Water Polo is played in a pool that’s 30 meters long and 20 meters wide, with a minimum depth of 2 meters. Each team consists of 13 players, including a goalkeeper and 6 field players. A match consists of four quarters of 8 minutes each, excluding time for penalties, time-outs, or goals. The goalkeeper is the only player allowed to touch the ball with both hands at once, and teams have 30 seconds of possession before they must make a goal attempt.
Intense Demands of Water Polo
Water polo isn’t a casual dip in the pool; it’s a physically demanding sport that requires athletes to be in top shape. Similar to many team sports, water polo involves intense bursts of activity combined with physical clashes with opponents. Players perform a wide range of actions, including swimming at various speeds, treading water, wrestling with opponents, and passing, receiving, and shooting the ball.
During a men’s water polo match, players engage in around 100 high-intensity activities and sprints, lasting 7 to 14 seconds each. These bursts of effort are mixed with periods of lower-intensity activity. Players spend an average of 34 minutes in actual play, with a work-to-rest ratio of 5:2.
The demands vary between positions, with perimeter players emphasizing high-intensity swimming and center players focusing more on wrestling.
Goalkeepers have a unique role, spending over 30 minutes performing easy-sculling, around 12 minutes in ready-sculling to maintain a high vertical position, and approximately 3 minutes swimming and passing. They also engage in high-intensity, explosive movements, often following 10-15 seconds of intense exercise, and this is repeated over 40 times in a match.
Meeting the Physical Demands
Understanding the intense physical demands of water polo is crucial for both players and coaches. It’s a game that places significant demands on aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways, meaning that players need both endurance and explosive power to excel.
Players continuously rotate in and out of the game, allowing for individual differences in playing time and, consequently, varying physiological and nutritional needs. Training and nutrition should be tailored to each player’s specific demands to delay fatigue and optimize performance.
Size, Physique, and Body Composition
Male water polo players are often described as balanced mesomorphs. This means they tend to have a balanced combination of muscle mass, body fat, and overall body size. They are heavier compared to elite swimmers, which can be advantageous in a physically demanding sport like water polo. The presence of higher muscle mass and body weight can provide the strength and power needed to excel in the game. Female water polo players, on the other hand, tend to display higher levels of endomorphy, which implies a higher tendency toward storing body fat.
Positional differences in body composition exist among both male and female water polo players. Center players, who are typically positioned close to the goal and engage in physical battles with opponents, tend to be heavier and have higher body fat levels. This extra body mass may offer advantages in terms of holding position and providing buoyancy in the water.
Perimeter players, who require speed and agility, are described as smaller and leaner. Their body composition is tailored to meet the demands of their positions, emphasizing the importance of position-specific physical attributes.
Nutrition Consideration for Water Polo Players
Building Lean Muscle
Having a higher body mass can be advantageous in water polo, especially for those aspiring to reach elite levels. To achieve this, players should focus on building lean muscle. Strength and conditioning workouts are a crucial part of weekly training, and nutrition plays a significant role in muscle development.
Recent research suggests that consuming 20-30 grams of protein immediately after a workout can optimize muscle protein synthesis. Whey protein, which is a fast-acting protein, appears to be beneficial for post-workout recovery.
Carbohydrates for Energy
Carbohydrates are essential for providing energy during training, recovery, and competition. Water polo players should adjust their carbohydrate intake based on their body composition, daily training schedule, and activity levels.
During preseason and intense training phases, when multiple training sessions are common, players should increase their daily carbohydrate intake. This ensures they have enough energy to perform at their best. Younger athletes, those with high energy requirements, and those aiming to gain muscle mass may also need higher carbohydrate intake, typically within the range of 4-8 grams per kilogram of body mass per day.
Conversely, players with higher body fat levels, those recovering from injuries, or those aiming to reduce body fat may require less carbohydrate intake. It’s crucial for to work with a sports nutrition professional to adjust accordingly.
Optimal Pre-Game Nutrition
Pre-game nutrition is crucial for peak performance. Athletes should consume easily digestible carbohydrate foods and fluids before a match. For afternoon or evening games, players should maintain their regular meal schedule throughout the day rather than skipping meals.
During the game, players should consider consuming carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks or gels to maintain brain function and decision-making abilities.
After a game or training session, rapid recovery is vital, especially when there’s a short time between matches or more training. Proper post-game recovery can help replenish muscle glycogen stores and enhance protein synthesis.
A well-organized recovery station with sports drinks, liquid meal supplements, bars, fruits, and other carbohydrate and protein-rich foods can be beneficial. Additionally, players should aim to have a nutritious meal within 2-3 hours after the game to promote recovery.
Although water polo is played in the water, dehydration can still be a concern, especially in warm or humid conditions. Sweat losses and fluid intake should be monitored, and athletes should be encouraged to consume carbohydrate-containing drinks or gels to support carbohydrate intake during training and competition.
Nutritional supplements should be approached with caution. While some ergogenic aids may benefit performance, it’s essential to consult with a sports nutrition professional before using any supplements. The effectiveness of specific supplements, such as creatine and bicarbonate, in water polo remains a topic of ongoing research.
by Manuel Attard M.Sc RD – Sports Dietitian & Nutritionist in Gozo, Malta