Nutrition Strategies to Promote Optimal Performance in Soccer Players

Author: Reilly Bertram


            As a collegiate soccer player, my experience with game day nutrition has increased my curiosity about what proper nutrition should be like. For a game at 6pm, my team and I will meet at about 2:30pm for a pregame meal. The meal typically consisting of a pasta dish, usually with meat sauce or chicken, a salad, mixed vegetables, and breadsticks. During the game, we are always provided with water and Gatorade or Body Armor. Our trainer makes sure that when people come off the field they always have water and Gatorade available to them. Also, during halftime of our games, we are given sugary candy like starburst and skittles. The idea behind the sugary candy, I think, is to provide us with a quick burst of energy for the second half; I don’t think there is scientific evidence behind this, but our coach loves to do it. Our post game meals are usually at a restaurant like Chipotle where we often get burrito bowls consisting of rice, meat, beans, and different vegetables. After looking at our game day nutrition, let’s take a look at what research is saying nutrition should be like.

Nutrition Strategies to Promote Optimal Performance

In looking at what is going to promote optimal performance on game day, there are three main stages: pre-game, during the game, and post-game. I will break down each phase into the three main macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats). Macronutrients constitute the bulk of the diet and supply energy and many essential nutrients (Youdim, 2019).

Carbohydrate intake should reflect the training load that is happening on a given day. For the purposes of this blog, we will take a look at what nutrition should look like for a game day. About 24 hours before a game, an athlete should consume 8-10 g/kg of body weight in carbohydrates (Keen, 2018). For a 70 kg (154 lbs.) individual, this would be 560-700 g of carbohydrates in the 24 hours leading up to game time. In the hours leading up to a soccer game, research has shown that the main meal should be about three to four hours before game time and including easy to digest foods containing 200-300g of carbohydrates. Keep this pre-game meal simple, familiar, and low in fiber to avoid an upset stomach at game time. With one hour remaining until kickoff, light snacks with high concentrations of carbohydrates (about 25-30g) are appropriate (Oliveira, 2017). When choosing what carbohydrates to eat before a match, it is best to choose ones that are digested and absorbed more quickly; these carbohydrates are considered high-glycemic index carbohydrates (Williams & Rollo, 2015). Examples of high-glycemic index carbohydrates include baked potatoes, white rice, and white bread.

Carbohydrates should be the main focus when it comes to pre-game nutrition. However, consuming 0.25-0.4 g of protein/kg of body mass during the pre-game meal will in turn help in recovery post-game (Oliveira, 2017). Let’s go back to the 70 kg (154 lbs.) individual. It’s recommended that they eat 17.5-28 grams of protein. The recommendation is that small amounts of protein should be consumed every 3-4 hours leading up to a game; it is also acknowledged that most soccer players meet these requirements (Keen, 2018). Since this requirement may already be met by most soccer players, extra attention to this suggestion may not need to be done. According to Oliveira et al. (2017), consumption of fats is not recommended for pre-game meals because it can cause stomach problems. However, about 10-30 g/meal should be all that is consumed if necessary (Keen, 2018). Fat consumption seems to be left up to the athlete to decide if they feel the need to eat them; this boils down to personal preference.

As expected, physical and mental performance tend to drop throughout the game as fatigue sets in (Oliveira et al.,2017).  To counteract this natural tendency, eating or drinking 30-60 g CHO/hour has been shown to improve performance in some aspect; this could be increased running time, improved time to fatigue, and enhanced technical skills (Keen, 2018). Many times, this is in the form of a sports drink such as Gatorade. At this current time, protein consumption during exercise seems to not be necessary because protein doesn’t help in energy production (Keen, 2017). Fats, again, are not highly recommended during a game as they can cause stomach problems (Oliveira et al., 2017).

It is important to eat plenty of carbohydrates after extensive exercise in order to recover faster and compete at a high level again in a short amount of time. Studies have shown that eating more than 1 g/kg of body mass/hour in the next few hours following exercise can aid in recovery (Oliveira et al., 2017). In looking back at the 70 kg (154 lbs.) athlete, this means they would need to eat more than 70 grams of carbohydrates for optimal recovery. Unlike with pregame carbohydrate consumption, it does not seem to matter what type of carbohydrates are consumed. Both slower digesting and faster digesting carbohydrates produce similar results in recovery (Williams & Rollo, 2015). As with pre-game protein consumption, players should eat about 0.25-0.4 g/kg of body mass in protein quickly after exercise in order to synthesize recovery (Oliveira et al., 2017). Again, this would be 17.5-28 grams of protein. According to Keen (2017), there is evidence showing the consumption of 30-40g of casein, a slow-digesting protein, can help in recovery as well for exercise greater than 60 minutes. Interestingly, there is evidence suggesting that adding protein to carbohydrate during recovery may help to decrease recovery time. However, more research is needed before we can say for sure that this may benefit athletes in recovery (Williams & Rollo, 2015). In recovery post-game, fats are not a key nutrient because it can be included in the next balanced meal. However, if fat consumption is wanted, the recommendation is to consume omega-3 fats in low to moderate amounts. Omega- 3 fats have been shown to help reduces inflammation, enhance muscle recovery, and improve brain health (Keen, 2017).


            Nutrition is highly important when it comes to performance in any sport. Soccer is especially unique because it requires a combination of endurance and sprinting for a total of 90 minutes. We have looked at what my typical gameday nutrition is, and we have looked at the research. Based on what the research is saying, I want to dive into what nutrition should look like by giving an example of gameday meals. The pregame meal should consist of a large baked potato with 3 ounces of lean turkey, chicken, fish, or beef, carrot sticks, and fresh fruit. This meal would take place 3-4 hours prior to the game. Appropriate snacks to eat 60 minutes before game time include pretzels, dry cereal, crackers, toast, bagels (all whole grain), granola bars, or sports drinks. During the game, drinking water is very important to prevent dehydration. When it comes to food choices for during the game, bananas and low-fat yogurt or milk are great options. The post-game meal should include lean cuts of meat like chicken and fish with whole grains like whole wheat pasta or brown rice; add some vegetables or a side salad as well.

            When comparing the research with what my team does for out gameday nutrition, I have found that we eat relatively well except for the candy at halftime. This should probably be replaced with things like bananas, yogurt, and sports drinks. Nutrition is vital to performance, especially when it comes to sports in college; part of preparation for the game is practice, but the other part of that preparation is nutrition. Proper nutrition will support proper performance which can lead to big time wins and championships.


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