All sports make their own unique demands on the body, and so it’s important to understand how nutrition can be used to ensure optimal performance in your particular sport. For footballers, it is especially important to have a carefully considered nutritional plan when you are in training and leading up for a big match day.
This post will explain how the specific demands that playing football puts on your body affects your nutritional needs when you are gearing up for a game. It will also give a simple guide on how this might look in terms of pre-match meal planning.
What are the physical demands of playing football?
Football is an intermittent sport, which means that players spend most of the match moderately active, with short bursts of higher-intensity activity. The typical distance covered by an elite football player is 10 to 13 km, and this is mostly covered by walking and low-intensity running (Bangsbo, Mohr, & Krustrup, 2006).
In this kind of intermittent sport, the athlete’s aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are both highly taxed throughout the game (Krustup, et al, 2006), so that mean heart rates reach around 85%. Both aerobic and anaerobic respiration involve metabolising glucose to release energy, and aerobic respiration also requires oxygen, which is why the heart rate increases so much. The glucose needed for these processes is found circulating in the blood, and also converted from glycogen stores in the muscles.
Observations show that muscle glycogen stores can be almost depleted by half-time (Krustrup, et al, 2004), which means that itâ€™s really important to make sure that these glycogen stores are full before the start of a game. Higher stores of substrate glycogen mean that a player can sustain an optimal performance of sprinting and recovery runs throughout the game.
What are the nutritional requirements for football performance?
The key to ensuring that your body has enough glycogen stored in your muscles is to make sure that you consume enough carbohydrate, which will convert to both glucose in the blood, and glycogen stores in your muscles and liver.
Football players are generally recommended to consume around 5 to 7 grams per kilo of body mass per day during training (Burke, et al, 2011), increasing to between 7 and 12 grams per kilo of body mass in the 24 to 36 hour period before a match. From my experience working with elite footballers, I have seen that many players don’t actually have this level of carbohydrate intake in their daily diet, and research reports that match-day (and pre-match lead up time) carbohydrate intake is less than optimal (Anderson, et al, 2017).
You do need to be careful about how you consume carbohydrates, however. Over-consumption of carbohydrates, especially if accessed through solid foods, may cause gastrointestinal issues. This is why incorporating a combination of liquid and solid food sources is a preferable method for footballers to consume the high quantities of carbohydrates needed for optimal performance, without feeling over-full or bloated (Jeukendrup, 2004).
Pre-match meal plan examples:
The following pre-game meal plan (based on a 3 pm kick-off) has been developed with the purpose of optimising the glycogen stores in the muscles and providing appropriate levels of hydration, while also minimising the risk of gastric upset.
Some guidelines for match-day nutritional plans recommend an intake of between 1 and 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilo of body mass (Mujika & Burke, 2010). However, it is not realistic to expect a player of 75kg, for example, to consume 300 grams of carbohydrate in one meal-sitting. As such, I recommend leaning towards the lower end of this range to avoid discomfort.
- Game-day breakfast (between 8 and 9am):
Fig 1. Game-day breakfast.
- Pre-match meal (ideally 3 to 4 hours before kick-off):
If you have been following an efficient nutritional strategy in the days leading up to the game, you should have been fuelling sufficiently so that this meal is not a last-ditch effort to build up energy. It’s much better to develop a habitual nutritional plan in advance.
Athletes want to focus their full concentration on the game ahead, especially in those vital pre-match hours. The last thing athletes want to be bothered with leading up to a game is fancy or complicated recipes, so as you can see from the graphics, this is a simple and easy-to-follow meal plan.
Taking electrolyte tablets at this time will also help to ensure that you start your game in a well-hydrated state.
Fig 2. Pre-game meal.
Anderson, L., Orme, P., Naughton, R. J., Close, G. L. , Milsom, J., Rydings, D., et al. (2017). Energy intake and expenditure of professional soccer players of the English premier league: evidence of carbohydrate periodization. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 27(3), 1-25.
Bangsbo, J., Mohr, M., & Krustrup, P. (2006). Physical and metabolic demands of training and match-play in the elite football player. Journal of sports sciences, 24(07), 665-674.
Burke, L. M., Hawley, J. A., Wong, S. H., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011). Carbohydrates for training and competition. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(1), S17-S27.
Jeukendrup, A. E. (2004). Carbohydrate intake during exercise and performance. Nutrition. 20(78), 669-77.
Krustrup, P., Mohr, M., Steensberg, A., Bencke, J., K, M., & Bangsbo, J. (2006). Muscle and blood metabolites during a soccer game: Implications for sprint performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(6), 1-10.
Krustrup, P., Soderlund, K., Mohr, M., & Bangsbo, J. (2004). The slow component of oxygen uptake during intense sub- maximal exercise in man is associated with additional fibre recruitment. PflÃ¼gers Archiv – European Journal of Physiology, 447, 855-866.
Mujika, I., & Burke, L. M. (2010). Nutrition in team sports. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 57(Suppl. 2), 26-35.