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Fuelling During Tournament Football

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

As the world’s best countries kick off the 22nd FIFA World Cup, we thought it may be informative to dig into how the best players should fuel for such a tournament, and how you can apply this to your own situation.


Introduction

Despite the fact that it’s winter, and that the host country allegedly bribed their way to this opportunity—while continually committing human rights abuses—the latest edition of the world’s most watched sporting event is back. With tournament football, there are some specific nutritional considerations to be aware of to ensure optimal performance on game day. We will bring you through some of them here, using the World Cup structure as a guide.


Most Important Consideration

As we have written about before, carbohydrates are king when it comes to performance. This is because they are the best fuel for moderate- to high-intensity exercise performance, evidenced by the fact that when footballers eat a high-carbohydrate diet, they run further and faster compared to when they eat a low-carbohydrate diet.


This is the most important dietary choice for these World Cup players to consider, but there are some other nutritional considerations that may impact performance during the tournament. In this article, we will bring you through a typical nutrition plan for tournament football that would be similar to what the pros are actually eating during this World Cup.


Tournament Match Schedule

The match schedule for the 22nd FIFA World Cup involves a match every third day, totalling 3 matches in 7 days for the group stage, with the potential for more thereafter. We will focus our attention on this 3-match schedule, however the nutritional principles and recommendations given will apply for those teams who go on to the knockout stage.


Tournament match schedule.

Figure 1. World Cup Group Stage Match Schedule


Nutritional Recommendations

Carbohydrates

Because professional football involves a lot of moderate- to high-intensity exercise, it’s crucial to be fully stocked up with fuel (carbohydrates/glycogen) before playing. World Cup footballers will need between 6–10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight per day (g/kg/d) during this period (1). We will choose 8 g/kg/d as the target in our example.


Protein

Because of the intensity of such a schedule, World Cup footballers need to ensure they eat enough protein for optimal recovery. Evidence-based recommendations for athletes suggest between 1.2–2.0 g/kg/d (1)—we will select 1.6 g/kg/d as the target in our example.


Fat

Once the correct amount of carbohydrates and protein are eaten, the rest of the diet can consist of fat. For football performance, fat is not as important a fuel as carbohydrates, that’s why we emphasise carbohydrates more.


Micronutrients

It is important to eat a balanced diet, i.e., a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and lean protein sources, to ensure micronutrient sufficiency. But, because this is a short time period where performance is of utmost importance, we are less worried about the micronutrient content of the diet and the priority is on total energy (calorie) intake, then carbohydrate intake, and then protein intake.


Supplements

There are some supplements that may be worthwhile to gain an extra edge in the competition. The main one being caffeine, however professional footballers may also consider nitrates (found in beetroot juice). Other supplemental foods such as sports drinks and gels are also big parts of the sports nutrition toolkit.


Sports Nutrition Pyramid.

Figure 2. The Sports Nutrition Pyramid gives a graphical depiction of the relative importance of different nutritional constituents for performance. The importance is ranked from the bottom-up. Bottom panel = total energy (calorie) intake. Second bottom panel = macronutrient (carbohydrates, protein, fat) intake. Middle panel = micronutrient (vitamins, minerals) intake. Second top panel = the timing of eating (e.g., carbohydrates before a match). Top panel = sports supplements.


Putting Recommendations Into Practice

The 2–3 Days Leading Up to Matchday

World Cup footballers will carb-load before their matches, that is, they will consume a high-carbohydrate diet. This is to ensure that their muscles are fully stocked with fuel (glycogen) that will power them for 90 minutes on the pitch. The recommendation we selected (above) is 8 g/kg/d of carbohydrate intake, which for an 80 kg footballer would equal 640 g/d.


Pre-Match Meal

If it’s a morning match, eating about 2 g/kg of carbohydrates about 2 hours before the game is a good idea. This could be a bowl of oats or cereal with your choice of milk, alongside fruit and orange juice. If eating earlier (3–4 hours before), consume more of these foods, and potentially eat something small again 1–2 hours before the match (e.g., toast with jam).


Pros taking nitrates (beetroot shots) will consume a dose of 210–560 milligrams (mg) about 2–3 hours before kickoff. These can be bought from Beet It Sport, at a dose of 400 mg.


1 hour Before Match

Caffeine should be taken about 45–60 minutes before a match. Recommendations are 3–6 mg/kg, so for our 80 kg pro, this is 240–480 mg, which can be found in about 2 strong coffees, or via caffeine pills or gum.


5–10 Minutes Before Match

Pros will generally take a swig of an energy drink like Lucozade Sport (or water) before a match to have a final top up of carbohydrates and/or fluids.


Half-Time

This is an opportunity to top up glycogen stores again—to finish the match strong—and pros will drink more sports drink, or have a sports gel, or eat some fruit with water.


Post-Match Nutrition

Within 20–30 minutes, pros will eat carbohydrate-rich foods to replenish lost glycogen stores and recover as fast as possible. Within two hours, pros will eat a mixed (balanced) meal containing at least 1.2 g/kg of carbohydrates and 20–30 g of protein. This could be a pasta/rice dinner with veggies, lean meat and/or plant-based protein such as lentils/tofu, for example.


Rinse and Repeat!

As soon as one match is finished, the focus is on recovering and fuelling for the next match, so this cycle is repeated again and again in a tournament format.


Tournament Nutrition Cycle.

Figure 3. Tournament Nutrition Cycle


Summary

Sports nutrition is not fancy, but it facilitates optimal performance on match day—which is what counts. If you (like the pros) nail this routine for match day, you’re putting yourself in the position to succeed. If you want some more details on this type of stuff, including the science behind these recommendations, visit our first three articles to learn more.


If you would like to improve as a footballer with supplemental training, reach out to us at [email protected] to book in.


That’s all for this week! Check in next week for more nutrition-related content.


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121


Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.


References

(1) Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3):501–28. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2016/03000/Nutrition_and_Athletic_Performance.25.aspx


Technical Terms

Glycogen: The stored version of carbohydrates, or glucose. When we eat carbohydrates, most is stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver.


Caffeine: A substance found in coffee, tea, and cocoa that is a central nervous system stimulant, meaning that it improves attention and cognitive performance, and also improves a range of exercise performance outcomes. You can read our article on caffeine here.


Nitrates: The compound in beetroot and certain green leafy vegetables (e.g., lettuce, rocket, spinach) that is eventually converted to nitric oxide, which is responsible for certain performance and health improvements. You can read our article on beetroot juice and nitrates here.

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