In the context of sport, in particular football, nutrition can play a vital role in the performance levels of the players and can affect various factors such as energy, endurance, body fat, speed and hydration.
The nutrients required in the body to form a balanced diet include:
- Proteins– required for the growth and repair of muscle tissues and cell tissues.
- Carbohydrates – the main source of energy in the body. Converted to glucose by the digestive system.
- Fats – another source of energy, also known as triglycerides it is usually stored in various fatty acid chains
- Minerals – inorganic elements which are critical to the body’s normal functions
- Vitamins – a vital organic compound needed in small amounts for various chemical processes in the body.
- Water – essential in carrying other nutrients around the body and excreting waste products. The body is made up of 60% water
- Dietary fibre– indigestible food that aids the function of the digestive system.
Staying fit and healthy with good nutrition is an essential mantra for any football player, whether amateur or professional and the food and drinks footballers decide to consume, can affect their overall performance. Every bit of advantage can make the difference in a football match, and players with a higher level of health and fitness are likely to be more competitive in the sport. Understanding the tactics required and training hard can be supplemented by a balanced and nutritious diet, providing various additional benefits such as:
- Increased recovery rates within workouts
- Reduced risk of illness and injuries
- Consistent preparation for matches
- Increased exposure and enjoyment of various food groups
- Improved gains from training sessions
- Healthier blood vessels for easier blood flow to the legs
Unfortunately even with these benefits and the increased influence of sports science in determining nutrition for footballers, many footballers still do not meet their nutritional goals. This issue can mostly be associated with the following:
- Lack of culinary knowledge and skills by the player
- Overuse of supplements as replacement for a balanced meal
- Inadequate time to acquire or prepare the correct foods
- Out-dated sports nutrition education
- Player indifference to food consumed
Although there is no ‘perfect’ diet or food that could magically make any footballer, a top athlete, it is unwise to ignore the difference the correct nutrition can have on a football player’s training and performance levels. The information below provides a guideline and insight into the various aspects that a football player can address when looking to improve their nutritional knowledge and intake.
The Role of Energy in Football
Professional football players usually play more than one competitive match per week, inclusive of training sessions over the course of much of the year. This also applies for amateur players who although not playing at the top level, still require high levels of energy to improve during training and compete through the year. The energy demands must be met by the players to prevent extreme fatigue through the year.
Energy gained from food is known as potential energy that is derived from ingested food through the process of cellular respiration. As the main source of the body’s fuel, glycogen is used by the muscles in the two forms, one involving the merging of oxygen with food molecules (known as aerobic respiration) and the other involving the reorganization of atoms within the molecules (known as anaerobic respiration). Football players with lower glycogen stores are more likely to feel tired faster, and are more prone to injury or illness.
Energy is measured in calories (cal), a calorie is the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of 1g of water 1°C from 14° to 15°C. A kilocalorie (kcal) is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1000g of water 1°C. 20% of the energy used by the body is through brain metabolism (enables the function of mental activities). The rest is usually dispersed and used by basal metabolic requirements and other bodily cells and organs.
Daily energy requirements of a footballer
The daily energy requirement of a footballer is determined by their basic energy requirements x additional energy requirements.
Basic energy requirements (BER) are inclusive of the BMR (basal metabolic rate) and the general day to day activities. For every kg of body weight, approximately 1.33 calories is needed each hour. So for example a footballer weighing approximately 72kg would require as standard 1.33 x 24hrs x 72 = 2298 calories/day.
For the extra energy requirements (EER), each extra hour of training usually requires an additional 9 calories for each kg of body weight.
Therefore a three hour training session for a 72kg footballer would mean 9 x 3hrs x 72 = 1944 calories
So a footballer weighing 72kgs who trains for three hours a day would require an intake of around 4242 calories (BER + EER = 2298 + 1944). Although this shows the large amounts of energy required when participating as a professional footballer, it also indicates the necessity of a balanced nutritional source to ensure the body is getting the right amount of each nutritional group for the body to function at its best capacity.
Although the above is a rough guide of the energy demands of a professional footballer per day, in reality the frequency, intensity and duration of training sessions will differ for each player, and will also be dependent of their position on the pitch and the player’s personal training aptitude.
Most players may see a standard training regime that gives space for rest and recover before the next games, with a higher emphasis on fitness during pre-season. This is normally essential to raise the players’ fitness level to a point where the body can store more energy to be expended through the season without them succumbing to illness or related injuries.
Below is a list of essential sources of energy for a footballer when training.
The most essential source of energy before any sport training session are carbohydrates. These enable the players to move and perform at a higher level, expending energy from their glycogen stores.
As training sessions usually last longer (2-4 hours) than a standard football match (90 mins), it is usually expected for the players to load themselves with foods containing a high carbohydrate content. A few pre-training foods preferred by many Premier League and Championship players include:
- Pasta with vegetables
- Cereals with banana or blueberries
- Bagels with a low fat spread
- Baked potato with low fat butter
- Wholemeal bread with jam or peanut butter
- Apple/pineapple/orange/lemon juice
These foods are packed full with short and long release carbohydrates essential for most intense training sessions.
As a player begin to be put through their paces, the carbohydrates that have been converted to glycogen stores in the body are then converted into simple sugars (glucose). For the first 30-45 mins of moderate training, around 40% of carbohydrate stores are used.
More intense anaerobic drills e.g. running with the ball at top speed or playing in a training match will use even a higher amount of the carbohydrate store. At this stage, the glycogen in the body needs to be topped up to enable the player to keep up their performance. Most footballers use the following during intense training sessions to keep them going.
- Electrolyte replacement drinks
- Glucose drinks
- Fast release energy bars
- Frozen fruit slushies
Ensuring that peak performance is maintained during training sessions can help to prevent injury, fatigue and improve the effects of training.
Most football training sessions are usually followed by a warm down period. As the body requires sufficient refuelling both in terms of fluids and food, key food groups at this point include protein, carbohydrates and dietary fibre. The sooner the body is given essential carbs to replenish its glycogen store, and protein to repair the muscles used, the faster a player can get back to playing or training again.
Carb-protein meals are essential after training to ensure that a player can recover as quickly as required. Protein only meals should not be consumed after an intense training session, as although they do repair the muscles and fill the stomach, they do not provide the essential fuel required to reenergise the body. The following foods are great sources of carbohydrates and protein especially after a training session.
- Pretzels and hummus
- Oatmeal with syrup
- Turkey/chicken sandwich
- Spaghetti and meatballs
Other essential nutrients and vitamins, including electrolytes, Vitamin C and E can also help post-recovery after a football training session.
Energy requirements for a match
As football is an intermittent sport, largely consisting of anaerobic movements and short intense sprints for about 30% of the match it might seem that not much energy may be required. This is actually the opposite, the high intensity performances repeatedly use up a high store of energy and is the main cause of fatigue in later periods of the match.
When glycogen levels in the leg muscles start to decrease, the free fatty acid (FFA) levels in the blood start to increase to compensate for this, unfortunately this is not as effective as the original glucose fuel source. How much energy a player will need during a match will be highly dependent on their tactical role, playing style and game time. Players that are injured or are not involved in many matches may see that their nutritional intake would be slightly less than regular players and may need to adjust their daily intake as required.
At a professional level, the average male footballer would normally cover between 9 to 12 km in a football match. This means that there has to be at least some level of high endurance required. Over 500m is usually covered when engaging in sprinting and around 2.5km at high intensity during the match.
The maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) during a match would usually be around 70% whilst the heart rate will usually peak at around 85% of its maximum rate. This suggests that an average footballer weighing around 74kg would need about 1700kcal of energy to function at a high level for the duration of the match. Semi-professional or amateur football players are likely to expend less energy and therefore do not need as much energy.
Compared to many other sports, the alternating speeds utilised when running depletes the glycogen stores in the leg muscles of footballers much faster. World class players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez are said to spend at least 65% of the match at 85% of their maximal heart rate. The 90mins (and sometimes more) of a football match are more than enough time for the leg muscles to be depleted of their glycogen stores unless it is restored effectively mid match therefore the nutrition in football is important for any player.
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- British Athletic Federation (1992) Senior Coach – Coaching Theory Manual. 3rd Ed. Reedprint Ltd, Windsor (UK). p.1
- Mohr, M., P. Krustrup and J. Bangsbo (2005). Fatigue in soccer: a brief review. J Sports Sci 23(6): 593-599.