The Nutrition of an Elite Football Player

Good nutrition is the foundation that supports the optimal health and performance of football players. Many sports organisations in Australia are helping manage activities associated with sports. With an increasing demand on the physiological and psychological aspects of the game, sports nutrition science has advanced leaps and bounds in the last 25-years. Nowadays, team nutritionists carefully balance the intake amount, type, quantity and timing of certain foods, as well as fluids and supplements, and tailor them for each player’s unique nutritional requirements. It wasn’t always this way, however.

After arriving from Japan to take the reins at Arsenal in the early 1990s, Arsene Wenger is largely credited as being the pioneer who revolutionized English and European football when he brought over his unique approach to nutrition and player lifestyle. His philosophy was to focus on more than just the match days by taking a holistic approach to the players and the team; he improved their diet and eliminated alcohol. Wenger saw nutrition as being of utmost importance and advocated that a footballer cannot afford to train hard and then destroy all the good work they’ve accomplished through poor diet choices.

Fluids are also an essential aspect, allowing players to remain hydrated and maintain the correct electrolyte balance to perform. With fluid playing a crucial part in keeping players hydrated, especially in the heat of summer during the World Cup, the right fluids at the correct temperatures can help boost footballers’ fitness levels. The French Football Federation is controlling the type and temperature of water that the French players consume, depending on the weather. During France’s game against Australia, the temperature hovered around 19 Celsius and since on-field temperatures are a few degrees warmer, the French players were drinking water cooled to 5 degrees Celsius. The strict guidelines of their diet recommend that this is the prescribed temperature for optimal absorption and hydration, on days hotter than 20 degrees.

The guidelines are the brainchild of French national team nutritionist Gregory Dupont, who previously worked with Lille Metropole in France and Glasgow Rangers in Scotland. Dupont has three categories of food for the players: energy, protection, and construction foods. Rice, pasta or muesli to provide energy, dark chocolate and veggies to provide immune protection, and proteins like chicken, eggs and turkey to support the construction of muscle and other tissue. According to Dupont, after intense training players are required to eat two foods from each of the three categories. Post-match the players receive a concoction of water with sodium and red-fruit smoothies to aid their bodies’ recovery process.

Supplements like caffeine are also widely used since being removed from the list of banned substances in 2004 by the World Anti-Doping Agency. A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports shows that caffeine reduces a player’s perception of fatigue by stimulating production of the beta-endorphin neurostimulator. Coupled with a rich carbohydrate intake, the combination helped retain muscle glycogen stores by promoting the burning of body fat as fuel, instead of glycogen. Former England national team nutritionist at the 2014 World Cup and Arsenal’s nutrition expert, James Collins, encouraged the use of caffeine gels in matches at half-time to give players the necessary boost for high intensity sprints during second-half.

As such, current Football Association nutritionist, James Morehen, responsible for the England squad’s nutrition doctrine, also advocates the usefulness of caffeine for athletic performance. England’s win over Tunisia on Monday demonstrated how much training and nutrition play a part in team performance. Yet, despite having some of the best players in the world in the English Premier League, the England squad have struggled in the last two World Cup appearances, with Coral documenting how they had only won one match from their last seven games in the finals prior to this tournament. They were knocked out in the round of 16 in 2010 and failed to progress past the group stage, four years ago in Brazil. With a reinvigorated squad this year, England is looking for a much better performance. And the 6-1 win over Panama was a well overdue result the English public have been waiting for.

While most teams at the World Cup worry about what their players eat, teams comprised of Muslim players had to worry about not eating. The holy month of Ramadan, which requires Muslims to fast and refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset, began a month prior to this year’s tournament and ended on June 14th. This posed serious challenges for Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as all five African teams that qualified this year, especially in the training leading up to the start of the tournament. Egypt’s team doctor Mohamed Abouelela told Japan Today that everything from sleeping patterns to the number of meals that players ate had to be changed.

Teams had only a six or seven-hour window during which a training session and meals could be implemented. To help their players with breaking the fast, Tunisia had an ingenious plan. During the friendly matches leading up to the World Cup, players would quickly recharge on dates and water after sunset, taking breaks in the match and at half time. Nutritionists for the teams, however, generally had a difficult time fuelling players who during game day could have nothing to eat or drink.

Gone are the days of footballers gobbling down greasy, heavy breakfasts followed by a pint or two after the match. Australian international defender Ryan McGowan is quoted on iNews saying that opponents who follow a good diet can have a 4-5% advantage over players who don’t take their nutrition and recovery seriously. Skill and talent are no longer enough to stay ahead and sports science has demonstrated that repeatedly, with nutrition specifically tailored to individual player needs. Wingers and midfielders, for example, cover more distance and perform higher intensity runs up and down the field, and will therefore expend much higher amounts of energy and have more muscle damage in comparison to a central defender. They will need more sleep, more protein and more carbohydrates to properly heal and maintain a high level of performance on match day. With the World Cup in full swing, team nutritionists from every country are busy worrying what their players eat and how to get the optimal performance from the foods they eat.

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