By Casey Ames, Head Trainer at Optimal Soccer
Besides playing soccer itself, diet is the most important aspect of a soccer player’s game. It’s simple, soccer demands energy from your body and what you eat decides what kind of energy you are giving your body, and what you put in your body can affect every aspect of your game.
Eating correctly can improve your endurance, sleep, recovery, motivation, mood and the list goes on and on. Most players and coaches do not realize the negative effects of not taking soccer nutrition seriously. One reason for this is that it’s a complicated field of knowledge with an overwhelming amount of information, and a surprising amount of it is straight up wrong.
Lucky for you, I have spent years swimming through the information, reading studies and carrying out various tests to figure out what is truly the best soccer player diet looks like.
Let’s begin by looking at what the physical demands of soccer, and what they mean for your diet.
Soccer Player Diet Plan – The Physical Demands of Soccer
Soccer is a complicated sport when it comes to physical demands. As anyone who has played the game knows, you run a ton. However, do you really know the breakdown of an average soccer player’s movements during a game?
Here is a breakdown of an average game for an elite player
Players cover 7 miles per game, on average. This can differ by about a mile depending on position, with midfielders running the most, and strikers and defenders running less.
Take into consideration that 7 miles is not that great of a distance overall. 7 miles in 90 minutes comes out to about 13-minute miles
Soccer players spend about 2/3 of the game at low intensities of walking and jogging.
However, soccer players sprint about 1400 yards a game in bursts of 10-40 yards, change direction every 5-6 seconds and have an average heart rate of 150-170 beats per minute
The part that stands out about this is the average heart rate. That is really high for 90 minutes. And what these statistics don’t show is the physical fighting that goes along with soccer, the intensity of having the ball at your feet and the intensity of defending someone 1v1. Soccer is extremely demanding on the body, especially when you add up all the practices along with the lifting and conditioning sessions. You need to be giving your body the nutrients that it needs. So let’s take a look at what a soccer player’s diet should look like.
Calories and Macronutrients
The most important thing for soccer players is making sure you are giving your body the fuel it needs to work every single day at high-intensity levels. The recommended number of calories a soccer player should be eating is 22-24 calories per pound of body weight. So, for most college players, this will put you in the range of 3,500 to 4,000 calories a day. If you want to maintain or gain weight, get prepared to eat. A lot. The next question is what kind of food should be making up your caloric needs.
Let’s look at how your 3,500 to 4,500 calorie diet should be constructed by in terms of macronutrients. Macronutrients are simply the three main sources of calories: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. These Macronutrients all provide energy in the form of calories for your body, but in different ways and with different roles. Let’s take a look at each one individually.
Protein is the simplest macronutrient to look at, which is why I am starting with it. As a soccer player, to maintain your muscle mass you need to be eating 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, and if you’re trying to gain lean mass, then up that to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Simple as that. You can get a more in-depth look at protein, how it works and why it’s so important here, but for this article, we’ll keep it easy.
The best sources of protein are:
Animal Meat! Always try to go organic/grass-fed/free-range whenever possible. Make sure to not eat only lean protein; fats from animals are good for you. If you still believe the phrase “The less legs the better”, please stop doing so. Trying to bring fats back from the dark side is covered more here, and briefly below.
Fish, along with other seafood (shrimp is protein packed). Tuna is great, but make sure to keep it to 2 servings or less a week due to mercury content.
Eggs. They are cheap, great sources of protein and healthy fats, delicious and easy to cook. What more do you want? If you still believe the stigma that eggs are bad for your cholesterol, read this and this. Expect a post dedicated to eggs in the future.
Carbs! They have recently replaced fats as the “evil” macronutrient ever since that guy Atkins decided that they are the enemy. While removing a broad range of all carbohydrates together may seem like a good idea, it’s not, especially when it comes to athletes. While sedentary people should be reducing their carb intake to only vegetables and some fruits, soccer players need carbohydrates to adequately fuel and replenish our glycogen storages. Our glycogen storages are what we use for explosive moments, such as sprinting, jumping, changing directions quickly, fighting for a 50/50 ball… get the point? Soccer players need carbs, but we need to be careful with how many carbohydrates and what kind of carbohydrates we are taking in.
Your body only stores around 300 to 500 grams of carbs at one time. This means that before and after a day of hard work, such as a practice and lifting or a game, you need to be managing your glycogen storages through eating carbs. While this may seem like a call to action to eat whatever you want, it is not. You need to be aware of which carbs are good to be filling up on and which ones should be avoided, and unfortunately, this is a complicated issue. Luckily, I come with some science on my side.
First, lets start off with where you should NOT be getting your carbs from
High fructose corn syrup and sugar. This is obvious, but up to 50% of the carbohydrates Americans eat are from these! They are absolutely terrible for you and can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity.
Processed foods. These foods are usually not real foods. They are chemically constructed and tend to be found in the snack isle and include cookies, chips and crackers.
Foods with gluten. Yes, I’ve said it. Avoid gluten. We will hash out this battle later on, but for now, check out this study, “New Approach to Celiac Testing Identifies More at Risk” and read this article here.
While this list cuts out most of the carbohydrates you’ve been eating your entire life, e.g. bread and pasta, you’ll be a better soccer player once you make the change. If you haven’t already noticed effects of these crappy sources for carbohydrates, then you’re probably thinking to yourself right now “I don’t need to make a change, I feel fine”, and it’s true. You probably feel fine, but is fine good enough for someone trying to reach their potential as a soccer player? Professional athletes of all sports are moving towards gluten-free diets and are not afraid to talk of the benefits. Give gluten-free a try, you’ll be glad you did.
Now let’s get into where you should be getting your carbohydrates from
Plants. Eat lots of them. You can never eat too many vegetables; they are digested slowly and are nutrient dense. However, they tend to be pretty low in calories, so on really intense training days, you’re going to need to take your carb intake up a notch.
Fruits. Fruits are packed with nutrients and fiber, so although they are a simple carbohydrate, they are slower to digest and have many benefits for your body.
White Rice. Yes, I known this is another controversial thing to recommend, but it’s true. White rice is one of the best ways to restore your glycogen storages and it won’t mess with your body like brown rice will. Brown Rice is similar to other cereal grains in that it contains phytic acid, which causes problems for your digestion and nutrient absorption.
Root Vegetables. This includes yams, sweet potatoes and potatoes, and I am so glad they are good to eat. Yams (commonly mistaken for sweet potatoes) are my personal go-to when I need to get my carbs for the day. Poke holes in it with a fork, toss it in the microwave for 5 minutes, flip it, another 5, drizzle olive oil on it, sprinkle with cinnamon, and enjoy. You’re welcome for that tip, your life just got better.
If you didn’t notice, the carbohydrate recommendations are in line with the Japanese Village-style Diet, a culture that has a history of low obesity, diabetes and most diseases that plague our Western culture. As a soccer player, you need carbohydrates, just make sure you’re getting the correct ones. To dive deeper into carbohydrates, read my article dedicated to them here.
I am excited to discuss fats. They have been hated on for such a long time, and the mainstream media is just coming around to discerning the real benefits and issues when it comes to fats. Fortunately, nutritionists and fitness experts have been preaching the necessity of having fats in your diet for a while. The key is what types of fats you are getting and where you are getting them from. If you’re eating good fats, you’ll notice a difference, in your muscle growth, energy, fat loss (yes, good fats help with fat loss) and your testosterone levels.
Fats are necessary for your body to function at its optimal potential. Your brain needs fats to function, along with fats being a necessary precursor to hormones that control essential functions, such as blood pressure, inflammation and blood clotting.
Let’s start with the bad fats that you shouldn’t be eating. These fats are the ones that clog arteries, mess with your hormones and overall stunt your potential:
Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. These are saturated fats that have been chemically altered to fit specific needs of the food industry, such as having a high melting point, smooth texture and being reusable as a deep-frying oil. These are in most processed foods, which you can tell by looking at their labels.
Trans-fatty acids. This type of fat comes from taking polyunsaturated fat and heat processing it. Trans fats allow processed foods to have a longer shelf life, which is gross once you think about it. Creating a fat that chemically alters the natural decay of food cannot be good for your body. Trans fats are one of the biggest contributing factors to heart disease in America, and the FDA is currently looking into making them illegal in the United States. Lets hope they go through with it.
Omega-6 cooking oils. These also come from polyunsaturated fats, but are chemically altered in a different way to create cooking oils. These oils you have to be careful with, because they cause us to consume extreme amounts of Omega-6 fats, which have been shown to promote cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Basically, you want to avoid fats that come from processed foods. As humans, we’ve spent 2.5 million years digesting natural fats, not Oreos.
Now the good fats:
Monounsaturated fats. These most commonly come from high fat fruits, such as avocados, along with nuts, such as pistachios, almonds and walnuts. Olive oil is another common place to get your monounsaturated fat from. They have been shown to lower bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol and may even help with fat loss.
Polyunsaturated Fat. This category of fat is made up of by omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Although I bashed on Omega-6 in cooking oils a second ago, they are healthy fats when consumed in a 1:1 ratio with omega-3 fats. You can find these fats in naturally good ratios through salmon, fish oil, sunflower oil and seeds. Having a good dose of omega-3 fats in your diet is so important that I recommend taking cod liver oil supplement daily.
Saturated fat. This is just one more controversial thing I’m adding to the list. Conventional wisdom has unfortunately taught most people that saturated fats are the devil and should be avoided at all costs. This would mean avoiding animal fats and topical oils, e.g. coconut oil. There have been hunter-gatherer tribes that have consumed 50-70% of their calories from saturated fats without health problems. People who live in Tokelau, a territory in New Zealand eat a diet that is half saturated fats and yet have the best cardiovascular health in the WORLD. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, has acknowledged that saturated fats are not the cause of the obesity crisis or heart disease after a year review of research. Luckily, more and more studies are starting to come to show that saturated fats are not the problem. So eat saturated fats, its one of the best energy sources for your body, it’s one of the most satiating foods, meaning it will keep you full longer, and it’s the best food to boost testosterone.
When it comes to fats, it’s all about asking if conventional wisdom is correct. Look at human history. We have been omnivores since the beginning of our species. We have been hunting and eating meat for over a million years and have thrived as a species. Our ancestors didn’t have the obesity rates we did, or they would have struggled to make it this far. The best to balance your fat intake is to split your fat consumption into 3rds. 1/3 from saturated, 1/3 from monounsaturated fat and 1/3 from polyunsaturated fat, making sure to keep at least a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. To learn more about fats, which ones to eat and how to get them into your diet, read my article dedicated to them, here.
The Soccer Player Diet Plan
There you have it. The nutrition basics for a soccer player. Now we just need to finish off with a general take away that you can put into action with your next meal to get you a solid foundation for becoming an elite player.
Eat 22-24 calories times your bodyweight in pounds.
Eat 1 to 1.5 grams of protein times your bodyweight in pounds from good sources such as:
Animal meat (do not be afraid of red meat)
Eat Carbohydrates depending on your activity level. If you are burning through your glycogen levels through explosive movements like sprinting and lifting, then you need carbs to replenish them. I recommend getting your carb intake at dinner after your day of hard work. The more research comes out, the less it seems that there is a special window right after working out that you need to get carbohydrates. To restore your glycogen levels, you have about 24 hours. So just get your carbohydrates at dinner with rice, potatoes or yams. Eat slower digesting carbs, such as vegetables, whenever you would like. As a soccer player, who is lifting, doing conditioning and practicing, you should be more concerned with not getting enough carbohydrates then eating too many. Make sure to choose the right carbohydrates, your body will thank you for it.
Eat fat, and lots of it. Try to keep it split 1/3 from saturated, 1/3 from monounsaturated fat and 1/3 from polyunsaturated fat, making sure to keep at least a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. Get your fats from:
Fish oil (I recommend taking Cod Liver Oil daily)
Eat as much organic foods as possible. I know it’s more expensive, but it is something you should strive for. Your body will thank you for it.
To round it all off, lets look at an example of what a 175 lb soccer player should be eating on an intense workout day.
175lbs x 23 = 4,025 calories per day.
175lbs x 1.5 = 262.5 grams of protein
To replenish glycogen storages = about 500 grams of carbohydrates
Fill the rest of your calorie needs with healthy fats.
1/3 from saturated fats
1/3 from monosaturated fats
1/3 from polyunsaturated fats
That is the basics of nutrition for a college soccer player. Eating this way will keep your energy high, help with muscle gain, recovery and allow you to reach your potential as a soccer player. Diet is imperative, and this information is enough to get you to a solid foundation.
If you want to optimize just one part of your diet, it’s probably best to focus on pre-game meals. See our entire post on that here.
Thanks for reading. Until next time,
Head Trainer at Optimal Soccer