Today we’re speaking to Will Penrose, an up-and-coming semi-professional hockey player and student at the University of Cardiff. We grabbed a coffee to talk all things hockey, natural supplements for exercise and his best advice for people who are unsure where to start with eating for sporting performance.April 27, 2022 4:20 pm January 10, 2022 12:18 pm
How it all began
Not many people could juggle a semi-professional sporting career with a degree from a top university, but it seems to come naturally to Will. Splitting his time between training camps and seminars, he certainly has plenty to keep him busy.
It seems, though, that elite sport is in his DNA.
“My dad was a fairly serious hockey player,” he explains. “He was always playing when I grew up. At that age, I was getting involved in a load of different sports and he suggested that one day I should come along to a Winchester local hockey trial.
“There was a session running on a Sunday for under eights. I was a bit nervous until I realised one of my best friends from school was going! I went along and absolutely loved it. After that I went to every under-eights training session on a Sunday morning and built it up from there.
“So I’ve been playing from the age of 6 or 7. But really from the age of zero I had a golf club in my hand or was kicking a football round. I was exposed to sport from a very young age.”
Getting onto the global stage
Fast-forward 15 years and the Sunday mornings spent training in the rain appear to have paid off. Will is playing hockey semi-professionally, with lots of exciting competitions in the offing.
An indoor European competition in December will see out 2021, before 2022 ushers in a whole host of high level tournaments.
“Wales have just qualified for the outdoor world cup in October, so that’s great news and a real target for me. So, I”m going to a lot more senior training camps and getting to know all the guys a bit more, as I’ve only really just broken into the cycle. It’s about building relationships,” Will says.
While prepping for the world cup will be a long-term commitment (the finals will take place in 2023), Will has his eye on other competitions too.
“In the summer there’s an outdoor Euros for the under 23s, which is another big target of mine. Then there’s the Commonwealth Games. I’d love the opportunity to go to those!”
How to power an elite hockey player
Playing any sport at Will’s high level involves a laser-like focus on food and nutrition. Rising through the ranks of professional players, he’s had plenty of time to experiment with his diet. So, what has he learnt along the way?
“For me, the most important thing is maximising my playing potential by preparing as much as possible. At the end of the day, most of that is done through nutrition.
“I’ve trialed loads of diets, from going vegan and vegetarian to including red meats. Really, the best thing I think you can do is get a balanced diet and really be true to yourself.
“For sports performance especially, if you’re eating crap you can’t really expect the results to be brilliant.”
This is even more crucial in the run-up to a sporting event, such as a half-marathon or weightlifting competition.
"I’ve trialed loads of diets, from going vegan and vegetarian to including red meats. Really, the best thing I think you can do is get a balanced diet and really be true to yourself."
Macros and micros
Like many professional and semi-professional athletes, Will keeps an eye on getting the right macronutrients into every meal. That means the right amount of protein, carbohydrates and essential fats. But he also swears by antioxidants.
Exercise can cause your cells to produce extra free radicals which can lead to ‘oxidative stress’, a state which causes accelerated cell damage and ageing. Luckily, antioxidants from your food can help slow this process.
“I add loads of greens to every meal! I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, mainly for the antioxidants. They’re really at the centre of my recovery after a training session, too.
“Because I’m training 4-5 times a week I’ve got to make sure I’m looking after my body. Thats where the greens and antioxidants come in. Lots of kale, lots of green beans, that sort of thing.”
Natural supplements for exercise
Will’s experiments with different diets have also led him to explore novel natural foods to help increase his performance. For instance, he is a big fan of cordyceps mushroom.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cordyceps is thought to nourish your Qi, or vital energy. It’s also linked with enhanced athletic performance. However, Will’s studies as part of his biology degree at Cardiff University have revealed more modern evidence for its health benefits.
“I use cordyceps, because it has been shown to have really good properties, not just in terms of antioxidants, but also in increasing VO2 max and oxygen uptake. I’m going to be doing a scientific study looking into that in the new year.
“Other than that, I’ve experimented with ashwagandha for minimising cortisol levels, and I take a high strength vitamin D supplement for immune support. That’s especially important in the winter months, to minimise any illness that might affect my performance.
“But really, I’d say focus on getting the basics in, getting plenty of vitamins and minerals from your diet.”
Choosing the right foods to support performance
Professional athletes are renowned for using a whole host of supplements to improve their performance, from creatine to protein powders. It seems, though, that Will’s diet dodges anything overly processed.
We quizzed him on how he sorts the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the myriad sports supplements on the market.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he cautions. “I’d suggest really trying to understand your nutrition and research what you’re taking. For example, if you’re reading up on a supplement, make sure the source is credible. Edited, peer-reviewed studies are available on platforms like PubMed or Google.
“A lot of people take supplements and the effects are only cognitive. They’ve been told by a friend, ‘take this it’s really good!’ There’s a lot of that, and a lot of hype over supplements. Often, though, they don’t really do a lot and the research behind them is not amazing.
“So, only really take it if you need it, not just for the sake of it, because at the end of the day it’s a waste of money.
“You could also try out a trial period of, say, three weeks. Then ask: has it made a difference? If it has then perhaps it’s something that could benefit you and your performance.”
The science behind sports nutrition
Will is in a unique position to see the effects of nutrition in theory and practice. As a biology student at the University of Cardiff, he’s picked up a few things which help him approach life as an elite athlete.
“I did an advanced anatomy and physiology module all about cellular breakdown and the makeup of organ systems, and tissues. I apply that knowledge to looking after my body while I’m playing hockey; things like warming up, warming down, and stretching. I can learn about it and apply it immediately that day.
“I’ve also covered how food is digested, and how to get the most out of food nutritionally.
“It’s been very useful to look at nutrition from an academic perspective, too. It encourages you to think critically about whether a source is credible. That has really helped me navigate all the nutritional claims that are out there.”
Off the hockey pitch
Fortunately, in between all the training and studying, there is some time for fun!
“I love photography,” Will says. “And I love cooking and experimenting with getting the best macros out of my meals. Time in the kitchen is really key for me.
“But to be honest, at the moment I am really enjoying the whole process of training for my hockey career! Keeping fit and healthy, running, going to the gym – it’s all part of it.”
With an attitude like that, we’re sure he’ll go far.
Best of luck at your upcoming competitions from the whole team at Erbology, Will!
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