By Lisa Lovejoy/MultiCare Health System
Cleats. Uniforms. Club fees. Travel and tournaments.
For all the time, effort and money that players and parents invest in club soccer, one basic piece of equipment is often taken for granted – a strong healthy body.
Training begins at the table and good nutrition provides the energy required to develop skills, support training and enhance game performance. Key considerations for soccer players include their overall training diet, game day meals and snacks, proper hydration and adjustments for travel.
A solid training diet is very much the same as the suggestions for general health:
• Consume a wide variety of fresh, whole foods in appropriate quantities
• Focus on quality carbohydrates (whole grain breads and pasta, brown rice, fruits, vegetables), the primary source of energy for working muscles
• Add in some lean protein (lean meats, eggs, nuts and seeds) to build and repair muscles
• Round it out with some low/non-fat dairy foods (skim or low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese) for calcium to strengthen and protect young bones
Once young athletes fill up on the healthy items listed above, there will be much less room for unhealthy amounts of packaged and processed foods. These are high in empty calories, sugar and sodium but low in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Save the chips, soda, cookies, candy and frozen “snacks” for occasional treats.
Soccer players who have prepared themselves all week with healthy foods just need to eat more of them on game day.
Ideally, the “pre-game” meal should be eaten about three hours prior to game time to allow time for digestion. Quality carbohydrates, with a bit of lean protein and some healthy fat are best: whole grain cereal with milk and a banana, or a turkey and cheese sandwich (preferably on whole grain bread) with some grapes or an orange.
For early games, semi-solid or liquid items like yogurt or a smoothie may be easier to digest. If time gets short, consuming 100 percent fruit juice or even a sports beverage is better than starting on empty. Steer clear of high fat or greasy foods, which are difficult to digest. Save the burger and fries for after the game.
Although younger players can store plenty of energy to get through a shorter game, once actual playing time exceeds 60 minutes, refueling at halftime may provide a performance edge.
For a halftime snack, aim for 15-30 grams of rapidly absorbed glucose (sugar). Yup — sugar.
Unlike the daily diet where sugar intake should be limited, the purpose of a halftime snack is to provide rapidly available energy. Nutritious examples include an applesauce pouch, a sliced orange, one-quarter cup of dried fruit or 8-16 ounces of a homemade sports beverage made with 100 percent fruit juice.
Other options with less nutritional value but more appeal to young athletes include 8-16 ounces of a commercial sports beverage or a small handful of jelly beans — they taste great, kids like them and they don’t melt. If you are surprised that a dietitian is suggesting candy during a game, think about the fact that popular sports beverages are really just artificially colored sugar water (with salt added).
All of these halftime snacks should be paired with ample amounts of plain water to optimize hydration.
Drinking enough water is one of the easiest and cheapest — yet most often overlooked — ways of enhancing performance. For exercise up to an hour, plain water is the best option. For longer games or a quick energy “top off” and some electrolytes, a sports beverage is appropriate.
When people are about 2-3 percent dehydrated, we begin to feel thirsty. But athletic performance begins to be affected (reaction times slow and perceived exertion is higher) around 1-2 percent dehydration. This means that performance is harder and feels harder by the time we feel thirsty. This can be prevented by routinely drinking plenty of water throughout the day and paying special attention on game day and in warmer weather.
Hydration guidelines include drinking 16 ounces one hour prior to activity, an additional 8 ounces right before exercise, then an additional 5-10 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes during exercise. The only water breaks during a typical soccer game come during substitutions and at halftime, so make the most of them.
Travel and tournaments
The suggestions and recommendations outlined above all apply to away games and tournaments, which often include travel and meals eaten away from home. Don’t expect healthy options to be available on the road — be smart and plan ahead.
Packing a snack bag and a small cooler are simple and effective ways of making sure that healthy, tasty options are always available. Packable snacks include dried fruits, individual fruit cups or pouches, nuts, granola bars, graham crackers, whole grain crackers, peanut or almond butter and beef jerky. A cooler loaded with water, sports beverages, yogurt, cheese sticks, hummus cups and cut fruits and vegetables are far healthier than hitting a drive-through.
For tournaments where multiple games are played in one day, be sure to recover as quickly as possible after each game, paying special attention to hydration. As time allows, apply the pre-game suggestions outlined above and once the trophies have been handed out, go ahead and celebrate with a team pizza party or burgers and fries (perhaps with a side salad?) for all.
Lisa Lovejoy is a sports and wellness dietitian for MultiCare Health System. Her services include body composition assessment, resting metabolic rate testing and nutrition counseling for individuals and groups.
MultiCare Health System is a not-for-profit health care organization with more than 18,000 employees, providers and volunteers. It has been caring for the community for more than a century, since the founding of Tacoma’s first hospital.