By John Tesema
Director of Coaching Curriculum Huntsville soccer club
What an athlete eats every day, every week, and every year significantly affects
his or her play, especially in sports such as soccer where the body's ability to
supply the working muscles with sufficient energy can be come a limiting factor in
By eating the right foods, soccer players can maximize their energy reserves and
perform at peak efficiency for an entire game, a weekend tournament, even an
The first thing to understand is there are no magical foods that can sharply
improve performance. The following aspects of nutrition are of particular concern
to endurance type athletes such as soccer players.
High Energy Diets
The energy used for muscular activity, commonly measured in units called
calories, is provided mainly by the carbohydrates and fats in our diet. Proteins,
though important staples, are not an energy source. They serve as the building
blocks for growth and repair of cells.
Nutrition experts suggest that a well-balanced, high-energy diet will derive 60-65
percent of its calories from carbohydrates, 20-25 percent of calories from fat, and
10-15 percent of calories from protein.
The typical American diet, in contrast, derives nearly 40 percent of its calories
from fat and contains too much protein and to little carbohydrates. From an
energy (over-all health) standpoint, this is not the best diet for soccer players.
That is why the players must make a conscious effort to consume an atypical
diet-one that contains a higher percentage of complex carbohydrates, coupled
with relatively lesser amounts of fats and protein.
Carbohydrates are the sugars and starches found in such foods as CEREALS,
BREADS, RICE, PASTA, FRUITS, VEGETABLES, MILK, and MILK
PRODUCTS. As we consume carbohydrates, they are broken down by the body
and stored as a starch called GLYCOGEN. Some glycogen is stored in the liver;
most is stored in the MUSCLES. Glycogen is readily broken down in to
molecules of GLUCOSE, commonly called BLOOD SUGAR, WHICH IS THE
PRIMARY FUEL FOR OUR BRAIN AND MUSCLE CELLS.
We derive dietary fats primarily from MEATS, EGGS, DAIRY PRODUCTS,
NUTS, and VEGETABLE OILS. Fats provide a very concentrated source of food
energy. Excess fat is stored in fat cells called ADIPOSE TISSUE, and in muscle
cells. Both glycogen and stored fats are available for use whenever the body
needs a boost of extra energy.
The exact mix of fuel used by the muscles depends upon how hard an athlete is
working. During moderate exercise, such as warm-ups, the muscles run on a
mixture of free fatty acids as well as glucose. As the intensity of exercise
increases, however, fats become a less efficient energy source. Glycogen is the
preferred fuel for both short-term (sprint) and long-term endurance exercises.
During a soccer game, the muscles must draw on stored glycogen for energy. If
supplies run short, the muscles become exhausted and fail to perform properly.
The players can maximize their muscle glycogen stores by increasing
carbohydrate intake during the three or four days prior to a game, while at the
same time gradually reducing the intensity of their training.
The type of carbohydrates consumed is not important, as the complex (starch)
and simple (sugars) carbohydrates are equally effective increasing glycogen
stores. Even so, for overall health reasons it would be wise for the players to
consume complex carbohydrates rather than simple sugar.
Eating on the Road
Fast-food restaurants, noted for the high fat, salt, and sugar contents of their food
choices, are often the sites of pre- and post-game meals. Even so, the athletes
can, by following a few simple guidelines, find many opportunities to consume a
1. When possible, choose complex carbohydrate foods such as cereals,
pancakes, waffles, bagels, toast with jelly or honey, potatoes, pastas, and
rice. Go easy on items like doughnuts and pastries, which are usually
loaded with simple sugars and are high in fat.
2. Go light on fried foods such as eggs, bacon, cheese, and ham, which are
high in protein but also high in fat.
3. Pizza, although relatively high in fat due to the cheese covering, is also a
good carbohydrate source. When eating Pizza choose vegetable topping
(green peppers, onions, etc.) rather high fat meat toppings, and cheese.
4. Choose chicken boiled or baked rather than fried. The same goes with
fish. Choose baked or boiled rather than fried potatoes.
5. Drink plenty of fruit juices. Natural juices are very low in fat, and high in
6. Drink low fat or 2 percent milk rather than whole milk.
7. Eat plenty of bread and rolls, but do without the butter or margarine, or
spread it very thin.
There are no foods that, when taken several hours before a contest, will produce
super performance. The only "miracles" derived from nutrition come from proper
eating on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. Even so, what a player eats and
drinks immediately before a game may affect performance. The goals of the pre-
game meal are:
1. Provide energy to the muscles.
2. Keep the athletes from getting hungry while competing.
3. Make sure the athlete is well hydrated.
4. Prevent upset stomach during competition.
The following guidelines will help achieve these goals:
1. Take this meal three to four hours before the event so that the stomach
and upper small intestine will be relatively empty during the events.
2. Make carbohydrates your primary component. They are easily digested
and they help maintain blood glucose levels. Pancakes, waffles, bagels,
muffins, toast and jelly, vegetables, fruit, pasta, and rice are all good
choices (but not at the same meal).
3. Keep the meal low in fats and protein, since such components are
digested slowly. (Sports scientists no longer advocate the traditional pre-
game meal of steak and eggs).
4. Avoid greasy and highly seasoned foods.
5. Include foods that you enjoy and are familiar to you.
Proper refueling after the game is also important, especially if the player is going
to be competing in two or three games over a span of several days.
The following guidelines will help offset fatigue and aid in the recovery process.
1. Drink plenty of fluids immediately following the game and throughout the
rest of the day to replace the water and minerals lost through sweat.
2. Within an hour after the game, start your glycogen replacement drinks
such as Gatorade.
Inadequate hydration is a major cause of poor performance, fatigue, and even
illness during a game or practice. When sweat loss exceeds three percent of
body weight, it will usually impair performance. Soccer players should replace
such lost fluids, during both practices and games. This is especially very
important on days when both temperature and humidity are high.
Players should actually start monitoring fluid intake two or three days before the
game. As a rule, they should consume foods high in water content and drink
plenty of fluids.
Immediately before and during the game, the players should take small quantities
of fluid at regular intervals. Water is always an excellent replacement drink and
some of the commercial sport drinks are good. When using commercial sport
drinks, choose one that contains few solid particles (low in sugar and salt
content), and is not overly sweet.
Nutrition is only one aspect affecting performance on the soccer field. Although
research supports all of the suggested guidelines presented here, always keep in
mind that players are individuals with their own ideas, beliefs, and food
preferences. Many athletes are also superstitious, and have favorite foods, which
they think will help them play better. Players should not be forced to eat the
"proper" foods if they do not believe it is good for them. The psychological
benefits derived from eating what you want sometimes out-weigh the nutritional
benefits of eating what you "should!"