruits for most players with at least one weekly ‘free meal’ i.e. going out for weekend drinks, a tub of ice cream – whatever their particular favourite is. Again it’s all factored into the calories on that day or the carb intake for that day.

The take home message is to not over complicate it. Yes, look into carb cycling and even the more complicated topics such as keto diet, ketosis or intermittent fasting but don’t make it your primary focus. Eating high quality foods in the right amounts is the foundation layer of your nutritional strategy. Everything else should build on that principle.

Which brings me to my last point. Don’t train like an idiot.

3: Don’t train like an idiot

We all know the guy who comes back to pre season with a groin or hamstring pull because they were doing stupid workouts in the gym over the winter. The idiot squatted his max without warming up properly or over trained trying to look good for a Christmas party or drank all through the Christmas and then ruined his immune system coming into the new year. Such a fool! Alas, I’ve done all three myself.

When I was 19, I tore my quad trying to squat my maximum without warming up properly. I played through the pre season with that injury and it took nearly a year to fix.

When I was 22, I trained twice a day because I wanted to look good for this upcoming Christmas party I was going to (truthfully, a girl I fancied at the time was going and I wanted to look my best). If you must know, yes I did get the girl (although I’m sure the shots of tequila we were both doing helped more than any charm or wit that I possessed) but I digress. In the lead up to the party, I hurt my back from sheer overtraining. It put me out for the whole of January.

Before I go on, I know what you’re thinking, you really would have thought Id have a learnt my lesson at this stage but I hadn’t. At 23, I went out nearly every night over Christmas. They’re seemed to be seven pubs every second night but I still dragged myself out of bed and went to the gym the next day. My immune system took an absolute hammering and I spent the New Year curled up in bed and missed weeks of training as I tried to recover.

At the time, I didn’t understand training, nutrition or how the body actually worked. I also didn’t realise that it was about quality, not quantity- its not about just throwing stuff against the wall, doing as much as you can and seeing what sticks. Its better to have a well executable plan that is specific to the current goal at the time.

It comes back to my first point on working backwards from your end goal. If you’re trying to get bigger or stronger – focus on your compound lifts (squat, bench, military press etc.) in your training. If you’re trying to lose body fat or get leaner, try a higher intensity approach or add in some metcons (metabolic conditioning) to the end of your workouts.

Here’s a very basic simple workout that can get you started.

A) Barbell Squat

Sets: 3

Reps: 8

Rest: 90 second

Tempo: 4:1:1 (4 second down, one second pause, one second up)

B) Pull ups (with a band, machine or full)

Sets: 3

Reps: failure (at least 6)

Rest: 90 seconds

C) Spider Push Up superset* with Box Jump

Sets: 4

Reps: 20 reps on each

Rest: 30 seconds

For supersets, perform 20 spider push-ups, then 20 box jumps, rest 30 seconds and repeat 4 times.

D) Run 1k at a 1.5 incline on a treadmill (any speed that you find challenging but not exhausting) – I use between 10km and 13km per hour normally.

That’s it. That workout should take you about forty minutes and you’ll be dripping sweat by the end of it. It covers nearly every body part, can help build strength, speed, fitness and power. If your nutrition is good, your body composition will start to change too.

Again this is just an guide for your off season but hopefully it supports you over the winter period. This is the best time to play around with your training, try new foods and get yourself set up for next season without stressing too much about peaking for games. Again, I’m only offering some tips and advice and never start a new program without talking to a coach or doctor but hopefully it supports you over the coming months.

You can listen to all the episodes of the GAA Lean Body Podcast on your favourite podcast app too.

GAA Lean Body Podcast (episodes mentioned above)

Episode 5: The Importance Of Sleep For GAA Players

Episode 8: How To Get Lean, Build Muscle and Improve GAA Performance on a Budget!

Episode 17: Intermittent Fasting for GAA Players, Essential Supplements and Getting Stronger For Games

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