Health & Fitness

Nutrition and the Soccer Player

Adjusting diet to improve performance on the field is not a new concept for the adult athlete, but it may be new territory for kids and parents. In the rush to get to practice/game on time, “adequate muscle glycogen” is the last thing on their minds.

The best reason to learn more about the role diet has in soccer performance RIGHT NOW is this: you have much greater influence on your kids’ diets when they’re young. Once they hit those teenage years, the odds of them showing any interest in your new thoughts on performance and sports nutrition are about the same as for your helpful suggestions on improving their grades in school. Instill some of these ideas now so that when they’re older, the actions taken will be due to their own initiative.

It takes time to figure out what works best for each child. Many kids find that what worked for them as 8 year olds no longer applies, that they are no long able to run onto the field with pancake syrup dripping from their chins. It’s not an easy chore to differentiate between the many variables affecting performance on the field, but awareness of the potential benefits of nutrition is the first step. Teach your player to watch for successful patterns of when and how their nutrition habits enhance their play: “Gee, I wonder if you’d have felt more energy in that game if you hadn’t eaten a cheeseburger an hour before the game.” or “ You’ve been playing great since you started drinking Gatorade during half-time.” Ultimately, your player should take on more of the responsibility of choosing the right time and the right choices for food and drink to enhance play on the field.

Trying to improve a kid’s diet is no easy task, so target one or two changes that can be achieved with your player’s cooperation and agreement. Experiment with changes on practice days, not on game days. Obviously, the greater the playing time on the field, the more useful will be these guidelines.

The nutrition handouts I’ve sent to team managers in the past are for the most part unchanged:
• Tournament Nutrition
• Tournament Eating and Drinking

The links below offer information excerpted from various sports nutrition sites. Although minor differences in advice will be seen between the sites, the overall message will be consistent:
1. What you eat during the week impacts performance on the weekend.
2. What you eat on game day impacts performance on the field.
3. What you eat after games impacts performance for the next game.
4. Quantity and type of fluids you drink before, during, and after games impact performance.

• Nutrition and Soccer Performance
• Fueling for Soccer
• Eating Before Competing
• The Training Diet – Week Round Recovery

How Soccer Players Can Overcome Second Half Slump
• Better Soccer: Proper Hydration
• Fluid Intake


Nutrition and Soccer Performance

By Don Kirkendall, M.D.

A version of this article appeared originally in Southern Soccer Scene.

You wouldn’t put low octane gasoline in a racecar, would you? Yet, even today, with all the research on nutrition and athletic performance, athletes still fail to realize the connection between the food they eat and their ability to compete in sports. The time for a reminder is now.

Proteins, fats and carbohydrates are the main components of your diet. Protein supplies amino acids for many structures and processes in the body, but supplies little energy for exercise. Despite all the bad press, fat is an essential dietary component. Fat insulates nerves, carries substances in the blood, packs organs and serves as a warehouse for energy, some of which is used to play soccer. Carbohydrate is the main source of energy in your diet. How much carbohydrate you eat will directly affect your ability to run and is the subject of this article.

Carbohydrate is found in many foods like vegetables, fruits, breads, grains, pasta, and dairy products. When eaten, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and stored in your liver and muscles as a string of glucose molecules called glycogen. If your ability to run far and fast is related to how much gas you have in your tank (glycogen in your muscles), then the more you have stored, the farther and faster you can run. In addition, if you eat properly after heavy training, you can actually store more glycogen than if you eat improperly.

Is fat used for energy in soccer? Yes, during low intensity work like walking and slow jogging. You won’t run out of fat for fuel, but you can run out of glycogen. You need glycogen to go fast – remember, soccer is not played at a walk.

Do we know anything about muscle glycogen and soccer? Plenty.

1. Most soccer players make poor food choices (too much protein and fat) so they enter games with less than a full tank of gas (less muscle glycogen than most athletes should have).

2. Most of the glycogen in the muscles is used in the first half of a game. By the end of the game, glycogen levels are almost zero. As a direct result, your sprints get shorter and less frequent as the game goes on.

3. The more glycogen is stored, the further and faster players run. A research study showed that players who ate lots of carbohydrate ran the most and only walked about 25% of the total distance. Players who ate a “normal” meal covered about 25% less distance and covered most of it at a walk. Can you guess who won this game?

Any suggestions for soccer players when choosing foods to eat?

Choose foods with the highest carbohydrate and lowest fat count. Carbohydrates should make up 55-65% of the diet. Choose, for example, bagels over sliced bread, baked potato over french fries, a high carbohydrate cereal over a low carbohydrate cereal (read those labels!).

A teenage or adult athlete should eat 450-600 grams of carbohydrate a day. (Spread it out over 24 hours – Think you can eat that amount of spaghetti in one sitting? That’s over 2 dry pounds of spaghetti!) Younger players would eat less because they are smaller. The rough formula is 7-10 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (1 kg = 2.2 lbs) per day.

If you make poor food choices and train regularly, you can’t refill your glycogen levels before tomorrow’s practice. Thus, glycogen levels stair-step down as the week goes on. It is important to eat plenty of carbohydrates during training, not just for matches.
·Your muscles are the most “thirsty” for glycogen right after exercise. So try to eat a good supply of carbohydrates within the first 2 hours after play. Don’t wait. Have carbohydrate-rich foods available right after a game. This is especially important if you are playing in a tournament with many games in a short time. Give yourself every advantage and refuel for the next games. Choose fruit juices, carbohydrate replacement drinks, bagels and jam, fresh or dried fruit, and uncooked “Chex Mix” types of finger food. If candy is acceptable to your parents, choose “clear” candy like “gummi” candy, jelly beans, etc. (chocolate-based candy has too much fat and calories). Stay away from the chips, burgers, fries, nachos, etc., which have too much fat and not enough carbohydrate.

·The smart athlete will try to give himself or herself every advantage to help the team to win. Knowing you are going into a game with a “full tank of gas” means you are ready for the highest demands of the game. Also, if you have eaten properly and are playing a team that played yesterday (and likely hasn’t eaten properly), you know you are at an advantage and will be fresher in the second half.

Powering Muscles


Fueling for Soccer-The four time zones of sports nutrition


  1. Training days prior to competition
    the typical routine now is to gradually reduce training volume and intensity while increasing the fraction of the total diet that is carbohydrates. This will help the muscles load up extra glycogen (the main fuel for muscles) for the game.
    Most research shows that the muscle glycogen levels of (male) soccer players are no better than those of the spectators in the stands: not good.
    Studies on soccer players have shown that those with the most pre-game muscle glycogen run the farthest at the fastest speeds during a game.
  2. Day of competition
    Most pre-game meals are eaten three or four hours prior to competition. But realize that the food eaten then will have little to do with the energy expended in the game.
    Remember, however, that the more calories (i.e. fat and protein) in a meal, the slower the food leaves the stomach. Carbohydrates are again the best choice; take fruits, cereals, juices, pancakes/waffles etc. over sausage, eggs, steak, or many choices on the breakfast menu at a fast food restaurant.
  3. Eating during competition
    Carbohydrate supplement drinks given before the game and at halftime have been shown to increase running volume and intensity in the second half in soccer players.
  4. Eating after the game.
    The game uses muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) so it must be replaced.Research has shown that muscle is especially receptive to carbohydrate replacement in the first two hours after exhaustive exercise.
    When playing twice in one day, it is all the more important to get some carbohydrates back into the muscles quickly.
    Remember, fast foods are high in fat and protein and can remain in the stomach at the start of the next game (depending on when it was eaten and how much was eaten) and doesn’t return much in the way of carbohydrates to the muscles.

Eating for sports performance requires a bit of planning and clock watching, but can lead to improvements in performance. When you do it properly, you will notice that you have more energy late in games and in the second of back-to-back games.

Powering Muscles


Eating Before Competing

Nancy Clark, MS, RD


What can I do before a 10 am soccer game?

Because your blood sugar drops as you sleep, you need to replenish the depleted stores or your morning performance could suffer.

Cereal, bread, fruit, and fruit juice are excellent choices that may help you concentrate better and respond more quickly during that morning soccer game. Or, be sure to eat extra food the day before: Have an extra-big dinner that’s low in fat and a substantial bedtime meal or snack. You’ll have a better chance of maintaining a high energy level the next morning.

I get so nervous before a competition that I can’t even think about eating. What can I do? Plan to eat several hours before activity, and eat familiar foods that won’t cause a surprise stomach upset. Any fuel is better than none, so try to consume at least 300 to 500 calories.

I’m so hungry in the afternoon that I buy a candy bar for quick energy before working out. Does sugar hurt sports performance? ……just candy and no breakfast before exercise improved performance 10% in comparison with eating nothing……… athletes who ate a big breakfast 4 hours before and a candy bar 5 minutes before hard exercise improved 20% during the exercise test compared with when they ate nothing.

The urge for a quick energy fix is a sign you’ve eaten too little food earlier in the day. To prevent cravings, eat a hearty breakfast and lunch.

Your responsibility is to fuel yourself well throughout game day.

Timing Your Preactivity Meals

The rule of thumb for eating before exercise is to allow 4 hours for a big meal (about 1,200 calories), 2 hours for a light meal (about 600 calories), and an hour or less for a snack (about 300 calories).

Sample carbohydrate-rich menus:

Large Meal


  • 2 large bagels
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 8 oz fruit yogurt
  • 16 oz orange juice

Light Meal


  • 2 c spaghetti
  • 1/2 c tomato sauce
  • 8 oz low-fat milk



  • 1 medium banana
  • 1 pkg instant oatmeal
  • 8 oz low-fat milk

Packable Snacks

So you won’t go hungry if you’re traveling to a night game, stash 1,000 calories of tried-and-true food in your gym bag. (Never try new foods before an important event.) You might even pack extra snacks for underfed teammates. On game day you can add perishable items such as yogurt, bagels, apples or other fresh fruit, or even a sandwich or two.
Some possibilities:
Granola bars or energy bars (about 200 calories each)
Trail mix (about 200 calories per 1/2 cup)
Toaster pastries (about 200 calories each)
Dried fruit (150 calories per 1.5-ounce box of raisins)
Animal crackers (about 140 calories per 12 pieces)
Juice boxes (100 to 150 calories per 8 ounces)
The Physician and Sport Medicine


Our Sponsors

Fluid Intake

Soccer players have been shown to lose 1-5% of body weight through sweating (up to 4.5 kg in hot humid conditions) which results in impaired performance.

…evidence shows that body mass loss will also cause mental functions to deteriorate perhaps resulting in players making mistakes.

A scientific study demonstrated that it can actually help improve sprinting capacity in the second half of matches when compared to players who did not drink any water….

Water is extremely useful in preventing dehydration, especially in hot conditions and is an excellent replacement fluid…………However, the consensus view is that a sports drink which contains an energy source in the form of carbohydrates along with electrolytes is more effective in maintaining performance.

…players who consumed CHO solution before a match and at half-time covered greater distances in the second half than those who did not.

The ideal sports drink should have 5 major qualities:

1 – Tastes good

2 – Rapidly absorbed

3 – Causes no stomach discomfort

4 – Helps maintain body fluid volume (prevents or reduces dehydration)

5 – Has the potential to enhance exercise performance (delays fatigue).

Pre-match: Firstly, it is important that players are well hydrated before a match …. begin the process of topping up with fluid the day before. …. On match day, players should have plenty to drink and be encouraged to drink even when they are not thirsty.

During a match: Try to drink small amounts of fluid at regular intervals…… and always at half-time.

Post-match:…The athlete should immediately drink adequate fluids to replace sweat losses during exercise. Avoid caffeine as this may prevent rehydration.

Only try out different drinking habits during training.


Better Soccer: Proper Hydration Should Be a Basic Tool In Your Arsenal

By Anne Stein MAR 18, 2000 11:08 AM

Water and adequate hydration are essential to your general well-being, and as an athlete, critical to both effective training and first-rate performance. Yet it’s an element that’s often overlooked.

“Even though it’s a nutrient that deserves top priority from any athlete, water is often minimized and even ignored,” explains registered dietitian Monique Ryan, author of the “Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition” (VeloPress, 1999).

Hydration is especially critical for soccer players because it’s a high-intensity game and sweat losses can be significant, especially in hot and/or humid weather. The following “water basics” should help you to understand the critical role water plays in your body.

About 60 percent of your total body weight is water – it gives cells their shape and form, protects the spinal cord and brain, lubricates joints and is the main component of blood. It’s involved in digestion and eliminates waste products through urine and sweat. It’s essential for your hearing, sight and smell to function properly. And, of course, it helps maintain body temperature.

Whether you’re practicing or competing, your body temperature rises – so you sweat to get rid of excess heat. And soccer players who are in top shape, says Ryan, sweat even more than their less-fit counterparts, meaning they need more fluids.

While sweating cools you down, the loss of liquid can impair your performance. Your blood volume decreases, exercise starts to seem harder, your heart rate can increase and your body core also increases – if you don’t adequately replace fluids.

Signs of mild dehydration include thirst, fatigue, decreased appetite, heat intolerance, light headedness, and dark urine. Signs of severe dehydration are difficulty swallowing, dry skin, stumbling, poor vision, delirium and muscle spasms. Avoid this state at all costs!

Soccer players may sweat from one to two quarts of fluid per hour. “Thirst occurs with a 1 percent loss in body weight,” explains Ryan. “When water losses reach about 2 to 4 percent of body weight, physical performance can become impaired.”
Other symptoms that you haven’t replaced your fluids adequately include irritability, nausea and lethargy. Again, it’s a situation you definitely want to avoid.

First, don’t depend on thirst to remind you to drink. You’ve already lost too much liquid at that point. Soccer players need 8 to 12 8-ounce cups of fluid per day.

Two hours before practice or competition, have up to 24 ounces of fluid. Drink 8 to 16 ounces 15 minutes before practice or competition. During practice, drink four to 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes, and consume sports drinks or water during games when you’re off the field.

Players who have a lot of game time could also benefit from the carbohydrates in sports drinks to replace energy losses. Some situations don’t require instant carbohydrate replacement (less playing time, for example), but if the taste and flavor of sports drinks is more appealing than water and promotes more fluid intake, says Ryan, then use them.

Hot and adverse conditions can cause dehydration in as little as 15 minutes, so increase your fluid intake when conditions are tough. After a practice or a game, replace lost fluid as quickly as possible. For every pound of weight lost during exercise, drink two to three cups (24 ounces) of fluid.

Water is cheap and easy to get. There’s no excuse for overlooking these important tools for training and playing.

( columnist Anne Stein is a Master’s swimmer and triathlete, and a former bike racer. She has been senior editor of Inside Triathlon magazine, and now writes for several national health-and-fitness publications. She is based in Chicago.)