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Nutrition and Intermittent Exercise Performance

As part of our continuing effort to service and educate our membership, each Thursday the U.S. Soccer Communications Center will send out an informative article from one of its departments that will hopefully enhance your enjoyment and knowledge of the game of soccer - on and off the field.  On the second Thursday of each month, we will look into the world of the sports medicine.

This month, we examine proper nutrition and the positive effect that it can have on an athlete's performance.

Nutrition and Intermittent Exercise Performance

It has long been accepted that nutrition is vitally important in endurance sports such as cycling, swimming and distance running.  Many times, athletes do not follow as strict a diet as do marathoners, triathletes and long distance swimmers, which is far from ideal.  Nutrition plays as vital a role in soccer as it does in a marathon.

To further examine how important nutrition can be, let’s take a look at some facts:

We have known . . .

... for the better part of the 20th century that the storage form of carbohydrate (muscle glycogen) can influence exercise time.

... since the mid 1960’s that exercise can deplete glycogen and that the right make-up of the diet (2/3 of calories as carbs) can put lots more glycogen in the muscles. 

... since the early 1970’s that running volume and intensity in soccer is reduced when muscle glycogen is low.

... also from the early 70’s, that teams that drank a ‘glucose syrup’ (what we now think of as a 'sports drink') on game day scored more goals, conceded fewer goals, had more ball touches, and more scoring efforts in the 2nd half of competition. 

... since the early 80’s that the general dietary choices of soccer players were little different from the spectators in the stands. And the player’s muscle glycogen was about the same as a non-athlete. Not good. 

... since the late 80’s that drinking a 'sports drink' before and during a game would increase running volume and intensity during competition during the second half.

... since the late 80’s that the window for fastest glycogen replenishment is in the first hour after exercise.

... since the mid 90’s that when players consumed a carbohydrate-rich diet for 24 hours, they ran significantly farther on an intermittent running test than they did when they ate a ‘normal’ diet.

The data is pretty overwhelming. A high carbohydrate diet puts more fuel in the tank (more muscle glycogen), and this increased fuel is effective in improving intermittent exercise performance. More glycogen means a player can run longer and faster late in the game. If your team has done this and your  opponent hasn’t, the end result could be goals.

So make the right choices - eat high glycemic foods in the first hour after training or competition. Foods like this include Cheerios with skim milk and raisins, peanut butter and jelly/jam on bagels or sourdough bread, graham crackers and cottage cheese, Chex mix, Nutri-Grain bars and lo-fat vanilla wafers. Later meals should include moderate glycemic index foods like bananas, orange juices, corn, pita bread, oatmeal cookies, pasta. The goal is 8-10 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight in 24 hours. An acute supplement of a high carbohydrate drink can be effective in adding some alternate fuel to help save glycogen for late in the game.

Don’t complain that you feel listless if your idea of eating after a game is a bag of chips and a soda. It is important that soccer players pay attention to their diet. The players and teams that eat right are putting a better machine on the field and are better prepared to be a force late in the game when so many scoring opportunities and goals occur.

In a game such as soccer, when the deciding factor in a game can be an inch here, or a cleat there, something as vital as nutrition should not be overlooked, nor should it be ignored.  On the field, players are looking for any advantage they can find.  By eating a proper diet, players can gain advantages off the field that will translate to better on-field performance.

Questions can be directed to Hughie O'Malley, U.S. Soccer's Manager of Sports Medicine Administration.  Hughie can be reached at or at 312-528-1225.