The average elite footballer covers 10-13km in a 90-minute match. Much of this distance is covered at a walk or jog, although approximately 700m–1,500m is a full sprint, depending on the player’s position.
This results in glycogen depletion, which causes impaired performance towards the end of a match. When examining the physical loads of elite match play, central and wide midfielders often cover the most distance on the pitch; as teams aim to use the width of the pitch to create space.
While central defenders typically cover less distance, they usually have the highest accelerations and decelerations.
Carbohydrate is the main source of energy for maintaining sprint performance in football. Because of this, the diet of an elite player in-season consists of 50-60% carbohydrate, as this is the primary source of energy.
In the off-season (or even days off) players may reduce carbohydrate intake, because they don’t need as much ‘fuel’. Carbohydrate is stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen. The higher the intensity of football sessions, the greater amount of glycogen is used for fuel.
During football, these stores last for around 60-90 minutes, meaning that you must take on extra carbohydrate the day before a game to load before a match and at half time, so that your energy levels last until the final whistle. If glycogen stores are used up, you won’t be able to sprint as far or as fast, you’ll lose your skill execution, and have impaired decision-making.
We’ve looked into the diet of top footballers; and spoken to Louise Sutton, Head of Sport and Exercise Nutrition at the Carnegie School of Sports, Leeds Beckett University, and registered Sport and Exercise Nutritionist Ted Munson, who have shared their top nutrition tips for footballers.
Football sprint performance uses carbohydrate as the main energy source. The day before a game, it’s recommended to load, meaning that a player will start a game with full carbohydrate stores. Aim to take on 8-12g of carbohydrate per kilo of your body mass. Foods like rice, pasta, potatoes, cereals and breads are all good options.
During intense games and training sessions, sweat levels increase, leading to a loss of electrolytes. As little as a 2-3% reduction in body weight due to sweat loss can cause dehydration, which can make exercise feel more intense. It’s important to work out your sweating rate during training sessions by weighing yourself before and after, and ensure you drink enough fluids, so you don’t lose more than 2% of your body mass.
Football performance causes both microtears in your muscles, and depletion in glycogen. Proper recovery practices allow athletes to ‘go again’. When thinking about recovery, it’s easy to think you should grab a protein shake, but recovery requires more than this. After tough exercise, you should take on protein, carbohydrate, micronutrients and fluids to aid hydration.
Half time is an important period for refuelling and rehydrating, but it’s often overlooked, with players just sipping on a sports drink or water. For optimal performance, during this period, you should take on over 40g of carbohydrate through drinks, gels, and food.
It’s recommended that players ‘fuel for the work required’ in a training week. As a footballer, you may benefit from increasing carbohydrate intake the day before, the day of and in recovery from match play. However, on training days and days off, you should reduce your intake.