By: Baker Cronin - Charlotte FC
Nutritional Supplementation for Professional Soccer Athletes on Gameday
Soccer has unique physical demands when compared to the other major American sports. It consists of two 45-minute halves, which are played continuously, for a total match time of 90 minutes. This is significantly longer than professional basketball, football, or hockey, which range from 48-60 minutes, and include many stoppages in play or prolonged periods of standing or resting. It combines endurance demands of a 90-minute match, along with repeated, high intensity efforts, followed by bouts of rest spent either walking or jogging. There is also little interchange of athletes during play, so they are expected to participate for the duration of the match. As such, the nutritional demands for soccer athletes are unique. With these demands, it falls on the support staffs to provide the education and resources for these athletes. Leading the line for meeting the nutritional demands of these athletes are registered dietitians, sports performance nutritionists, and the athletic trainers who support them.
While understanding each athlete is different and may have subtle variances to consider in their nutrition, our staff at Charlotte FC implemented a match day plan to best prepare our athletes for the demands of the day. Whether home or away, athletes are provided a pre-match meal to be eaten 3-4 hours prior to the match. The goal of this meal is to maximize (trying to match the verb to the state of the body) liver glycogen stores, thus providing readily available energy during the demands of the match. The meal also serves to maintain blood glucose levels during exercise as there is more readily available liver glycogen to help balance the increase demand of glucose by the muscles and the possible hypoglycemic state the body can reach during exercise (Suh et al. 2007). Studies show carbohydrate intake prior to a match can delay fatigue and enhance the athlete’s capacity for high intensity intermittent exercise. (Hargreaves et al 2004).
Additionally, upon arrival at the stadium, there is a selection of electrolyte enhanced beverages to supply athletes with the necessary sodium, potassium, and calcium for repeated muscle contractions, as well as the maintenance of blood viscosity levels. Sodium helps athletes retain the water they will consume prior to the match through warm-ups. Coffee and energy drinks are also provided to give athletes a caffeine boost for during the match. Caffeine has shown to benefit aerobic performance, muscle strength, muscle endurance and anaerobic power (Grgic et al. 2019). We provide our athletes 80-200mg servings depending on athlete preference. Topping off their pre-match routine, a fast-acting carb of 30-45 grams is provided immediately prior to the match to supply the athlete with a last boost to liver glycogen stores. It has also been shown providing 30-60 grams of carbohydrate every hour increases improves intermittent high-intensity exercise capacity (Baker et al. 2015).
At halftime, the focus shifts to providing hydration options, as the lack of stoppages during each half inhibit athletes’ opportunity to properly re-hydrate through the match. This becomes particularly important during warmer months when core body temperatures rise and providing a cold drink can assist in lowering core body temperature. The sweat loss also requires a need to replenish sodium levels, therefore each athlete is provided a sodium enhanced beverage as well. Finally, another dose of fast-acting carbohydrate is provided, between 30-45 grams, to boost liver glycogen stores and give athletes more available energy for the second half and continue to provide the performance benefits of hourly carbohydrate dosing (Baker et al. 2015). Regardless of these supplementations, athletes are not able to replenish all nutrition levels to pre-match status and some will begin to see performance decrements during the second half, often leading to substitutions.
Following the match, athletes are in need of options for quick recovery as the next match may be 72 hours away. Restoring hydration levels are the first step in this process. As such, athletes are recommended to drink one and a half liters of water for every kilogram lost during the match (Shirreffs and Swaka 2011). Returning the body to pre-match weight levels assists in recovery by avoid hypohydration.
Athletes also experience muscle soreness from the repeated high intensity efforts during the match. They are given protein shakes, along with a full, balanced meal, to help assist in the repair and recovery of the muscles. It is recommended they consume about 20 to 30 grams of protein following the match, as soon as arriving back in the locker room (Holway and Spriet 2011). Cherry juice is also provided to assist in the recovery process. About eight to twelve ounces is sufficient to help reduce free radical accumulation and provide antioxidants to help with waste product build up in the muscles following intense exercise. Cherry juice has also been shown to accelerate strength recovery and decrease blood markers of inflammation (Vitale et al. 2017). Finally, carbohydrate options are included in the post-match meal to assist in returning liver and muscle glycogen levels back to pre-match status and decreasing blood insulin levels, helping assist the body in a return to homeostasis as it recovers.
The nutritional options for athletes before, during and after a match are multiple and each athlete has personal needs or restrictions that need to be considered. Our hope is that the framework provided above gives an idea of how one team supports their athletes on match days to afford the best physical results on the field.
Athletic Trainer Charlotte FC
Baker, L. B., Rollo, I., Stein, K. W., and Jeukendrup, A. E. (2015). Acute Effects of Carbohydrate Supplementation on Intermittent Sports Performance. Nutrients, 7(7), 5733-5763.
Grgic, J, Grgic I, Pickering C, Schoenfeld B, Bishop D, and Pedisic Z. “Wake up and Smell the Coffee: Caffeine Supplementation and Exercise Performance—an Umbrella Review of 21 Published Meta-Analyses.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 54, no. 11 (June 1, 2020): 681–88.
Hargreaves, M., Hawley, J. A., and Jeukendrup, A. E. (2004). Pre-exercise carbohydrate and fat ingestion: effects on metabolism and performance. J Sports Sci, 22, 31-38.
Holway, F. E., and Spriet, L. L. (2011). Sport-specific nutrition: practical strategies for team sports. J Sports Sci, 29(Suppl 1), S115-125.
Vitale KC, Hueglin S, Broad E. Tart Cherry Juice in Athletes: A Literature Review and Commentary. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2017 Jul/Aug;16(4):230-239.
Shirreffs, S., and M. Sawka. “Fluid and Electrolyte Needs for Training, Competition, and Recovery.” Journal of Sports Sciences, 2011.