Soccer is the world’s most popular sport. Cleats. Uniform. Shin guards. Travel. Club fees. Physical therapy. A variety of resources go into becoming a successful soccer player, but one very important resource often overlooked is proper nutrition. Nutrition plays a vital role in keeping the player healthy, reducing risk of injury, speeding up recovery, and enhancing training adaptations. It is often the factor that gives one player the slightest edge over a competitor.
Energy demands for an elite female soccer player can be hard to meet. Think about it: In a match there is sprinting, jogging, dribbling, change of direction, jumping… we kind of do it all, and we need to accommodate for that! The average energy expenditure during one training day can range anywhere from ~2700-2800 kcal. So how exactly should we fuel up to meet these demands? Soccer players need to manage consumption of carbohydrates, protein, fat and hydration to optimize body composition and to maximize performance.
So, let’s start with carbs (#yum). As a soccer player, whether it be games or practices, carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of fuel. Carbohydrate needs should reflect the work required/demand to produce optimal performance. In other words, we are going to need more carbohydrates on game day than on rest days, so on high-training days or 24 hours pre-match, carbohydrate consumption should increase. Carbohydrates come from a variety of sources including fruit, dairy, bread, and pasta. Carbs are metabolized or converted into something called glucose, a sugar stored as ‘glycogen’ when found in excess. Studies have found, that when muscle glycogen levels are high, time to exhaustion increases; in other words, you will last longer on the pitch before feeling gassed. When glycogen stores are not well supplied, this can lead to fatigue in the muscles, as well as the brain, and can lead to poor performance. To help prevent glycogen depletion before entering the second half of a match, grab a fast-digesting carbohydrate to help maintain blood sugar concentrations and spare muscle glycogen reserves. That’s right: permission to grab those gummies and chug that Gatorade.
So, carbs are important – we get it. But what about post-game carbohydrates? When should I have them? Funny you should ask. The best answer is the sooner the better! Glycogen repletion occurs most rapidly when carbohydrates are ingested immediately post exercise. So, within that hour after practice or games, opt for some carbohydrates to refuel!
Another necessary ingredient in the recipe of soccer stardom is adequate protein intake. Protein helps with muscle tissue repair, strength, bone health and immune function. Protein can be consumed from meat, fish, nuts, and cheese. It is important to incorporate protein pre- and post-training to minimize tissue breakdown, optimize muscle synthesis, and speed up recovery!
Fat is an important energy source particularly for low-training intensities such as walking or jogging for soccer players. Certain fats such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can help reduce inflammation, enhance muscle recovery, and improve brain health. Particularly omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) have been studied for their potential roles in helping decrease secondary damage from concussions.
Another important aspect of sports nutrition for the phenomenal soccer player that you are is hydration. Sweat losses can reach or even exceed 3-4 liters. In my case, I was
probably definitely well over that. With my experience playing NCAA Division I soccer for the UConn Huskies, proper hydration was something I seriously struggled with. I often finished games cramped up, light-headed, and sometimes even slurring my words! I actually underwent a perspiration study where I found that my sweat rate was high and that my sweat was very concentrated. To maintain proper hydration, I kept up with my fluid requirements and consumed salt tablets like it was my JOB. This was a game changer for me from a soccer performance standpoint. And it looks like hydration has this effect across the board! Research has found that fluid deficit may reach 3-5% in some players, at which point it is likely to affect both physiological and thermoregulatory functions – and possibly some aspects of cognitive function. If you find that you are experiencing muscle cramps, fatigue, or feeling light-headed, increase your fluids(not just water either, incorporate things like Gatorade for some solutes), add more salt to foods, and check your pee! Gold is not first place in this case people.
In addition to the macronutrients discussed above, some micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals may be of concern for soccer players due to the higher demands for these athletes. Iron deficiency is one concern that can impair muscle function and limit exercise capacity. Vitamin D is required for optimal bone health; soccer players with low vitamin D levels may be more at risk for musculoskeletal injuries and stress fractures.
Last but not least! You didn’t really think I forgot about fruits and vegetables, did you? We need them! Not only can these provide some carbohydrates, but they also serve as antioxidants, helping reduce inflammation/decrease oxidative stress, and help us achieve adequate consumption of additional vitamins and minerals! Feeling sore? Simply choke down another serving of your mom’s brussel sprouts (she sees you feeding them to the dog anyways).
So, to all you soccer stars out there tuning in: use nutrition as your tool to give you the edge over your competition and to help you become the best player and teammate you can be! Go Huskies!
- Keen, Rikki. Nutrition-Related Considerations in Soccer: A Review. American Journal of Orthopedics. 2018.
- Leatt,, P.B. and I. Jacobs. Effects of glucose polymer ingestion on muscle glycogen utilization during a soccer match (Abstract). Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 18(Suppl.)86, 1986
- Shirreffs SM, Aragon-Vargas LF, Chamorro M, et al.: The sweating response of elite professional soccer players to training in the heat. Int J Sports Med 2005, 26:90-95.
**The physical demands in soccer can vary based off things like position, minutes played, etc. In a study by Reilly and Thomas, an entire season played by a professional team in 51 total games was tracked. The study found that the total amount of distance covered was just under 9000 m with ~60% distance covered at a walk/jog.**