Soccer is known for being a mentally and physically demanding sport. It requires high amounts of energy, endurance, and concentration from each player on the team. As many elite soccer players know, training is important, but proper nutrition is the key to optimal performance. Here are some simple, but game changing, food strategies to help all soccer players improve their performance:
1. Don’t cut out carbohydrates:
Soccer is a demanding sport, and carbohydrates are the primary fuel used to meet those demands. When soccer players don’t consume enough carbs, their muscles can’t perform optimally, and their brains can’t make quick decisions on the field. Consuming the right amounts, and types, of carbohydrates will help soccer players perform their best.
- Here is a list of quality carbohydrates:
- Potatoes: white and sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat items, such as breads and pastas
- Hot and cold cereals, such as oatmeal and any low-added sugar, bran/whole wheat varieties (for example, Raisin Bran and Shredded Wheat)
- Fruits and vegetables
- Beans, peas, and legumes
- Click here for more information on quality carbohydrates.
2. Eat lean protein:
Protein is needed for the growth and repair of muscles, making it an important part of a soccer player’s diet. This is especially important for younger soccer players since they have higher protein needs than non-athletes of the same age. If you’re unsure of how much protein you need, use this protein calculator from My Sports Dietitian to find out.
- Here is a list of lean proteins:
- Chicken or turkey breast
- Center cut pork
- Lean steak
- 96/4 ground beef
- Seafood: White fish, crab meat, shrimp and other shellfish
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products, such as: Cheese, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, and milk
- Click here for more information on quality proteins.
3. Focus on healthy fats:
Fat may have a bad reputation, but it is an essential nutrient – especially for athletes. Fat is needed for the absorption of certain vitamins and the production of hormones. It’s also the most calorically-dense nutrient, containing 9 calories per gram, which can be helpful for soccer players who have high calorie needs. Fats can be broken into two main categories: Saturated fats and unsaturated fats. It’s best to choose unsaturated fats, and consume them in moderation. You can use My Sports Dietitian’s fat calculator to find how much fat you need.
- Here is a basic list of unsaturated fats:
- Nuts and nut butters
- Vegetable oils
- Seeds, including: Flax, chia, and sunflower seeds
- Click here for more information on healthy fats.
4. Stay hydrated:
Water makes up more than 50% of our body weight, and dehydration – either from excessive sweating or lack of fluid intake – has a negative impact on soccer performance. Monitoring hydration levels to avoid this is important. An easy way to monitor hydration is by viewing the color of your urine. If your urine is a dark color (like apple juice), then your body needs more water. If your urine is light to almost clear (like lemonade), then your hydration levels are fine. Another method for monitoring hydration is by counting how many times you use the bathroom. For this method, using the restroom every three hours throughout the day indicates adequate hydration. If you want to know the specific amount of water that you need, use My Sports Dietitian’s water calculator.
- Click here for more information on the roles of water and why water is important.
5. Pay attention to nutrient timing:
It’s not only what you eat that’s important, but also when you eat it. Proper nutrient timing helps ensure that you will have the energy needed to make it through soccer practices and games.
- Before: If you have 3 – 4 hours before a soccer game or practice, eat a well-balanced meal consisting of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and some healthy fat, since it will have time to digest. If it has been longer than 4 hours since your last meal, you should eat 1-2 hours before your practice or game. This will add to the nutrient stores already within your body, giving you the extra energy that you need
- During: It can be hard to consume food, so drinking water or sports drinks may be best. Commercially available sports drinks vary in carbohydrate and electrolyte content, so choose which type to drink based on your needs. Avoid beverages too high in carbohydrates, though, as this can cause a spike in blood sugar, followed by a crash in energy.
- When timing meals and snacks, it is important to understand which nutrients will aid performance, and which nutrients will hinder performance. What you eat 1 – 2 hours before soccer practices or games should consist of carbohydrates, a moderate amount of lean protein, and minimal amounts of fat and fiber. Fat and fiber slow down digestion, and therefore do not allow for quick delivery of the nutrients needed for performance.
- Here are some example of meals and snacks to have before soccer practices or games (what you choose, and the portion, will depend upon how much time you have before playing):
- Oatmeal and egg whites
- Whole wheat/bran cereal with low fat milk
- Non-fat Greek yogurt with fruit
- Bagel with jelly/jam and fruit
- Sandwich/sub that consist of whole wheat bread, turkey breast/chicken breast, low fat or non fat cheese, and mustard
- Chicken breast and potatoes (white or sweet potatoes)
- Whole-wheat pasta with tomato sauce and chicken
- After: It’s important to replenish the nutrient stores that were used during a soccer practice or game. The best post-soccer meal or snack consists of carbohydrates, proteins, and fluid.
- Click here for more information on nutrient timing and other ideas for pre-practice/game foods for soccer players.
- This online course, taught by Tavis Piattoly and Ronnie Harper, co-owners of My Sports Dietitian, is a great resource to learn more about pre-game meals, hydration, and halftime nutrition. Check it out soon – it’s free for the first 50 people!
There you have it! These are some general guidelines to follow that can help soccer players perform optimally. To see more in-depth information on how to optimize your soccer performance, visit www.mysoccernutrition.com.
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Bob Seebohar MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS