Food provides us with energy for our muscles, brain and other organs. Soccer involves rigorous activity, and therefore it is important to have energy available to us during the game and in training.
A healthy diet improves our general level of health, and can help us recover more quickly from games, training and injuries. A good diet will also improve your players’ performance in a game.
Fuel is a vital component of your training because if you haven’t got enough energy in your body, you won’t be able to complete your training at a high intensity, and therefore you won’t experience any improvements in your fitness.
The key nutrients from your diet that give you energy are fat, protein and carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is the main fuel you will use during training and matches, and you need to try to have a high amount of this in your diet. Foods containing large amounts of carbohydrate include bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and cereals.
Protein is not an immediate source of energy and so is not usually stored as an energy source. Protein is only used as a fuel in significant quantities when insufficient energy is available from carbohydrate and fat
Soccer players need to manage their diet to maximize the energy available to them, and so it is important to understand how the body uses food to produce energy, and how you can maximize the amount of energy available for exercise.
On average, soccer players need between 2300-6000 kcals per day, most of which should come from carbohydrate (60-70% of total energy intake). Professional soccer players need to consume at least 500g of carbohydrate each day.
Carbohydrates – how do they work?
Carbohydrate is stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen, and in your blood as glucose. However, your body only has a limited store of carbohydrate so it’s vital you replace this following every training session and match.
When you eat and drink, the food you consume is not immediately available for producing energy. Before your body can use it, the food must be digested and absorbed.
Once the food has been digested and absorbed, the breakdown of products can be used to provide energy – either immediately or they can be stored as energy reserves to be drawn upon when needed. Glucose (from carbohydrate breakdown) is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles, while fat are stored at various sites around the body including the abdomen and below the skin. Carbohydrate (glycogen) stores have a limited capacity (250-600g), but fat stores do not.
Food intake and energy
Units of energy are usually expressed as Calories (also known as kcal). Calories have been used as the units of measurement for many years and are the term that most people are familiar with.
Different types of food contain different amounts of energy in Calories
1g of carbohydrate provides 4 kcal
1g of protein provides 4 kcal
1g fat provides 9 kcal
Although it would appear from these values that fat is the most useful source of energy, this is not necessarily the case. Energy is produced from fat more slowly than it is from carbohydrates, and carbohydrate is the main fuel used during high-intensity exercise. So, if the intensity of exercise is to be maintained, and fatigue avoided, then carbohydrate is especially important.
Good sources of energy
Carbohydrate is the most important fuel for energy, so you should eat lots of foods that are rich in starchy carbohydrates. Many different foods contain carbohydrate. The richest sources of carbohydrate are bread, rice, pasta, cereals and potatoes, but other foods also contain useful amounts, such as fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses, yoghurt and milk. Carbohydrate is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, and if you get tired during your training sessions or a game, this might be because your glycogen stores are running low. The more you exercise the more carbohydrate you need. The actual amount you need depends upon the type, intensity, duration and frequency of your training sessions, not to mention your general fitness level. The bigger the glycogen stores in your muscles, the longer you can perform. So this is particularly important if you’re playing soccer. After training or a game, your muscles can refuel their glycogen stores twice as fast as normal, so it’s important to eat foods containing carbohydrate soon after you’ve finished training or a game.
Protein is essential for our muscles to grow and repair themselves. Protein is also a source of energy. The amount of protein athletes need has been a topic of huge debate for many years because people who are very active, especially those who train frequently, generally require more protein than those who don’t.
Most people in the developed countries will eat more protein than they need, so even soccer players training regularly should be getting enough protein to meet their needs. This means there should be no need for you to increase the amount you eat of foods rich in protein and there is no need to buy protein supplements.
You should be able to get all the protein you need by eating a variety of foods such as:
Drinking for sport
Water is one of the most important nutrients in your diet. Hydration is a measure of how much water you have in your body. If you become dehydrated it can stop you getting the most out of your activity, so it’s important to make sure you drink enough.
Drinking too little water or losing too much water through sweating will have a negative effect on your performance in training and matches. Effects on performance will mean that you:
- run slower
- don’t cover as much distance
- react to the ball slower when tackling/passing/intercepting/saving
- can’t jump as high to head or gather/clear the ball for goalkeepers
- Exercise increases the production of heat in your body, and sweating helps you to lose this heat, keeping you cool and preventing you from overheating. However, it’s important to replace these sweat losses, otherwise you will become dehydrated. If you do become dehydrated, your body temperature rises, performance suffers and in extreme cases you could suffer heat stress.
Monitor your urine
The simplest way to tell if you are adequately replacing sweat losses is to check the colour and quantity of your urine. If your urine is very dark you need to drink more fluids. When your urine is pale yellow your body has returned to its normal water balance. If your urine is very dark, you should drink 500ml of water immediately, and continue to drink until your urine is pale yellow again.
You can monitor your sweat loss by weighing yourself before and after training and matches. For every 1kg of weight that you lose, you should drink 1500ml of fluid (1.5 times what you have lost since you will pee some of this out). In addition to monitoring urine and weight loss, you should also monitor how you feel. If you feel chronically fatigued, have a headache, or feel lethargic then you may be chronically dehydrated, and you should continue to drink until you start to feel better. Thirst is a poor indicator of hydration status, since you are already dehydrated by the time the thirst mechanism kicks in. Young children especially have a poorly developed thirst mechanism, so you should make a big effort to drink before and during training and matches, and afterwards. In a typical training day you should aim to drink between 3 and 5 litres of fluid. The exact amount will depend on the air temperature, body size, daily activities and how much training you do.
When you’re training or playing matches you should aim to drink:
- at least 500ml (approximately 1 pint) one hour before you start
- Then drink 200ml (a typical glass) 15 to 20 minutes before you start. This fluid in your system will be ready to replace sweat losses.
- Aim to drink approximately 200ml of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes during training. In hot weather you may need to drink more than this, and less in cold weather if you’re not sweating and the session isn’t that intense.
- Try to drink as often as you can during matches. But you’re dependent on stoppages in play, so place fluid bottles all the way round the pitch so that you don’t have to come over to one point to get a drink.
- drink during half-time
- Drink immediately after the match to start replacing the sweat and energy you have lost during the match.
To help keep you hydrated:
- Don’t wait until you feel thirsty
- Drink lots before you start training
- Keep some drink to hand so you can reach it whenever you need it while you’re training
- Drink plenty when you’ve finished
And remember that the fluid we have when we’re exercising should be on top of the usual 1.2 litres (6 to 8 glasses) we need every day.
If you’re training for longer than 1.5 hours, try to eat a high-energy snack such as a banana or some dried fruit before you start or during exercise (if this is practical). If you can’t manage this, you might find it useful to have some diluted fruit juice or squash to help give you energy. It’s not usually necessary to drink sports drinks just because you’re active. Fruit juice mixed with water, well diluted fruit squashes, or juice drinks will hydrate you and give you some energy. But remember that these, like sports drinks, contain lots of sugar, which means they contain extra calories and can lead to tooth decay.
Sport and supplements
You should be able to get all the nutrients you need from a healthy balanced diet – and remember that taking supplements won’t make up for not eating well.
What to eat
For breakfast try eating a large bowl of cereal with a small amount of sugar, semi-skimmed milk and a sliced banana; or try 4 slices of toast with jam instead.
For lunch you could eat a large bowl of pasta with a low fat sauce (e.g. tomato or low fat seafood sauce) or a couple of sandwiches, preferably made with wholemeal bread, a small amount of butter or margarine and filled with lean meat (e.g. chicken) and salad, along with a yogurt and some fruit.
For dinner, options include grilled lean meat with boiled potatoes and vegetables, or meat with steamed or boiled rice and stir-fried vegetables, or a large baked potato with baked beans or meat sauce.
When to eat
After a game or training
Within one hour of a training session or match your muscles are still active and the energy you’ve used during training or matches will be replaced and stored more quickly in your body. During this time, you should aim to drink 1 litre of fluid and eat at least one of the following carbohydrate foods:
- two slices of toast, crumpet, bagel or English muffin with jam
- bowl of cereal with semi-skimmed milk
- 2 bananas
- cereal bar
Here are two menu plans that you should try to follow during a typical training day and match day. The timings given are just a guide. You will need to adjust these to suit your own timetable, but remember to eat your carbohydrate snack and a pint of fluid within an hour of finishing your training. And have a meal 3 hours before kick-off on a match day.
- Menu plans
- Timing of meals around training and matches is just as important as what you eat if you want to keep your energy levels up. For the first two hours after training or a game, muscles can refuel their glycogen stores twice as fast as normal so it’s important to eat carbohydrate foods as soon as possible after a training session or a game.
|Typical training day|
|9.30/10am||Bowl of breakfast cereal Mandarin oranges Glass of fresh orange juice 1 slice of toast|
|11.30am||Banana or toasted muffin with jam Pint of diluted fruit juice or fruit squash|
|1pm||Jacket potato with prawns and cheese (e.g. cottage cheese) Pint of diluted fruit juice or fruit squash|
|3pm||2 bananas Handful of grapes Pint of diluted fruit juice or fruit squash|
|5pm||Pasta with a chicken, broccoli and tomato sauce Low-fat yoghurt Pint of diluted fruit juice or fruit squash|
|7pm||Bowl of breakfast cereal or banana and a packet of raisins Glass of water|
|10.30/11pm||2 slices of toast and jam Cereal and fruit Pint of diluted fruit juice or fruit squash|
|Typical match day (2pm kick-off)|
|9.30/10am||Pint of water Cereal and fruit|
|11am||2 slices of toast and scrambled eggs, tomatoes Fresh orange juice|
|1pm||Sports drink Banana|
|Up to match||Sports drink|
|After match||Sports drink Banana or cereal bar|
|5/6pm||Soup and bread Chicken, pasta, vegetables in BBQ sauce Bananas and custard Pint of diluted fruit juice or fruit squash|
|8pm||2 slices of toast and jam Pint of diluted fruit juice or fruit squash|