Soccer Nutrition: What Should A Soccer Player Diet Look Like?
By: Julie Mancuso, Owner of JM Nutrition, nutritional counselling service by registered nutritionists and dietitians & Terence Boateng, BASc, BSc, RD, CSEP-CEP, MHSc
In this post:
Why is soccer nutrition important and why should athletes eat healthy?
What foods should a soccer player diet consist of?
What to eat for a pre-game meal on a soccer player diet?
When to eat a pre-game meal?
Good post game meals and snacks for soccer players
What foods should a soccer player avoid eating?
How much water should a soccer player be drinking? How to stay hydrated?
What should a soccer player be drinking? What about sports drinks?
What do famous soccer players eat and drink?
There is no doubt that modern day soccer requires modern day soccer nutrition and a modern soccer player diet.
The increased physical demands of today’s beautiful game involve a great deal more than just working on the pitch with the ball.
To allow your body to maximize its physical potential and achieve top level performance, you have to factor in physical training, the psychological component of sports and, of course, nutrition.
For the purpose of this post, we will only deal with nutrition as it applies to athletes, particularly soccer players.
What does a soccer player diet look like?
Before we discuss soccer nutrition and the specifics of what a soccer player diet should look like, we need to take a closer look at why athletes in general should eat healthy.
Nutrition for athletes: Why should athletes eat healthy?
There are many reasons why serious athletes or athletes looking to improve fitness and overall performance in the given sport should start with nutrition. Sports nutrition has come a long way in recent years with many studies clearly indicating that an improved diet of an athlete can result in:
- increased stamina
- improved endurance
- more energy
- greater power
- increased strength
- reduced risk of injury
- better recovery and muscle repair
- sharper brain
- heightened concentration
- better sleep
- improved mood and attitude
- and much more
Discover more about nutrition and athletic performance.
What foods should a soccer player diet consist of?
The food we eat is turned into the energy our body needs for day to day functions like walking, studying, playing video games, and of course, soccer. Our body does this by breaking down food into 3 energy producing materials called macronutrients. These macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Let’s look at a few examples of foods that are high in each.
Carbohydrates are our primary fuel source for high-intensity physical exercise such as soccer. Essentially, this is what our body relies on to get through a training session or match. As such, it’s important to eat adequate amounts of carbohydrates when taking part in strenuous activities.
Foods such as rice, pasta and bread are packed with carbohydrates and are all good options. Not all of these carbs are created equal. It’s important to select wisely. The more nutrient-dense the carb, the better.
In addition, fruits such as apples, bananas, oranges and kiwis work well. Any or all of these fruits should find their way into the soccer player diet because they have numerous health benefits.
Apples are a great snack and should be on every athlete’s menu. High in Vitamin C, fibre and a wide variety of antioxidants.
Meanwhile, bananas are a considerable source of potassium, an important mineral and electrolyte that often needs to be replenished by athletes.
Oranges work in a similar way with the added benefit of Vitamin C. Vitamin C can potentially reduce inflammation, which is very important for athletes.
Certainly, kiwis are a powerhouse in terms of its benefits to an athlete. In addition to being full of flavour, they are also full of nutrients needed by humans, particularly athletes: Vitamins C, E and K, folate, potassium, fibre and antioxidants.
Read more about the benefits of kiwi.
The next macronutrient, protein, is equally important in the soccer player diet. As the building block of muscle, protein is found in animal products like chicken, beef and fish. Some plants such as beans, lentils and soy, contain protein as well, so they should not be overlooked.
Athletes need more protein than most to help their bodies recover, repair and rebuild. For that reason, it’s important to get some in at each meal.
Finally, there’s fat–the fuel source we use for physical exercise that is long-lasting. Additionally, fat helps to tap into glycogen which, according to Today’s Dietitian, must be restored after exercise.
Fats are found in most animal products, cooking oils, nuts, seeds and various dairy products. The soccer player diet should consist of regular consumption of fats, particularly healthy fats.
What does a pre-game meal look like on a competitive soccer player diet?
Without a doubt, getting enough of all three macronutrients is a critical component of a soccer player diet. Doing so, allows the footballer to play at his or her best.
Right before a game, however, carbohydrates and protein are most important. Since we know soccer involves a great deal of sprinting, jumping and kicking, our body craves the fuel source required for this high-intensity activity. This makes carbohydrates essential and should make up a ⅓ or more of your pre-game meal.
At the same time, your muscles work incredibly hard and often wear out over an exhausting 90-minute match. To provide the building blocks to keep them strong and well-fuelled, you need protein. About a quarter to a third of your plate of protein is ideal to help you perform optimally.
Finally, it is always important to eat enough vegetables. Everyone from your mom to the friendly neighbourhood nutritionist has been telling you to eat vegetables. And they’re right. Take it from an athlete and dietitian himself.
Undoubtedly, eating vegetables serves a couple of functions in a soccer player diet:
1. It aids in hydration because many vegetables have a high water content.
2. It nourishes the body with vitamins, minerals and nutrients, which are crucial optimum muscle performance, recovery and repair.
When to have the pre-game meal as a soccer player?
When to have your pre-game meal before a match is just as important, if not more so, than what to have.
A full meal should be eaten about 3-4 hours before a match. This is because with all the running, jumping and slide tackling you’ll be required to perform, you do not want a great deal of food in your stomach making things difficult or uncomfortable for you.
Approximately, 3-4 hours is just about enough time for your stomach to digest the food properly, but not so long to make you hungry during the game.
If you feel you need to top up the fuel reserves with a small snack before the game, then 1-2 hours prior is ideal. Smaller snacks can give you a boost of energy and will pass through the stomach much faster than a full meal. Just make sure the snack you’re having is healthy and nutritious, so as to help your performance on the pitch.
Good post-game meal or snacks for a soccer player to eat
For a soccer player, post-game soccer nutrition is just as important as those pre-game ones.
After a soccer game it is important to refuel, especially if you have another game or practice within 24 hours. In a tournament scenario, for example, you may compete multiple times over a weekend. Therefore, it is critically important to replenish the carbohydrates you used during the game(s), so that you can continue the high-intensity work each game at an optimum level.
In addition, during a physically demanding soccer match every player puts tremendous strain on his or her muscles and joints. For this reason it’s pivotal to help your body repair the damage.
First and foremost, this means eating foods high in protein. And second, carbohydrates. Combine the two for a post-game meal that replenishes, refuels, repairs and helps to recover.
For example, our sports nutritionist, Terence, likes to eat baked chicken with fried rice and carrots upon the completion of exercise.
Sometimes a meal cannot be eaten within 1 hour of a game, so that’s where healthy, nutritious snacks come in. Ideally, look for snacks that are high in protein and carbs, with low-to-modest fat content. Foods such as tuna and crackers, fruit with Greek yogurt, hummus and crackers all fit the bill.
What foods should be avoided in a soccer player diet?
To reach peak level performance and to be able to maintain it over the long-term, it’s important to eat healthily every day, and not just the day before, or the day of, the soccer match. Remember, healthy eating habits equal healthy performances on the pitch. Soccer nutrition isn’t something temporary, it’s a lifestyle, at least as long as you’re playing the game.
At the same time, it’s important to limit, or altogether avoid, other foods because they can significantly minimize athletic output. This is especially true when such foods are eaten immediately prior to a physically demanding match.
For example, foods high in fat are not recommended and should be limited in the soccer player diet. This includes things like fried foods, pastries and dishes with heavy cream.
Reason being, fat is the macronutrient that takes the longest to empty from the stomach, meaning a high fat meal can sit with you for well over four hours.
Other foods that should be consumed in small amounts and only on the rare occasion: fried chicken, fast food burgers, fries and similarly fat-heavy meals. In their stead, opt for leaner protein (turkey or chicken) and carbohydrates as your pregame meal.
Learn more about foods to avoid on a soccer player diet.
How much water should a soccer player be drinking?
Optimum soccer nutrition includes water and plenty of it. Regularly drinking adequate amounts of water has numerous benefits, especially for those who play high-intensity, physically demanding sports such as soccer:
1. The water you drink makes up the blood that your heart pumps throughout your body. This blood brings oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles allowing them to perform optimally.
Without enough water, your heart must work harder to transport the fuel these muscles need to perform. In fact, with just 2% of your body weight lost in water your performance on the field begins to suffer.
2. According to Medical News Today, water helps to lubricate joints and can “reduce the joints’ shock-absorbing ability, leading to joint pain.” Because athletes such as soccer players put a great deal of strain on their joints and muscles during training sessions and matches, they need to help their body by hydrating often and always.
3. Furthermore, dehydration can impair brain function, leading to dulled concentration–a crucial component of competitive sports. Drinking plenty of water allows your brain to stay sharp.
4. What’s more, sufficient water intake aids digestion. The last thing you want as a soccer player is to be stricken with crippling constipation or heartburn just before or during a match. To avoid these unpleasant symptoms, water needs to find its way into the soccer player diet.
5. Water also regulates body temperature, something that could become even more key on those hot and humid match days.
These are just a handful of the benefits of hydration. Many more exist. Water must play a large part in your soccer nutrition regimen.
How to stay hydrated as a soccer player?
To prevent dehydration, sip on water throughout the day. If you don’t like the taste of plain water, add a slice of lemon or lime to it to make it more flavourful.
It’s important to remember that everyone needs different amounts of water, so it’s important to gauge it for yourself. According to Mayo Clinic, thirst is not a reliable indicator of dehydration. There are others: dry mouth, listlessness, fatigue, dark-coloured urine and less frequent urination. Pay close attention to how much water you are actually drinking and listen to your body, especially on match days.
Once you are properly hydrated before the competition, the amount that you actually need during a game can also change based on how hot it is outside, the position you are playing (goalkeeper vs striker) and how much sweat your body produces. Pay heed to this as well and hydrate immediately to avoid a dip in performance.
On a practical note, keep water accessible during games and practices and drink until satisfied at each opportunity.
Hydration after the soccer match
The importance of rehydrating after a game cannot be emphasized enough. During a 90-minute match, your body loses a great deal of water through sweat and heavy breathing. For this reason, it’s important to replenish the lost reserves by drinking a full water bottle immediately following the game. Once again, this forms a significant part of soccer nutrition.
Discover more about the effects of hydration on athletic performance.
What type of drinks should a soccer player be having?
You may have noticed that when you sweat, sometimes the sweat dripping off you tastes salty. That is because sweat contains both water and electrolytes.
Electrolytes are compounds that help the brain communicate with our muscles by carrying signals through our nerves. Sodium and potassium are just two of these. With excessive sweating you will lose some of these important electrolytes, which can weaken the brain-body connection.
Generally speaking, most athletes who compete in sporting activities that last less than 2 hours will not lose enough electrolytes to noticeably affect their ability. This, of course, can only happen if you hydrate properly.
As always, there are exceptions. If you’re playing a high-intensity match in extreme heat and humidity, this rule may not apply.
Should a soccer player diet include sports drinks?
If you feel that you over-exerted your body by playing in oppressive conditions and sweat much more than usual, only then should you consider drinking a sports drink to replenish those electrolytes. Even then, try to dilute the given sports drink with water. In other words, fill up half of your bottle with the sports drink and half with water. Otherwise you’ll be ingesting too much sugar. And sugar should not play an integral role in soccer nutrition.
What do famous professional soccer players eat and drink?
Arguably the best soccer player on the planet, Lionel Messi started working with a nutritionist to help him improve his performance and longevity.
According to the nutritionist, Messi’s diet comprises six elements: water, olive oil, whole grains, fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts and seeds. Messi limits meat intake and instead drinks up to three protein shakes each day.
The nutritionist also mentions that the two most important foods to avoid, which Messi now does, are: sugar and refined flour. Both of these negatively affect performance, according to the nutritionist.
The other part of the greatest player in the world debate, Cristiano Ronaldo, follows a strict soccer nutrition program as well.
Ronaldo often consumes lean protein, fish and eggs, and an occasional steak, as his main protein sources. He supplements this with protein shakes, too.
His carbs are primarily made up of fresh, whole grain breads and pastas.
In addition, he eats many fruits and vegetables throughout the day to ensure he gets all the vitamins and minerals he needs.
Sugar and alcohol only find their way into this soccer player’s diet on the rare occasion. His drinks of choice: fresh juices and lots of water.
Nutrition plays an incredibly important role in the performance of athletes from all types of sporting disciplines, not the least of which is soccer. A soccer player diet should consist of all the mentioned components in order to be able to compete at the highest level. Give it a shot and you’ll notice the difference yourself.
Julie’s blog has been named one of the Top 100 Nutrition Blogs, Websites and Newsletters to Follow in 2020 by Feedspot. So don’t miss out and subscribe to both her newsletter and blog.
Terence Boateng is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Exercise Physiologist and Sports Nutritionist whose areas of expertise include nutrition as it relates to weight management, the building of strength & muscle mass, improved fitness & athletic performance, and many more.