Key Advice and Helpful Suggestions on Great Nutrition for Soccer Players
Proper player development is critical to the success of soccer players but there is another element required for top performance and on field success that is too frequently overlooked – nutrition. Even the U.S. Government recommends that everyone eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood and be careful to consume fewer foods with sodium (salt), saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and refined grains.
The emphasis on proper nutrition is important for all of us, but is particularly valuable for the youth soccer player wanting to perform at peak levels and make a strong impact on the field. It is important to realize the vital role that optimal nutrition plays in player development.
Experts agree that the proper nutritional balance enhances an athlete’s development and maximizes the results of all the hours of training. Proper nutrition is more than just eating foods that provide the energy for training sessions – it is also staying hydrated, eating the right things at the right time and even knowing what supplements might be needed.
In his book Nutritional Guidelines for Football Referees (which was commissioned by noted referee Keith Hackett while he was Professional Game Match Officials Ltd General Manager), author Don MacLaren details the what, when and how for proper eating – while these guidelines refert to professional referees in the UK, this information applies to the players on the pitch.
If one considers the constant energy needed by referees, particularly the head official who is constantly on the move, it is easy to see how these nutrition suggestions can be just as appropriate to the athletes engaged in competition.
MacLaren explains that proper nutrition “provides the fuel to train properly, the fluid to prevent dehydration and overheating, the micronutrients for health and well-being, the building blocks for enhancing muscle recovery and size (if you need to), and the supplements to aid these processes.” His guidlines explain just how everything fits together to aid a referee – or a player – in remaining healthy and reaching their peak performance level.
Good nutrition enables players to maintain a high level of health, which is vital if one is going to reach the goal of playing at the highest level possible.
How often have coaches seen players come in to practice already looking tired out? Could this be changed by better eating habits? While proper nutrition is not a magic wand, it has been proven to make a world of difference. Most likely, good healthy eating habits count more times than parents, players or even coaches would like to admit.
One problem is our world has become a minefield of fast food and empty calories.
Instead of reaching for a healthy snack before or after a match, too many young players grab a candy bar or a bag of salty chips or parents drive to a fast food drive through. While many experts say there is nothing wrong with an occasional poor choice “treat,” it is important that everyone start thinking of "treats" as something healthy.
To top this off, many players reach for a highly-sugared beverage labeled as a “sports drink” or a caffeine- filled “energy drink” as a way of quenching their thirst.
Good choices can be easy.
MacLaren explains that referees (and athletes) need to eat a wide variety of foods that provide enough of what the body needs: carbohydrates, fat, protein, minerals and vitamins. They also need to drink enough of the right fluids to replace what is lost during training or play. He suggests a minimum of two liters of water in addition to any other beverages consumed during the day.
One of the biggest concerns facing players and referees during training or a match is fatigue. When a player reaches a high enough level of fatigue, it begins to affect judgment and decision making. How often has the result in a tight game come down to a defensive mistake or other miscue by the losing team? Minimizing fatigue can help to reduce these errors in judgment late in the match.
According to MacLaren, there are three major factors can cause fatigue in a player or referee: depletion of muscle glycogen stores, low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) and dehydration. All of these can be minimized by proper nutrition choices before, during and after a match.
From a nutritional perspective, the following are known to result in fatigue:
Depletion of muscle glycogen – it has been known for 30 years that when muscle glycogen stores become depleted the ability to engage in intense bouts of exercise is not possible. This is because muscle glycogen is a fuel necessary for muscles to work at intensities greater than 50% of maximum. Fats on their own cannot be used as energy for intense exercise. It is imperative to have sufficient muscle glycogen levels at the start of a match.
Low blood glucose (hypoglycaemia) It has been known for 70 years that when blood glucose levels are low, the ability to exercise is reduced. More recently, it has become clear that maintenance of blood glucose is essential for the brain to function properly.
Dehydration - sweating is a normal response in training and match play. The inevitable result is that the body loses water and body temperature becomes elevated. Loss of body water causes dehydration, and this leads to impaired physical and mental performance.
It is imperative that players hydrated before a match, and continue to drink some carbohydrates during the match/training.
While every athlete knows about dehydration, blood glucose levels and muscle glycogen are very likely new terms ... but both are important as they can affect performance. Muscle glycogen is “a fuel necessary for muscles to work at intensities greater than 50% of maximum.” Blood glucose, or blood sugar, is “essential for the brain to function properly.”
They key is the proper combination of the three major nutritional groups – carbohydrates, fats and protein. Each of these has specific roles to play in keeping a person healthy, and while some of these roles overlap they do not replace each other.
For example, all three are sources of energy in the body, but in different ways. Carbohydrates, which are broken down more quickly, are a source of energy for high-intensity activity such as sprinting. This energy comes from the breakdown of blood glucose and muscle glycogen. Fats, on the other hand, are more slowly broken down and are a source of energy for low-intensity activities. Proteins come into play after exercise when the body has depleted its reserves of carbohydrates.
As already mentioned, carbohydrates also provide energy for the brain. Low blood sugar levels can slow down a player’s decision making ability and impair skills as fatigue sets in. Carbohydrates are also the most easily replenished through healthy snacks and the proper sports drinks.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have produced a set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 that outline healthy eating habits. In this report the government provides some guidelines on how to choose healthy options.
- Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) and further reduce intake to 1,500 mg among persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults.
- Consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
- Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.
- Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.
- Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars.
- Limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars, and sodium.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010.
How, then, does an athlete best prepare nutritionally to prevent fatigue?
MacLaren advises a routine of meals and snacks that provides a proper balance of carbohydrates, fats, protein and liquids to help keep these vital levels at sufficient levels. He goes back to the old saying, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” MacLaren also provides suggestions as to when to eat, based on game or training schedules.
For breakfast, MacLaren’s suggestions depend on the time before a match or training – the more time the more a player can eat. It is important that the player (or official) eat properly in order to “repay what the body has used during sleep and to ‘fuel-up’ before morning training.” MacLaren emphasizes carbohydrates, proteins and fluids with suggestions like eggs, lean ham, fresh fruit and yogurt.
At lunch, which usually would follow a morning training or match, the focus is on replenishing what was used up. Here MacLaren again focuses on healthy carbohydrates and protein, along with fluids. He suggests what he calls “quick release carbohydrates,” such as breads and pasta that break down more quickly to release their nutrients. This meal should generally be eaten within an hour after finishing morning activity for the most benefit.
For the evening meal, MacLaren recommends switching to “slow releasing” carbohydrates such as vegetables. Breads, pasta and rice should be kept to a minimum, and protein should be increased. This helps the body to replenish what it has used during the day without overdoing it before bed. MacLaren recommends that this meal not be eaten after 7:30 p.m., although a snack before bedtime is acceptable as long as it is healthy and light.
Here we come up with one of the biggest issues with young players, their snack habits. Too often kids want something sugary or salty as a snack, either at halftime or right after a game.
Even elite soccer players can reach for the wrong snack. And while a quick burst of energy from the sugar may seem like a good idea to those less informed, that rush is usually followed by a “sugar crash” that can leave a player open to critical mistakes.
Good choices for snacks include nuts, dried fruits and fresh fruit (bananas are especially good and are easy to eat). Chocolate milk is another great option heralded by many as a great choice as a recovery drink after a soccer match.
Looking again at what the USDA and USDHHS recommend, you can see that the focus on healthy carbohydrates, proteins and fats match MacLaren’s guidelines.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, here are some key recommendations:
1) Increase vegetable and fruit intake: Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas.
2) Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains.
- 3) Increase intake of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages.
4) Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
5) Increase the amount and variety of seafood consumed by choosing seafood in place of some meat and poultry.
6) Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils.
7) Use oils to replace solid fats where possible.
8) Choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern in American diets. These foods include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk and milk products.
By helping young players to develop healthy eating habits, parents can provide the guidance that will help their children be successful not only on the pitch but in all areas of life. And isn’t that what we all want?
More Nutrional Information from the U.S. Goverment