When I first got my break into professional football back in the early 1990s, I didn’t really know much about nutrition other than there were certain types of food that were good for you and some that were not. It did surprise me, however, that a lot of these athletes didn’t pay too much attention to what they were eating but more to when they were consuming it. Although, that was beginning to change, as nutritionists were just starting to become an integral part of the team’s routine. As I say, when I first started coming down for breakfast in a hotel with the team in the morning and seeing the older, more experienced players eating a full English breakfast on a match-day kind of threw me a little bit, but that was what they had always done, and I suppose when you’ve had a good career for as long as some of those players they weren’t going to change their routine for anything.
For me, being younger and less experienced along with some of the other players we were only allowed to eat certain things. So it was cereal, oats or poached eggs on toast for breakfast, and my pre-match meal was usually pasta and boiled chicken with no sauce due to the calorie content etc. (nutritionists you see). The big problem for me is that I am of mixed race and have a Jamaican heritage, which means my food is usually very tasty and very spicy which at times as a professional athlete was quite difficult not to want to blast everything with a high-calorie sauce, pepper or some other spices but to be able to play at the top level, I had to be disciplined and watched what I ate.
Basic principles of nutrition
Sports nutrition, diet or food and drink, for football players has become increasingly scientific and recognised for its importance in the game of football. Almost every professional club will have a nutritionist or similar expert advisor for their team. Good nutrition or diet is extremely important in football because food provides players with energy for their muscles, brain and other organs and football requires plenty of exercise. Therefore, it is important to have plenty of energy available to them during the game. The energy available to the players at any particular time depends on their blood sugar levels. If players over-eat before a game, they feel heavier and the heavier they are, the more work their muscles have to do to cover the same distance. This in turn reduces their stamina, and ability to accelerate quickly. However, if they under-eat, they can become weak and won’t have enough energy to get around the pitch. A healthy diet improves the general level of health of football players and can help them recover more quickly from injuries. Along with a program of fitness training, a good diet that is essential for growth and development can help develop stamina and improve athletic performance.
The timing of the meals consumed in football is vital. On the day of a match, the intake of fat and protein should be restricted, as these nutrients require a relatively long time to be digested. Players should plan to have their pre-competition meal 3-4 hours before the match. The match meal should be: high in carbohydrates (this is the fuel that the body needs to perform at the highest level), as I previously mentioned I used to eat pasta and boiled chicken as a pre-match meal as it was low in fat, low in protein, low in fibre, not too bulky, and easy to digest. Football players should consume foods such as breakfast cereal with low-fat milk, toast or bread with jam/honey, sandwiches with banana/honey/jam, pasta/rice with low-fat sauce, muffins, baked potato, fruit, and energy bars, and orange juice.
A snack high in carbohydrates may be eaten about 2 hours before the match, however, the time reference is only a guideline as there are great individual differences in the ability to digest food. It is a good idea to experiment with a variety of foods at different times before training sessions. Foods such as toast, bread or crumpets with jam/honey, sweetened cereal and low-fat milk, muffins, and orange juice and jelly sweets could also be consumed.
Once the game is over, fluids should be replaced and carbohydrates should be consumed as soon as possible to promote the recovery of glycogen stores. During the cooldown, players should consume fluids and small snacks like simple carbohydrates, for example, jelly sweets, Jaffa cakes and jammy dodgers. As soon as possible players should aim to consume a meal that is high in complex carbohydrates. Foods such as pasta, spaghetti, rice, noodles, low-fat pasta sauce, bread, potatoes, and baked beans should be consumed during this period.
The old days are well and truly gone now, I remember getting on the bus after an away game and we had fish and chips waiting for us, no thought about refuelling the glycogen stores just feeding the players some food on the long journey home. That was obviously before sports scientists and nutritionists and I would say the change is probably for the better as the game has gotten faster and everybody is extremely fit even in the lower leagues.
It’s important to remember that Carbohydrate-rich foods must be the main source of a diet (I have included a table below to give you some ideas). As football players, they must aim to consume the main bulk of their diet from complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates should not be consumed in large quantities and are more useful as snacks during break periods e.g., at halftime or to top up their energy intake. The carbohydrate they consume should be balanced with a healthy intake of protein, low fat and plenty of fruit and vegetables. It is crucial to note that if a player does not consume enough carbohydrates (kcals/energy) as part of their matchday preparation, then they will not have enough energy to complete the match which undoubtedly will affect their performance, and more importantly, they will be more susceptible to injury.