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The science of football: The match day meal

Optimising performance through good nutritional strategies - by Scott Robinson

Introduction

A footballers’ goal during performance is to perform their best. A number of factors can influence this, including issues related to nutrition. The pre-match meal is one of the most important meals a footballer can consume and the nutritional make-up of this meal can heavily influence energy levels and subsequently, performance itself. With that in mind, food and drinks consumed in the hours prior to performance play an important role in fine-tuning competition preparation.

Goals of the pre-event meal:
• Top up muscle glycogen stores
• Restore liver glycogen content (this is particularly important if competition occurs in the morning time where liver stores are low/largely depleted following an overnight fast)
• Safeguard hydration
• Leave the stomach feeling settled and comfortable (prevent an upset belly!)
• Include foods and methods which are relevant to the athlete’s psychology or superstitions (to give the athlete peace of mind!)

The meal itself should be:
• High in carbohydrate content (200-300 grams)
• Low in fat content
• Low or moderate in protein content
• Low in fibre content
• Enjoyable and familiar (no experimenting with Curries!)
• Not too bulky or filling
• Consumed alongside ~500 ml of water

Key point! Fat and protein take longer to leave the stomach than carbohydrate and thus the energy from these are less-readily available.

Timing:
Consume the meal 2-4 hours before competition. This will ensure that the food has left the stomach and energy from the meal is available for competition. If consumed in the hour prior to the match, there may still be undigested food in the stomach and intestine when the match begins (leaving the feeling of a heavy stomach!)

Statistics…
Figure 1. A comparison of total distance covered during an elite level football match when carbohydrate intake was manipulated prior to performance (% refers to percentage composition of pre-exercise feeding)

It’s all about making wise food choices…

Good Choice – Oatabix, porridge, muesli, eggs, chicken, poached/grilled fish, tuna, wholegrain toast, wholegrain bagel, wholegrain rice, lentil soup, macaroni, mushrooms, tomatoes, baked beans, spaghetti, cottage cheese, low-fat spread, fresh fruit, fresh apple or cranberry juice, cordial, water, skimmed milk.

Moderate Choice - Weetabix, bran flakes, crunchy nut clusters, pitta bread, new potatoes, jacket potato, couscous, basmati rice, rye bread, noodles, fresh orange juice, semi-skimmed milk.

Poor choice - Sugary cereals, burgers, chips, sausages, pies, pastries, fried food, pizza, white bread, white rice, baguettes, croissants, rice cakes, jam, marmalade, butter, fizzy drinks, energy drinks, alcohol.

Hydration tip – Begin your hydration strategy approximately 4 hours before competition taking small sips of water/cordial juice at regular intervals i.e. every 10-15 minutes. This will allow sufficient time to assess your urine output – ideally you want your urine to be a pale yellow (this means you are hydrated). If your urine is a darker yellow colour this means you are dehydrated and you will need to drink some more.

Summary

It is important for players to be conscious of the nutritive value of the food they consume prior to a match. To allow for optimal preparation, focus should be placed on ingesting high amounts of carbohydrate and ensuring these are consumed in adequate time prior to exercise performance. A sufficient hydration strategy is also crucial to aiding in performance optimisation.

Scott Robinson is a First Class Honours Sport Science graduate from the only five star rated Sports Science Research Institute in the UK; Liverpool John Moores University. He has acquired a wide range of experience in both playing and coaching sport with a career high of representing Stoke City at youth level and coaching football at the International Youth Games.
Scott has previously been responsible for leading five sports scientists on placement with Blackburn Rovers' nutrition department. He has completed sports science work for FIFA, where he travelled across Europe performing a multitude of sports science tests, and has also worked as a physical education teaching assistant at a high school in Cheshire.
Scott is currently undertaking a Masters of Science in Sports Physiology, also at LJMU, specialising in sports nutrition where his research focuses on assessing and enhancing the nutritional knowledge of elite level footballers.



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