Studies have shown that having a fueling and hydration plan for competition can improve performance. In this article, we’ll explore how proper nutrition can help players meet the physiological demands of soccer, and we’ll lay out specific guidelines and suggestions to help you create a nutritional plan that meets your personal needs.
Due to the prolonged and vigorous nature of the sport, carbohydrates are a soccer player’s main fuel. Good carbohydrate sources include bagels, cereals, beans, rice, pasta, bread, pretzels, fruit, juice, potatoes, beans, whole-wheat bread and tortillas.
The body stores carbohydrates in the muscles as glycogen, but these stores are limited and need to be constantly replenished. Small meals and snacks throughout the day can help keep energy levels high. Glycogen depletion can lead to fatigue, both physical and mental, and performance may be compromised as players lose the fuel they need to think and make good decisions on the field.
What does this mean? To conserve muscle glycogen and prevent fatigue, have a carbohydrate/sports drink before and during practice sessions and games.
Players need to eat a balanced diet every day, from every food group, and keep themselves well-hydrated.
Sample of a balanced meal plan for athletes:
Note that this is a sample meal plan. Everyone has individualized needs based on resting metabolic rate, exercise duration, intensity, current training status and body weight.
Muscle cramps are the most notorious effect of dehydration, but even a small amount of dehydration can affect performance. Do you know your sweat rate? Are you a salty sweater? Your electrolyte needs may increase when the weather is humid or hot. Carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks are essential for practices and matches lasting over 60 minutes.
The best way to avoid dehydration is to consume fluids throughout the day. Your urine should look like lemonade, not like apple juice. Carry a water bottle with you, stop at drinking fountains and take drinks early and at regular intervals during practice sessions and games.
To build strength, you need high-quality protein in small amounts throughout the day: fish, lean meats, eggs, tofu, nonfat milk, yogurt, nonfat cottage cheese, etc. Large amounts of protein are not necessary.
Sufficient carbohydrate intake promotes muscle synthesis (growth). Consuming carbohydrates before, during, and after play conserves protein, allowing it to do its work with the muscles. If your body lacks carbohydrates, protein will be used as fuel, making it impossible for your body to build muscle. In extreme cases, the muscle tissue itself will be broken down and used as fuel!
Avoid high-protein/low-carb diets, as these lower your glycogen levels, leading to fatigue and a decrease in intensity of up to 50 percent!
Before and after strength training, you should eat carbohydrates and protein in a 4:1 ratio. Examples: a whole-grain waffle with peanut butter, juice with cheese/yogurt, a banana with a handful of nuts, a bowl of cereal with nonfat milk, toast with nonfat cottage cheese, a lean meat sandwich, trail mix, a sports bar, etc. And don’t forget to hydrate!
Eat high-carbohydrate meals the day and night before a match to fuel your muscles. These meals should consist of two-thirds carbohydrate (bread, bagels, pasta, rice, tortillas, potatoes, cereal, fruits, juices, vegetables, yogurt and milk) and one-third protein (lean red meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, cheese, soy products, beans, nuts/nut butters and seeds). Fried or fatty foods will not fuel your muscles or enhance performance.
Make sure you are drinking water, juices and sports drinks throughout the day to stay hydrated.
Breakfast refuels your body to replace the energy it used while you slept. It also helps you think better. Once again, the breakfast should be high in carbohydrates and low in fat, with a small amount of protein (depending on tolerance and time of event). If your event is 2–3 hours or more after breakfast, this should be a substantial breakfast.
What if I’m too nervous to eat?
If you find you’re unable to eat a large breakfast at one sitting, eat half and then wait an hour or so before eating the rest.
Studies have shown that getting something into your system can improve performance. Anxiety can affect gastric emptying and cause stomach distress, so choose foods that are liquid or semi-liquid. Examples: yogurt, honey, applesauce, banana, pudding, sports drink, carbohydrate gel or liquid supplement (chilled if possible).
Nutrition conditioning—i.e. training your gut by eating the same meals and snacks in training that will be used in competition—can also be helpful.
What if my event is early in the morning?
Have your breakfast (e.g. bowl of cereal) as a late-night snack the night before. The day of your event, wake up and drink 8–16 ounces of sports drink, try a packet of carbohydrate gel washed down with water, or drink a glass of juice. Aim for 100 calories.
Give your body carbohydrates to maximize blood sugar and glycogen stores, get rid of hunger feelings and help you think clearly. The challenge is deciding what foods you can tolerate and when. Foods should be high in carbohydrates, low in fat and low in fiber, with a moderate amount of protein.
Meals 3–4 hours before match
Snacks 1–2 hours before match
If you are a heavy sweater and/or have two competitions in one day, eat more salty snacks (e.g. pretzels, lowfat crackers or broth-based soups) to help retain fluids and maintain good hydration. As you get closer to competition, rely more on liquids and small snacks: carbohydrate gels/jelly beans, pudding, juice, sports drinks, honey, etc.
Matches more than two hours apart
Matches less than two hours apart
Meals should include mostly carbohydrates:
To restore muscle glycogen, repair muscle damage and replace fluid and electrolytes, athletes should refuel and rehydrate within 30 minutes after the event. This 30-minute window of opportunity helps to maximize recovery, enabling players to bounce back for future training and events.
Quick foods to eat within 30 minutes
What if I don’t feel like eating right after my event?
Focus on liquids. Lowfat chocolate milk is a great replacement drink for the crucial 30-minute time frame!
Plan ahead for meals, snacks and fluids. Buy a lunch box or insulated bag that can keep food chilled, and pack your familiar foods the night before your match. Consider putting a frozen bottle of water or sports drink in your lunch box to keep foods chilled.
Suggestions for eating on the road
Are fluids really that important?
Yes! Being only slightly dehydrated can decrease strength, speed, stamina, energy and cognitive processes while increasing the risk of injury.
Before the match
During the match
After the match
Why are sports drinks better than water?
They are formulated to taste better than water, which encourages rehydration. They also provide sodium, which helps the body retain more fluids, and carbohydrates for muscle glycogen.