The fundamental role of nutrition in professional football

While sound tactics and hard training are crucial when it comes to deciding the outcome of a match, the role played by nutrition can be just as important. Adequate consumption of specific foods and avoidance of others will help reduce fatigue and maintain optimal performance; factors which could very well decide the outcome of a match.

Football is an intermittent sport where players perform low-intensity activities for most of the game, but with many bursts of intense actions in between. In the course of a match, elite players will cover 8-13 Km, thus making football an endurance sport that demands a large energy requirement. Additionally, the fact that approximately 2-3 Km are covered at sprinting speed means that the energy demand is even greater. Footballers may use up 1500-2000 Kcal during a match and will therefore require to eat a significantly larger amount of calories than the recommended requirement of 2500 Kcal for men and 2000 Kcal for women. 

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Figure 1. Footballers can run up to 13Km and burn 2000Kcal over the course of a match. This means that players need more calories than a normal individual in order to meet their energy demands. Adapted from http://www.goal.com/euro2016/en/article/an-artist-in-an-age-of-athletes—iniesta-is-spains-greatest-player-of-all-time/xbokd1yjrni41wd3lb4qckfsn

Moreover, the distribution of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) in the diet must be carefully managed to optimise performance during a match/training and to speed-up recovery once the game is over. The choices in foods consumed before a game will be different to those consumed after finishing a match in order to suit the physiological needs of footballers.

Carbohydrates

In football, it is essential for players to consume enough carbohydrates to replenish their muscle glycogen stores. The glycogen in muscle is utilised to provide energy when we exercise and the higher the intensity of the workout will lead to a more rapid utilisation of these stores. It is widely known that fatigue is largely related to declining glycogen levels as a game advances. Consequently, optimisation of these stores with good dietary advice can make the difference in the last minutes of a match where players are more tired and prone to making mistakes.  

Proteins

Meanwhile, proteins are vital for meeting the adaptations that occur as a result of the heavy workouts that footballers are exposed in trainings and matches. For example, the amino acids found in protein rich foods such as chicken and fish will be utilised to replace and build muscle tissue that was damaged during a workout. While the protein requirements of people are set at 0.8g per Kg of body weight, footballers should consume 1.2-1.6g per Kg of protein in order to potentiate recovery due to a greater wear and tear of muscle tissue. This protein requirement may seem high but in fact it is easily achievable in a typical footballers diet which incorporates a higher energy intake.

Fats

While carbohydrate and protein are more relevant to the physiological demands of football, the importance of fats should not be ignored. Whereas consuming many fatty foods is not advisable in players, avoiding this macronutrient altogether will be harmful for health. Instead, footballers should look for incorporating healthy fats into their diets such as Omega-3s and avoidance of unhealthy trans fats. This will attenuate the high muscle inflammation as a consequence of exercise but will also protect the heart and blood vessels.

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Figure 2. The key functions of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in football are summarised above.

Pre-Match Nutrition

Before a game it is essential to ensure that the glycogen stores are replete to prevent tiredness as the game progresses. To do this it is not only necessary to eat a carbohydrate rich meal prior to the game, but also 2-3 days before. Besides the nutritional composition of the meal, the timing is also fundamental. As a rule of thumb, players should eat the meal 2-4 hours before kick-off to allow efficient digestion and absorption of the nutrients and to prevent bloating. Before the game, players should eat low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates so that glucose gets slowly released into the bloodstream to provide energy over a longer period of time. Examples of low GI-index carbs include quinoa, bulgur, brown rice and sweet potato. Additionally, it is advisable to include some rich protein sources into the meal such as chicken breasts or white fish to promote satiety. Before a game, foods rich in fat such as steak, cheese, butter or chocolate are not advisable as this will slow down digestion and may induce discomfort during the game. Around 40 min before the match, footballers may want to take a high-glycemic index carbohydrate snack e.g. granola bar or banana to give them a burst of energy that will compensate for the pre-match training.

fut3Figure 3. Before a training session or a match it is important to eat a good amount of low GI carbohydrate with some lean protein. a) Quinoa with chicken and b) wholemeal pasta with prawns are good choices because they include carbohydrates that will release glucose slowly into the bloodstream. Additionally, chicken and prawns are perfect protein choices due to their low fat content. Meanwhile, c) having a salad on its own is not a good choice as it provides very little energy to the player. d) Whereas a kebab is full of fat and may cause bloating.

Post-Match Nutrition

After the final whistle, it is important to get something to eat rich in high-GI carbohydrates within 3 hours. This is because during this time period the body is more able to synthesise and replenish the lost muscle glycogen stores. Additionally, high quality protein sources must be ingested to allow for muscle recovery. An excellent post-match meal may include white rice (carbohydrate source) with two salmon fillets (protein source). Unfortunately, sometimes it can be tricky to eat this quickly due to celebrations, interviews and specially team-travel. In order to avoid such a huge problem that would interfere with post-match recovery is to provide appropriate snacks to the players after the game is over. Examples of good snacks include a fistful of nuts and a banana or even some seafood sushi. In case this is not possible, the last alternative would be to give a carbohydrate and protein containing drink. However, this is not the best choice as it is artificial and it is always better to obtain the nutrient needs through a balanced diet. 

fut4Figure 4. Following a match or training session, it is important to incorporate a high GI carbohydrate meal to restore glycogen stores quickly and a good amount of protein to promote muscle repair. For example, good choices would be a) couscous with beef or b) white rice with salmon. Both these meals incorporate a large proportion of carbohydrates and a balanced proportion of protein and fat. Whereas c) foods loaded with unhealthy fats and d) alcohol drinks must be avoided as they pack an excess of calories and lead to dehydration, impairing recovery.

Micronutrient Needs

Footballers like anyone else, should try to eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables on a daily basis. This way they will be able to incorporate multiple vitamins, minerals and fibre to keep their immune system and organs healthy. This in turn can reduce the risk of illnesses and even surgeries that often keep players out from competition. Some nutrients that footballers must carefully monitor include: iron, calcium, vitamin D and iodine. Having adequate levels of iron will decrease the risk of fatigue by ensuring that red blood cells are efficiently produced. Good sources of iron include red and organ meats such as veal and liver. Whereas it is important to get enough calcium and vitamin D to promote good bone and muscle health, something that will reduce the risk of fractures and muscular injuries that so often affect players. Dairy products are great sources of calcium while vitamin D can only be obtained from oily fish such as salmon or from exposure to sunlight. Lastly, iodine can be found in white fish such as cod and is vital for the functioning of the thyroid gland that produces several hormones involved in metabolism regulation.

Alcohol

Some footballers like to enjoy a regular drink with friends but sometimes it might go too far. Alcohol should be completely avoided during training and match days as it interferes with performance. This is because ethanol metabolism interferes with many vital metabolic processes involved with nutrient utilisation. To put it simply, alcohol slows down muscle glycogen storage and inhibits protein synthesis, disrupting the crucial recovery phase. Meanwhile, the best and healthiest drink that footballers should enjoy at all times is water to keep them hydrated.

References

Clark, K. (1994). Nutritional guidance to soccer players for training and competition. Journal of Sports Sciences, 12, S43-50.

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