We’re coming up to the finals of the World Cup now, with less than a week to go until the 2014 Champions get to lift their trophy aloft. But the real subject on everyone’s lips this year has been the food – not just in the case of players who had to perform while fasting for Ramadan, but also in ensuring that all participants receive the right sustenance for the job.
Eating for Fitness
According to FIFA, a typical ninety minute match expends around 1800 calories – that’s nearly the recommended daily intake for someone with a sedentary lifestyle. This means that the players need to be concerned with what they eat all of the time they are in season, even more so when travelling is part of the job. At the level of World Cup matches, football players will run around 10-13km per match on average, which means the game is practically an endurance sport.
Football players haven’t always been the best at eating sensibly. England striker Peter Beardsley famously used to drive his managers mad by constantly eating sweets, although this bad habit was tempered by his abstinence from alcohol and cigarettes. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the English team were forbidden from eating ketchup thanks to its high salt and sugar content – although it’s thought now that salt is useful in very hot weather conditions, and that tomato sauce can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of prostate cancer. But what should they be eating instead?
Most of a professional footballer’s nutrition comes from carbohydrates, which release energy slowly into the blood stream over a long period of time – around 70% is about ideal, and it’s not uncommon for a player on match day to consume up to 3000 calories. A meal which is high in carbohydrates should be eaten around three hours before the match to allow it to settle in time to play, and some low-fat protein and vegetables should accompany it. Pasta with boiled fish and vegetables is the perfect kind of meal ahead of a big game, and during this World Cup the Australian team asked specifically for fish and chicken cooked in a healthy way.
For breakfast on a match day, most players will consume eggs as they’re full of B vitamins which produce energy within the body – they can also be prepared in a number of ways that avoid unnecessary oils and fats, and as French football manager Arsene Wenger once said, “Food is like kerosene. If you put the wrong one in your car, it’s not as quick as it should be.” Our team obviously felt that they need some extra pep in the mornings however, as they requested that they each have their own coffee machine, complete with newspapers from around the world. After a match it’s equally important to get a fix of carbohydrates and protein, usually speaking within an hour of stopping, as without at least a small snack muscle problems may flare up the next time they try to play. Many teams eat small healthy snacks such as tuna pasta salad on the way home from their matches, while others go for chocolate milk which has many important nutrients as well as replenishing calories.
Hydration is also incredibly important, especially for the men at this year’s World Cup in Brazil! It’s thought that they’re drinking around six litres of water each day to stay hydrated in the heat of summer Brazil, and enjoy the additional benefit of water’s ability to reduce the pains of hunger. The best drinks for players to have throughout matches are sports drinks which have a mix of carbohydrate and electrolyte solutions, and these are often consumed during half-time along with some vitamin-rich orange slices. The need for hydration is intensified by the journey many must take from around the world, as flying has proven to be dehydrating and losing just 2% of their bodyweight from dehydration can drastically reduce performance. As a general rule, for every hour of flight an extra 15-20ml of fruit juice or water should be added to the usual amount.
Remember that unless you are a professional football player, you shouldn’t be consuming anywhere near this amount of calories, protein and carbohydrates! While the numbers might change, the principles stay the same; low-fat, high-carb food a few hours before a match, and plenty of fluids. And afterwards, enjoy a chocolate milkshake instead of a post-match pint!