As we are celebrating another FIFA World Cup this year, I want to share with you an oldie but goodie post about soccer and nutrition: “Football behind the curtains: what you don’t know! Part I”. For a better understanding on this matter, we need to know some basic rules applied to this sport. As fans, it is really easy to just wear the colours of our favourite team, however, there is much more than meets the eye behind the curtain.

A soccer team needs 11 players on the field during two halves of 45 minutes each, with a half time break of 15 minutes. This is really important to take into consideration as the game rules only allow for 3 substitutions during a match per team. This translates as a really demanding aerobic activity for most of the players, including quick changes in direction, intermittent sprints, plyometrics and bursts of power.

Soccer players perform at low intensities around 70% of the game (unless they need to reach a ball pass, when they have to perform at higher intensities for shorter periods). Their core temperature rises, their heart rate increases and in consequence, their energy demands increase accordingly. A professional soccer player performs around 150-250 short but intense movements during each match, and run approximately 11km in 90 minutes, so all the energy systems are working on and off: Phosphocreatine, aerobic and anaerobic glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, electron transport chain, among others.

Taking all this (and more) into account, we could say that the typical 75kg player could be spending around 1,600Kcal (or 6,700kJ) during a match – and this is without counting their daily needs! So in order to help my soccer athletes to achieve their energy requirements, I always discuss with them some helpful tips:

The fuel intake needs to be adequate, considering physical activity levels and personal goals of body composition, growth, training phase, etc. This is INDIVIDUAL! Each player has its own requirements, and it can also change between tournaments, seasons and with age.

Meals have to be planned! Three main meals and three snacks are usually the minimum recommended to be consumed during the day. These have to be organised around training sessions, resting periods and social commitments. The carbohydrate intake before the session, as well as mix of carbohydrates and proteins after training are KEY to attain proper adaptations.

Sugary foods with empty calories should be avoided. The best advice I can give is to follow a plan rich in nutrients, calorie-dense liquids and solids, low in saturated fats and with no excess of fibre. Too much fibre can compromise the amount of food the athletes need to eat as they decrease appetite by promoting satiety.

Body weight changes need to be monitored on a weekly basis. However, a proper body composition assessment performed by a Sports nutritionist/dietitian is recommended. All this data will help coaches, sport scientists and medical staff to help the athletes enhance their performance.

Low-carb diets are NOT recommended among soccer players, as they can compromise fuel availability, mood states, performance, and execution on field. Techniques to increase sweating, laxatives and even supplements without proper advice and supervision is not ideal either.

When referring to supplements, this is the most important advice I can relate to (apart from always checking the most up-to-date data base of banned supplements published yearly by WADA):

“If it works, it`s probably banned, if it`s not banned, then it probably doesn`t work”

Ron Maugham on supplements

During my time working with first division soccer teams in Venezuela, I noticed how doctors, physiotherapists and even massage therapist were part of that “world behind supplements”. This was to the point where naive athletes accepted pills, injections and others purely on the base of trust. Anti-doping agencies also work around the same soccer pitch, so try to find a sports dietitian with proper qualifications before starting any new medicine or over-the-counter supplements. Don`t risk your career!

I genuinely hope you enjoyed this reading as much as I enjoyed writing it (while watching Australia vs France in the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018) I’ve always considered critical thinking a vital resource in this and and any other elite sport, so with proper guidance, you (or your athlete) can ‘critically think’ and do, what is best for them and their career in football.


PS: and for the record, Part II is on their way…


Some references:

  • Burke L. et al (2006) Energy and carbohydrate for training and recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences; 24(7): 675 – 685
  • Laws of the game 2008-2009. Fédération Internationale de Football Association- FIFA.
  • Maughan R, Burke L, Kirkendall D. (2005) F-MARC. Nutrición para el fútbol. Fédération Internationale de Football Association- FIFA.