Nutrition is a recognized component of the culture of high performance athletics. Sports nutrition guidelines offer structure to determine the quantity and distribution of food to complement the many phases of competition (1). The dietary requirements, particularly among professional athletes, depend on factors including frequency, intensity, length and spacing of competition, and type of activity. In addition to maximizing athletic performance, meeting dietary requirements is essential to cellular repair and recovery, before, during and after competition.
Professional Major League Soccer (MLS) represents the sport’s highest level in both the United States and Canada. The league is comprised of 23 teams, 20 in the United States and 3 in Canada, and has roster sizes of about 25. The regular season runs from March to October, with each team playing 34 games, at more or less weekly intervals. The success of U.S. soccer has fostered an ancillary infrastructure including increased nutritional and consultative support. As a result, food culture, nutrition, in-sport fueling, and their associated disciplines have become important philosophical norms of high-performance soccer; first exemplified by the English Premier League and other top European leagues.
Taking advantage of sport-specific opportunities of professional soccer, such as halftime and team meals, will maximize the impact of nutrition recommendations to improve metabolic efficiency and bioavailability. General nutrition recommendations for soccer players include 6 to 10 g·kg−1 body weight per day in carbohydrates, 1.4 to 2.0 g·kg−1 body weight per day in protein, and 1.0 to 1.5 g·kg−1 body weight per day in fat, but should be adjusted on a case-by-case basis (1).
One of the distinctive strategic considerations of soccer is in-sport fueling at halftime. Halftime presents an opportunity to replenish muscle glycogen and fluids, offering a subsequent energy advantage. The structured and repetitive training schedule leading to each match day requires nutritional adaptations when meal planning. Incorporating environmental strategies that make food and snacks readily available during training and competition allows for nutritional demands to be met without interrupting the athletes' focus and routine.
In the MLS culture of high-performance sports, nutrition is the distinguishing factor that sets one team or player apart from another. While preevent and postevent fueling is now widely accepted and practiced to assist the body's preparation and recovery from a practice or match, the most recent advances relate to “in-sport” nutrition. In-sport is a term we use to define fueling during break time within sports and sport-related activities. Therefore, halftime during a soccer match provides a tactical opportunity to replenish glycogen and fluids in a sport where substitutions are minimal and intensity and duration are maximal.
A study using muscle biopsy measurements indicates that muscle glycogen reductions of as much as 42% occur throughout the course of a soccer match (2). In the absence of halftime replenishment, this depletion of muscle glycogen may result in decreased reaction time, and fatigue, potentially causing impaired concentration. Not only do these contribute to a reduction in performance but also can cause an increased risk for injury (3). Furthermore, recent evidence indicates in-sport nutrition increases high-intensity running and sprint distance, demonstrating the impact of carbohydrates consumed during sport (4). Using this innovative knowledge on both glycogen depletion and augmented demand, it has become common practice to provide athletes with a source of concentrated simple carbohydrates in conjunction with fluid and electrolytes to “top off” muscle glycogen stores, sparing liver glycogen, and avoid dehydration before the start of the second half.
The recommended amount of carbohydrate to consume during an event lasting 1 to 2.5 h, such as a soccer match, is 30 to 60 g·h−1 (5). Therefore, assuming proper preevent fueling was adequate in meeting the athlete's needs through the first 45 min of a match, this same amount can be consumed at halftime to carry him through the second 45 min. Subsequently, studies have demonstrated up to 65% higher exogenous carbohydrate oxidation rates when multiple transportable carbohydrates (glucose + fructose) were consumed compared with a single carbohydrate (glucose only) (6). This increased oxidation was matched with increased fluid delivery and oxidation efficiency, further decreasing the likelihood of gastrointestinal distress while promoting reduced fatigue and improved exercise performance (7). A 6% to 8% carbohydrate solution containing electrolytes is recommended so as to maximize absorption efficiency while maintaining gastrointestinal health. An example of this can be seen in most commercial sports drinks containing both carbohydrates and electrolytes as well as fluid in the proper ratio.
For athletes, consuming adequate energy needed to fuel optimum performance can be a struggle. In the case of carbohydrates, adequate consumption is often sacrificed in exchange for excessive protein and/or fat consumption (8). In soccer, it is vital for athletes to consume ample carbohydrates to not only fuel lengthy training and competition periods but to also meet micronutrient requirements, which play a role in muscle contraction and injury prevention and recovery. However, beyond the sheer quantity of intake lies the fueling environment. An advanced approach to creating one that benefits athletes is the concept of adapting carbohydrate sources and portion sizes on a daily basis, ensuring adequate fuel for training and recovery. The in-season schedule for all of the professional soccer leagues is fairly standard, with one or two games in a 10-d cycle. This schedule creates a semistructured template for menu plans to include a changing variety of carbohydrate choices at each meal. Offering multiple complex carbohydrate options at each meal, and in the beginning of the buffet line, will increase the likelihood that the player will select these foods (9). Additionally, providing athletes with larger serve ware allows for increased energy consumption (10).
However, even the most thorough menu may not lead to behavior adaptations for the athlete. Strategically creating a carbohydrate focused menu plan, in which daily carbohydrate options shift from slow-acting (high-fiber, whole grains) on days furthest from competition to fast-acting (refined grains and juices) as game day approaches, provides the athlete with readily available muscle glycogen (1). A few additional strategies to best adapt the sports nutrition environment include using larger plates, bowls, and serving utensils to increase portions and total calorie intake, offering fluids with calories to add energy without the additional bulk of food and placing carbohydrate-based foods in the beginning of the buffet line and less carbohydrate-dense foods at the end, decreasing the energy density as the athlete progresses through the buffet.
Soccer is an international sport, thus acquiring players on any given team from a multitude of countries. With this global representation comes varying palates, which are important to recognize throughout menu development. Incorporating religious or cultural beliefs is vital in making every athlete feel at home, but also to establish a level of trust that the athletes are being fueled properly. In this highly stressful environment of professional sports, food is not only viewed as a source of nutrition, but one of comfort. If properly implemented, a menu that meets the nutrient demands of an individual, incorporates variety, and accommodates cultural and or religious preferences can often create the synergy a professional athlete needs.
Soccer is also the world's most popular sport and is growing on an unprecedented trajectory in the United States. Sports nutrition is an invaluable resource of a high-performance culture in that it supports professional athletic health, well-being, and competitive aspirations. To this end, and for social and scientific reasons, nutrition should be at the center of a professional team's plate.
The authors declare no conflict of interest and do not have any financial disclosures.
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