With the 2018 FIFA World Cup now underway, I have already witnessed a number of players going down with cramp in their opening game which got me thinking why is this happening? This article will highlight the nutritional requirements of football players and some of the issues facing them. So what should teams/players be looking at to ensure they will perform at their best?
Considerations For Football Players
The right nutrition can make the difference between winning and losing. With the teams in the final of the World Cup having to play 7 matches in the space of a month plus any periods of extra time it will lead to a huge amount of stress on the body. The food and drink choices players make will have a huge impact of the how players train and play.
It is important to consider the individual requirements for each player. It is often seen in football that teams will put together a generic nutrition plan for that everyone should follow. However, every player has a different body composition, energy and macro requirements, goals and food preferences. To give a generic approach will only benefit a small selection of players and could leave a lot of them with deficiencies or lacking in energy and risking early fatigue, lapses of concentration etc which could lead to the team getting knocked out. When planning nutrition for football players i would take the following into consideration:
- Players body composition
- Players individual goal(s)
- Current diet
- Food preferences
- Exercise levels
- Sweat rate
- Training and match times
- Environmental conditions
- Food availability (If competing away from home)
- Training Phase
- Input from managers/coaches
After looking at these, i would then be able to look at working with the players and coaching staff to create an effective plan for each player to ensure they are performing at their optimum level.
Players Individual Goal(s)
It is so important to look at each player as an individual and not just give a generic full team plan. Every player is different and every player will have their own goals depending on their exercise levels, position etc. Some will be focused on losing some body fat others will be wanting to gain muscle mass or just improve their performance on the pitch or fitness levels. Each of these will require a massively different nutrient breakdown. The players body composition will also play a key role in determining how much protein, carbohydrate, protein and calories they require.
Current Diet + Food Preferences
So many times, athletes will search online or take advice from team mates for what they should be eating. Sometimes this could mean completely changing their full diet to match that of someone else. This could be problematic for a number of reasons, the main being that is not the food that individual player requires for their individual goal or also the food that he prefers. For a diet to be effective and be long term, it is important that it is enjoyable as well as healthy.
If a player adopts someone else’s diet, they are going to be consuming the calories and macros that the other player is having which may not be what he actually needs. For example, if Player A is looking to gain muscle mass and has recommended his diet to Player B who is looking to lose body fat, there is a good chance it will result in the complete opposite and lead to a gain in body fat as it is not tailored to his requirements. It is also likely he won’t enjoy it and will end up trying to find something else a few months down the line.
The volume and intensity of exercise will determine the amount of calories and macros is required. The more exercise and the higher the intensity the more you will require.
Carbohydrate is the bodies main energy source and the one which will be the top priority for the players competing in the World Cup.
It is recommended that exercise lasting over 1 hour will require additional carbohydrate to be taken on board. This is because the bodies storage of carbohydrate (a substance called glycogen) is generally used up in this time.
Sweat Rate & Hydration
This is a really important thing that needs to be considered and like the individualised diet is something that must be personalised to each player and can vary massively between players. My average sweat rate is around 800ml per hour and i have worked with people who’s sweat rate is more than 1800ml per hour. So to have a generic hydration strategy for the team could be extremely damaging and lead to some players becoming dehydrated and others over hydrated.
When i work with athletes it is important to work out a personal hydration plan using their sweat rate, environmental conditions, sodium losses etc to ensure they are able to maintain a high level of performance to the end of training and matches. The use of sports drinks can be useful to replace lost electrolytes and speed up re-hydration.
As i mentioned earlier, i have seen a number of players go down with cramp in their opening game of the World Cup. The full cause of cramp is not 100% understood but it is strongly linked with hydration and electrolytes. If this is the case, a poor hydration plan for players could potentially be a cause of this, especially due to the varying conditions which can be seen in Russia at the moment.
Training + Match Times
The times at which a player trains and the kick off times of matches will play a big role in determining what a player should be eating and drinking. Again, if a players takes a generic diet plan for football players off the internet could cause some problems if they are training at different times. The general recommendations for meal timings are around 3-4 hours before exercise for a big meal and 1-2 hours before for a light snack. As every player is different and their bodies will react differently, it is important to understand what works for them and what
doesn’t. Some players might be fine eating 3 hours before where as others may need 4.5 hours.
With this World Cup, teams will be playing in different areas of Russia as well as at different times for each game so this will need careful planning and consideration to ensure meal timings are met to ensure optimal performance. Due to the variety of time zones in Russia, matches could be played at 13:00, 15:00, 17:00, 18:00, 19:00, 20:00 or 21:00 local time which could mean a normal routine is hard to stick to.
Prior to the World Cup starting, teams will have had to sit down and figure out what time their matches would be, where they are being played and how long they would be traveling to get to the ground. This would allow plans to be created for players to ensure all targets are met in the appropriate time frames.
In a country as large as Russia, temperatures changes can be massive and for teams competing in the World Cup, this will have to be considered when planning players nutrition. I looked into the varying temperatures and it could be anything from 19 C in some areas up to 34 C in others. With this in mind it is important that each players hydration requirements are prepared to ensure optimum performance.
I also heard a commentator in the England vs Tunisia game saying it was too hot and could affect the players performance. This should also be trained for where possible on the lead up to the world cup. I have a client who was training for an Iron man triathlon which could see very high temperatures/humidity. Unlike professional football players who would be able to go on a training camp to a warmer climate to train, he set up a turbo trainer for his bike in the garage and put heaters on to ensure he was able to train in the heat and could workout what his sweat rate would be like in those temperatures.
It would be extremely stupid to go into a tournament like the World Cup and not train to the conditions that could be expected. The same would apply in club football, if a team is playing a European game in a hot country, it would be very wise to try and get some training sessions in a hotter environment to try and get used to the environment.
This is something that often gets overlooked by athletes travelling abroad. Whether it is football players or marathon runners competing in a new marathon in a different country there is a lot that needs to be thought about.
When they are at home training, they will have a plan set out for how much calories and macros they need to achieve their goals and optimise performance. However, they forget that when they travel to a another country there is a good chance the food available to them will be different. At the highest level, teams will be able to request certain foods etc but it is a very important factor that should be considered.
Like i mentioned earlier, everyone’s body reacts differently to different situations and the same is true for food choices. What will work for one player might cause stomach discomfort and other gastrointestinal issues for another. With this mind mind, if a player goes into a match having tried a totally new food for the first time could be disastrous.
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