By Dr. Don Kirkendall

Dr. Don Kirkendall

Nutrition continues to be a hot button topic in most all sports. It was that way back when I was in grad school and it remains that way today. I must be naïve because I sort of assumed that with all the research on the interaction of nutrition, health, and performance, that players and teams would’ve gotten the message. At the very least, I suspected that professionals, who get practically three squares a day provided by their club would sit at the top of the nutrition mountain.

Wrong again, grasshopper.

I recently saw a report about calorie consumption in the EPL. While their diets have improved mostly because the clubs have a nutritionist on staff, what the players consume still falls short of the mark. This is depressing. Why should I be depressed?

How about a short pop quiz:

When was the relationship between muscle glycogen (storage form of carbohydrates) and exercise? 1939.

When was it first established that eating more carbs (and increasing muscle glycogen) meant better exercise performance? 1966.

When did we learn that soccer players run so much in a match that they could practically empty their muscles of all that stored glycogen? 1970.

When was it demonstrated how far and how fast one runs in a match was dictated by the amount of muscle glycogen? 1973.

And finally, when was it demonstrated that soccer players eat sufficient amounts of carbs to fill their leg muscles to play a match? As of today . . . never.

OK, the mentality of the endurance athlete (long distance runner, swimmer, cyclist, rower, skier, etc.) is quite different from a team sport athlete. Sort of begs the question of why the individual sport athlete embraces (is obsessed with?) nutrition yet most team sport athletes essentially pay far less attention to their diet. The endurance athlete obsesses over their daily, weekly, and longer diet to support training and competition. Team sport athletes tend to eat whatever is available.

I know some nutritionists who word with pro clubs. They say they have two jobs. First, lay out a healthy spread of food for the team. Second, educated the players about their food choices when they are shopping or eating apart from the club. And that last one is the issue – what they eat when the club isn’t watching.

The general idea is that on most training days, players should be consuming 5-7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight each day. For the 70kg player, that works out to about 350 to 500 grams of carbs a day. Can’t do that in one sitting. Don’t know how to count carbs? Read those nutrition labels. It’s all there.

As a match approaches, the player needs to increase carb intake to somewhere between 7 and 10 grams per kilogram per day. Our 70kg player needs to each between 500 and 700 grams in a 24hr period. That’s a lot of carbs. Most folks think a plate of spaghetti will do it. Better read that label. The typical 1lb box of uncooked spaghetti has 8 servings in it and each serving has 40ish grams of carbs. Do the math. Then entire 1lb box has a bit over 320 grams of carbs. To get the full daily allotment of carbs just by eating spaghetti would require one to eat 2 full boxes of spaghetti. Not going to happen. Carb intake must be spread out over the day.

OK, pros and national team level players eat better. They get a smorgasbord laid out for them. Know what? Even those at top of the mountain fail to eat the 7-10g/kg/day recommendation and they have it all laid out and prepared for them. Why? Good question. Maybe they don’t like today’s menu. Maybe they just choose to eat less. Maybe they binge outside of the club on less than healthy choices.

I recall the trainer for the Cleveland Browns saying (a long time ago) that the nutrition of the players improved dramatically when McDonaldʼs started serving breakfast. One dietitian I know in Argentina said that when he was hired, he shared an office with the club witch whose responsibilities included player nutrition.

And itʼs not limited to food. Team sport athletes? Almost half are dehydrated BEFORE THEY STEP ON THE FIELD FOR TRAINING (regardless of environmental temperature) Doesn’t matter if the team is in cool northern Europe or hot and humid southern USA. Players simply don’t drink enough fluids. I know people who believe that athletes ʻadaptʼ to a lower water volume. To adapt means the body undergoes some physiological change to accommodate some change. That may be the case with some factors, but water isn’t one. At best, an athlete may tolerate being chronically dehydrated, but they don’t adapt to the condition.

Consider a race car analogy. The car on the starting line with with a less than full gas tank and inadequate antifreeze is not likely to win. That VW that starts the race filled with fuel and antifreeze will beat the Porsche with half the fuel and antifreeze. In soccer, you get fatigued, especially late in the match. Dehydration by as little as 2% reduces performance that only gets worse with greater dehydration. Inadequate pre- match glycogen might not have much of an effect on the first half of a match, but it sure will in the second half, guaranteed. Combined, the last third of the match can become pretty ugly.

There is considerable research that shows players of any age and skill level rarely make quality informed decisions about what they eat. Poor food selections at the grocery store (by the player or the player’s parents) will not improve no matter how well the food is prepared. Unfortunately, when meals were not prepared at home, players tended to get too much of their food either from a bag or on a tray (i.e. ʻfast foodʼ or ʻconvenience foodʼ).

Training for a sport is more than just what goes on between the lines. A lot of what contributes to the training effect goes on during the hours away from training. The physical part of training is just the stimulus. Quality food intake makes up the building blocks for the body to adapt to training to improve performance.

Getting the right amount of carbs and water takes considerable thought and work. As stated, on a day-to-day basis, shoot for 5-7 grams of carbs per kg of weight. Increase towards 10g/kg/day in the day or two before and after a match. To get this much requires reading labels and doing the math. It’ll end up looking like a lot of food and it is so to avoid gaining weight, something has to give and that is usually the fat content.

To rehydrate, drink often and well beyond when the sensation of thirst has passed. Urine should look more like dilute lemonade, not like apple juice. It takes work. But the serious player should be willing to put in the work, plan and pay attention.

For 40 years, weʼve known that what a player eats affects their play. I am mystified why the advice is ignored. But it would be nice to go into a match KNOWING you (or your team) will be run further and faster than the opponent later in the match, right when most goals are being scored.

Everything mentioned so far is related to the day-to-day business of nutrition. And maybe because all that is between matches. What people do tend to pay attention to is match day nutrition. One important item first. Filling up your tank is done on the two to three days before the match. About the best one can do is ‘top off the tank’ on game day.

Typically, a player has four opportunities to eat on match day: the pre-match meal, immediately pre-match, during the match, and after the match.

Pre-match. For most athletes, the traditional pregame meal is eaten 3-4 hours before competition. Meals are designed to minimize calories from fat and protein because those two nutrients are digested slowly by the stomach. A meal with an excessive amount of fat and protein can remain hours later and most athletes will say that competing with much of anything in the stomach is uncomfortable. This is typically a light meal that has a large fraction of the calories as carbs. The carbs ingested in this meal end up in the liver where it is released in response to a reduction in blood sugar (the brain’s only source of fuel).

Immediately pre-match. Some athletes like to have a snack in the last hour. A small, high carb pre-match meal is rapidly digested and emptied by the stomach and for some, that empty feeling is almost as uncomfortable as a too-full feeling. Again, a light snack that’s low on fat and protein is the best option. Some carbohydrate replacement drinks are well received.

During the match. Might sound odd to talk about eating during a match, but this period also includes halftime. Here it’s all about carbs and fluid replenishment. Fruits are good. Dried fruit is better. Some players like something salty to consider pretzels over chips or popcorn. A carbohydrate replacement drink is highly recommended. During the match, get water to players during stoppages in play. There is plenty of time if you are prepared. Personal water bottles in the goal and along the closest touch line work.

After the match. I’ve used the car analogy above. After the game, the car analogy doesn’t work. A car with an empty tank gets just as full when gas is added now or tomorrow. Muscle is different. Muscle is thirstiest for carbs in the first two hours after exercise. After a match, especially if the next match is within 48 hours, it’s vitally important to ingest a lot of carbs in the first two hours. More glycogen is stored that way than if that two-hour window is missed. Carbohydrate replacement drinks, dense breads (bagels, English muffins), fresh or dried fruit, ‘chex mix’ (just the ingredients. Don’t add the oil and bake as the recipe requires). You may have heard that chocolate milk is a good recovery drink. It is. For some, drinking it immediately after a match might not sit well. Remember, it’s a two-hour window.

Breads and grains Whole grain bread, bagels, English Muffins, brown or wild rice, whole grain pasta Donuts, pastries, toaster pastries, croissants, coffee cakes
Vegetables Anything fresh (cooked or raw), potato (baked or sweet), beans, peas, corn Fried vegetables (like onion rings, zucchini), French fries, creamy salad dressings, potato or egg salad
Fruits Any, fresh or dried Fruit pies, chocolate-covered fruit, coconut
Dairy Reduced fat or skim milk, low fat cottage cheese, low fat yogurt, egg whites Whole milk, buttermilk, processed cheeses
Meats Any ‘white’ meat (chicken, turkey, pork) prepared as baked, broiled or broiled Any meat that has been fried, bacon, luncheon meats (e.g., bologna), hot dogs, sausage
Seafood Trout, Cod, Founder, Tuna (baked, boiled, broiled), shrimp (boiled), crab, tuna canned in water Any seafood that have been fried, fish sticks, tuna canned in oil
Drinks Sports drinks, water, reduced fat milk, fruit juices, fruit smoothies, chocolate milk Carbonated sodas, buttermilk, milk shakes
Sandwiches PB&J or PB & honey (on a bagel or English muffin, this a dream for those needing carbs), turkey, lean ham, roast beef, roast chicken Fried meats, ‘salad’ sandwiches (chicken, egg, tuna), grilled cheese, hot dog (and any of its relatives), processed luncheon meats.
Condiments Italian dressing, mustard, salsa, honey, lemon juice Creamy dressings (e.g., 1000 Island, Blue cheese), mayonnaise, Hollandaise sauce
Snacks Trail mix with nuts, granola bars, pretzels (homemade, un-baked Chex mix), tortilla chips, raw or dried fruits and vegetables Cookies, snack cakes, candy, corn or potato chips
Desserts Angel food cake, sherbet, fruit-based smoothies Ice cream, prepared cakes (yellow, Devil’s food, etc.), Pies, cheesecake, brownies, cookies

Table modified from Williams JH. The Science Behind Soccer Nutrition, 2012. Available at

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