Food Week: Pregame and in-game eating strategies

Training meals aren’t what they used to be. Athletes at the ancient Olympic Games ate oxen and deer and drank wine. Competitors at the 1936 Berlin Olympics reportedly prepped for competition by eating up to three steaks, plus eggs and “meat-juice.”

Today, that type of protein-heavy diet is as outdated as competing in the buff. (Yes, they did that in ancient times.) And the old idea of “carbo-loading” is just as antiquated, at least for non-endurance athletes. The modern soccer player’s high-performance diet is balanced, combining measured ratios of complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

 

Sample Pregame Menu
(Kickoff: 8 pm ET)

Breakfast:
8:30-9 am

  • 1 cup oatmeal
  • 1 cup low-fat milk
  • 2 tbsp raisins
  • 1 large banana
  • 8 oz. juice or fruit nectar

Snack: 

  • 1 granola bar (low fat, low sugar)

Lunch:
noon

  • tuna-salad, ¾ cup (3 oz.) – light mayonnaise
  • whole grain bread, 2 slices
  • lettuce, tomato, pickles as desired
  • 3 slices avocado
  • 1 cup low-fat potato salad
  • baby carrots, 1 cup
  • fresh fruit

Snack:  

  • ½ cup cottage cheese
  • ½ cup fruit salad
  • 1½ ounces pretzels

Pregame:
4-4:30 pm

 

  • Baked salmon 5 oz.
  • 1½ cup cooked brown rice
  • 1 cup asparagus
  • tossed salad 
  • salad dressing, 2 tbsp (4 tbsp if low-fat)
  • low-fat milk (or lactaid or soy), 1 cup

Courtesy Alice Richer, RD

On average, a professional soccer player burns about 1,600 calories in a 90-minute match. That is more than 60 percent of the total recommended daily calorie intake for an adult male of average height and weight. In order to maintain their weight and also provide their body with the necessary energy, players generally eat between 3,000 and 4,000 calories a day.

“What you look at is: How depleting is the event?” says Dave Tenney, the Seattle Sounders’ head fitness coach. “How hard on the muscles is that event? What do you need to do to regenerate tissues and carbohydrate levels? That’s what determines the players’ intake.”

The typical MLS team’s pregame meal, generally eaten three-and-a-half to four hours before kickoff, is probably not all that surprising. It consists of a balanced mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats: salad, vegetables like zucchini, sweet potatoes, and asparagus, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, roast chicken, salmon and fruits like apples, oranges and bananas. And, of course, plenty of liquids, mainly water and Gatorade.

“A pregame meal loads muscles with [energy] and stores carbohydrates in the gastrointestinal tract for absorption and release during exercise,” explains Alice Richer, a registered dietician and team nutritionist for the New England Revolution.

The speed at which carbohydrates — i.e., energy — are burned in the body often determines whether there is still something in the player’s tank in, say, the 90th minute of a match.

“In soccer, you need everything: speed, endurance, power,” says Tony Jouaux, strength and conditioning coach for the Chicago Fire. “So if you’re going to play the whole game, you need carbs, the main energy source. Then you need proteins because it repairs your muscles after the game. You need good fats to help reduce inflammation. And then you need vitamins, because some vitamins, like B vitamin, help to create energy.”

With all the emphasis on energy levels, there is an interesting — and potentially detrimental — phenomenon in soccer. Players don't like to take on "fuel" mid-competition. 

Homecooking with Montreal's Zarek Valentin

“We don’t have a culture of fueling during the game,” Tenney says. "But there’s no way these guys have enough [energy] in them to last a whole game and keep powering through their sprints without supplementing at any given time.”

Amazing to think, no matter how far we've come from oxen and meat juice, there are still cultural norms that seem to defy science. Tenney has had some success getting Sounders players to consume quick-energy products, such as Gatorade Chews, at halftime, but he admits it's a struggle. His best argument in favor of it is to point to endurance athletes, like marathoners and triathletes, who frequently eat mid-competition. Ultimately, he hopes logic will win.

"It works," Tenney says simply.