Nutrition for Athletes in Team Sports: Practical Recommendations

May 9th, 2022

Nutrition can play a valuable role in optimizing the physical and mental performance of highly competitive soccer players during training and match-play, and in maintaining their overall health throughout a long season.

Preparing for Match Day
The day before the competitive event, athletes should:
• train only lightly; this allow muscles time to refuel.
• hydrate well; the goal being copious light-colored urine.
• choose carbohydrate-based meals and snacks.
The goal is to consume 6 to 8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. For a 150 lb soccer player, this means about 450 to 525 grams carb (1,800 to 2,100 kcals ) to replenish the muscle and liver glycogen stores that got depleted during training sessions. That’s no Paleo or Keto diet!
       Divided into three meals plus two snacks, we’re talking at least 400 kcals of carb per meal and 100 per snack. Every eating event should be carb-based. Players who fill-up on excessive protein at meals, plus choose protein bars and shakes for snacks, can easily eat only half this recommended carb intake. While they want adequate protein to build and repair muscles, they need abundant carbs to optimally fuel muscles. Athletes who start a game with low muscle glycogen tend to run less distance and be slower than carb-loaded players; this is particularly noticeable in the second half of the game. 

Game-Day Fueling  
A pre-game meal, eaten 3 to 4 hours before start-time will optimize liver glycogen stores that can drop by 50% overnight, especially when anxious athletes sleep poorly. A pre-game meal helps fuel high intensity sprints; it delays fatigue so that players perform better. An adequate pre-game meal is particularly important for a lunch-time kick-off.
     For a 150-lb. athlete, “adequate” means 1-3 g/kg body weight, or about 300 to 450 calories from grains, fruit or other source of carb that settles well and digests easily. This could be a toast and a banana; bagels, oatmeal with raisins and maple syrup, or two granola bars. Be careful with simple sugars from gus and gels if there is a history of GI/gut distress.
• Players want to tank-up with water, a sports drink, or a familiar fluid in the 2 to 4 hours pre-game. This allows time for them to void the excess fluid, then drink again before the start of the game.

During the game
The overall nutrition goals during the event are to:
• Drink ample fluid (electrolytes may be needed) to prevent dehydration (but not over-hydrate), and consume ample carbohydrates to prevent blood glucose from dropping and help fuel the athlete. The brain uses carbs to think clearly and stay focused on the task at hand.

   After warm-up and again at half-time, teammates want to consume about 30 to 60 g carb (about 100-250 kcals). In soccer, this has been shown to improve dribbling speed, passing, and shots on goal. Players who poorly tolerate gels can get the same benefit from natural foods (fruit, raisins, honey) that they know will settle well.
For players who cannot tolerate any food or fluid in their anxious stomach, swishing and spitting a sport drink during breaks in play can potentially enhance performance. No need to spit it out if they can tolerate it!
Sweat rates vary from 500 to 2,500 ml/hour. The goal is to prevent a drop of more than 2% to 3% in pre-game body weight (and also to avoid over-hydrating). That means a 150-lb. athlete should lose less than 3 to 4.5 lbs per game.

Recovery from play
Players need less time to fully recover if they do a good job of fueling and hydrating before and during games. This is particularly important in tournament situations with back-to-back games.
To rapidly replenish depleted glycogen stores, players want to consume 1 g carb/kg body weight per hour for the next four hours. This equates to about 300 kcals for a 150-lb. athlete and can be accomplished with carb-based drinks and snacks in the locker room, followed by a post-game meal near the stadium, and snacks while traveling. Refueling after night games needs to be planned ahead.

Players with a poor post-game appetite should opt for natural foods that offer sodium and potassium, along with carbs, protein and fluid. Good examples include fruit smoothies, eggs and toast, chicken burrito, dried fruits or berries and nuts over yogurt, whole wheat pita with grilled vegetables and hummus, or simple chocolate milk!

The post-game goal is to maintain a carb-rich diet (3-4 g/lb) in the 24-hours post-game, and again for the next 2 to 3 days. Pleyers might need to be frequently reminded they are either fueling up or refueling!

To repair muscles, players want to target 20 to 25 grams of high quality protein at 3 to 4 hour intervals. While more research is needed, casein-rich food such as cottage cheese before sleep might enhance overnight muscle repair. Tart cherry juice might help reduce muscle soreness.

When teams want to celebrate with alcohol after a match, take note: More than two units per day can impair glycogen replacement, muscle repair, and rehydration—to say nothing of hurt the next day’s performance. When recovery is a priority, athletes should avoid alcohol. Good thing the thrill of victory comes with a natural high!

Written by: Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area. For information about her best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook visit www.NancyClarkRD.com.

To create a consensus on how to best feed players, James Collins and 31 other nutrition professionals wrote the Union of European Football Associations’ (UEAF) expert group statement on nutrition in elite football. Current evidence to inform practical recommendations and guide future research (Br. J Sports Med 2020; 0:1-27)
https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2020/11/08/bjsports-2019-101961.share (open access)

Posted by: Maureen Kelly Gonsalves

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