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Peak Performance: How Important is the Player’s Diet?

Posted by Dr. Jay Williams, Virginia Tech on Apr 12, 2013 in Education 0 Comments

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Dr. Jay Williams, Ph. D., is a professor of Exercise Science in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise at Virginia Tech. His research focuses on the responses and adaptations of muscle to activity, inactivity and disease. He also has a long history of working with athletes, ranging from kindergarten soccer players to Olympic tracks and field athletes.

For more information on how diet can affect soccer performance, please visit www.soccerteamdiet.com.


During the 2010 World Cup Finals, U.S. center midfielder Michael Bradley averaged almost eight miles per match.  There is no doubt that soccer players expend a tremendous amount of energy training and playing matches. The calories burned need to be replaced or the player will not have enough energy to train or compete at a high level. Does the specific diet matter or is an athlete’s diet simply a matter of replacing calories?

Fortunately, there is substantial research on the importance of a high carbohydrate diet and carbohydrates supplements for athletes in endurance activates. Whether running, cycling, or swimming, nearly all of the laboratory research studies point to carbohydrates as the key dietary component of peak performance. But what about performance on the soccer pitch?  While soccer requires endurance, it also involves sprints, starts, stops and turns that are not part of many endurance sports. Given this, does a specific type of diet affect soccer performance?  Does research advocate one type of diet over another for the soccer player? 

In the 1970s, an English professional team found that when they ate a carbohydrate supplement shortly before their matches, they scored more goals and conceded fewer than when they skipped the supplement. The effects were most pronounced near the end of the matches. During the final 15 minutes, the supplement help the team score nearly nine times the number of goals conceded. Without the supplement, the team allowed three-times the number of goals scored. A later study showed that pre-match supplements can also improve technical aspects of the game, especially late in the match.

More recently, researchers placed two teams one a steady diet containing either high carbohydrates or high fat during the days leading up to a match. After an initial match, the teams switch diets for a second competition. On both occasions, the team that ate the high-carbohydrate diet won the match, outscoring the opponent by an aggregate of 5-2. Also, the high carbohydrate diet helped the team cover 20 percent more distance and execute 35 percent more sprints.

Researchers have also found that the recovery diet, the foods and beverages consumed immediately after the match plays a critical role in preparing for the next days training or competition. By eating a high carbohydrate snack within 60 minutes of a match, followed by a high carbohydrate meal, players perform much better the next day. Players who take a different approach arrive and the next match feeling tired and lethargic and cannot match the effort put forth by their counterparts who followed a solid recovery diet.

Back to the original question: how important is the player’s diet? 

Research evidence from laboratory studies as well as studies conducted on the pitch suggest that the answer is, yes. What the player eats and drinks before and after a match or training is a critical aspect of performance. Eating a solid diet that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat can markedly improve a player’s performance. In the months of come, we will look at specific aspects of the diet that affect performance such as food choices, hydration and supplements. We will also discuss various nutritional strategies designed to improve the player’s diet as well as their game.  The overall goal is to utilize diet as a way to enhance performance on the pitch.

For more articles about nutrition, visit the Online Resource Library and see an entire category dedicated to this topic.

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