Athletes need a lot of carbohydrates. Football players are highly dependent on glycogen stores for their energy. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for intermittent sports, such as football, where glycogen stores are often depleted during long workouts and workouts, says Machowsky. The amount needed and how often you should consume it varies depending on the time of year (such as offseason, preseason, etc.), the player’s specific goals, and their position.
By choosing a variety of wholemeal breads, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit and vegetables, we ensure players get not only the carbohydrates needed to perform, but also essential vitamins, minerals and fibre, which support a range of important functions to have. These specifically help reduce inflammation and support recovery. Carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks, gels and similar products should generally be limited to game day and practice fueling, and should not be part of a player’s daily eating routine, Machowsky says.
Refined carbohydrates, including white bread, cakes, sweets, cookies, pies, sugary cereals, soft drinks and juices, should be consumed sparingly, he adds.
Examples of nutritious carbohydrates for football players
- Whole grain: oatmeal, 100% whole wheat bread, whole wheat or corn tortillas, whole wheat pasta, brown rice and low-sugar breakfast cereals with at least 5 g of protein per serving
- Fruit: fresh whole fruit, including apples, pears, bananas, cantaloupe, pineapple, cantaloupe
- Non-starchy vegetables: broccoli, spinach, pepper, zucchini, salad greens (the darker the better), pumpkin, onions, cauliflower, mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots
- Starchy vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, pumpkin
- Beans and legumes: brown beans, black beans, white beans, lentils
- Dairy: Greek yogurt, skimmed milk and chocolate milk
Players need sufficient protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (build muscle mass) and also to repair muscle damage caused during training. Choosing lean, high-quality protein with meals, as well as before and after each workout, is imperative, says Machowsky.
It’s a common misconception that athletes need to consume extra protein through shakes, bars and powders. Research shows that consuming excessive amounts of protein provides no benefit in stimulating protein synthesis in the muscles and will more often displace other important nutrients your body needs. “It is usually possible to meet a footballer’s protein needs with real food,” he adds. This requires a diet that includes high-quality protein sources spread throughout the day, between well-timed meals and snacks. “Large amounts of protein per meal or at a given time may not be utilized as well,” says Machowsky.
Chicken or turkey, lean red meat, beans, dairy, eggs and fish are all good options. Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, which are often touted in supplements, are easily found in dairy and meat.
Protein supplements can be useful when it becomes difficult to get the required amount of protein during the day, or before a competition day and to practice fueling. “A great option is to make your own smoothies, if you have the means, with real food like Greek yogurt, milk, nut butters, and fruits like berries, apples, or bananas,” says Machowsky.
Football players also need fat, but the nutritious kind. Too much fat (usually hydrogenated and saturated) can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and excess calorie intake, which can lead to undated weight gain, says Machowsky. Too little fat can affect nutrient absorption and ultimately affect performance, so moderation is key here. Not only is fat high in calories, meaning a little goes a long way, but it also keeps players satisfied from meal to meal. Add 1 to 2 servings of fat to meals in the form of oily fish, nuts and nut butters, seeds, meat, dairy, avocado and olive oil.
Focus on these fats and fat sources
- Monounsaturated fats:
- Olives and olive oil, avocado
- Sunflower seeds and nuts (pistachios, macadamia, almonds, cashews)
- Omega-3 fatty acids (polyunsaturated fats):
- Oily fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, trout)
- Walnuts, linseed and chia seeds
Limit these fats
- Full-fat dairy, including butter
- palm oil, margarine and anything containing partially hydrogenated oil
- fried food
- fatty cuts of beef, pork and chicken
- fried food
- very creamy foods (creamy salad dressings and mayonnaise)
Don’t forget to snack
Eating real food two to three times a day will keep players satisfied and fueled between meals. Optimizing performance means players need a serious amount of nutrients for their calorie dollar, and whole foods win the nutrient density competition every time.
If you want to play at the top of your game, cut back on the junk food. Remember that food is functional and serves a purpose. If that goal is going to help players recover after two days a day, that food should be filled with as much high-quality nutrition as possible.
Think of whole fruit such as apples and bananas with ¾ cup of low-fat cottage cheese or yogurt, a handful of nuts or 2 tablespoons of nut butter on a piece of whole wheat toast, lettuce rolls with turkey, avocado and mustard, a protein shake or smoothie made with, for example, regular Greek yogurt, fruit and 1 to 2 tablespoons almond butter, or make some turkey meatballs (a favorite with many players).
“Dehydration is a medical condition that football players need to take seriously, especially during the preseason and early season when temperatures are high and they are training hard while wearing a lot of heavy pads and equipment,” says Machowsky. Watch out for symptoms such as unusual shortness of breath, loss of coordination, fast heart rate (even during a break), significant cramps, headache, nausea or vomiting, and dizziness. If left untreated, severe dehydration can be life-threatening.
First, players should drink at least one standard bottle of water within an hour or two prior to practice or competition. During practice or a match, players should aim for at least 16 to 20 ounces of fluid per hour and should drink something about every 15 to 20 minutes. Heavy sweaters may need more, up to one liter (32 ounces) per hour.
Players should consider added electrolytes for activities lasting longer than 60 to 75 minutes, especially if they involve salty sweats. (If you have white streaks on your clothes after the sweat dries, that applies to you.) Examples of sources of electrolytes include sports drinks, electrolyte powders or tablets added to water, or salty snacks like pretzels or crackers.