Soccer requires endurance, speed, agility, and strength – at any level. Proper nutrition in an athlete’s diet can make the difference between playing your best game and experiencing the dreaded “bonk.”
Without balanced nutrition, energy levels, recovery speeds, and peak performance suffer, leaving an athlete feeling weak, heavy, and completely exhausted.
Let’s take a look at why food choices make a difference, the best real foods for soccer players to eat, and what, when, and how much to eat before game-time!
Why food matters for soccer performance
Our bodies function as a result of what we put into them. The right food and proper hydration provide us with energy (the get-up and go), stable blood sugar (prolonged function), and athletic precision (neural patterns).
Eating for energy
The energy that keeps us moving comes from food, but it must be converted into ATP for our body to use it. Looking at the graph above, we see that the body can create ATP quickly, but it doesn’t last long. This process happens during an all-out sprint or lifting weights.
Repeated high-energy outputs use glycogen stored in the muscles. But again, that process doesn’t last through an entire soccer match. Stored fatty acids are fuel for longer-duration lower-intensity exercise.
Soccer requires sustained energy for 60 to 90 minutes with intermittent bursts of higher intensity. The body is thus reliant on a combination of glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrate, and fat for fuel.
The types of food a soccer player eats will impact whether glycogen stores are sufficient and whether the body can effectively access fat for energy.
Stabilizing blood sugar
Proper food choices can help keep blood sugar stable throughout a soccer game. The goal is to prevent a roller-coaster of energy highs and lows, so players compete at their best.
By avoiding sugar and highly processed foods (like in the primal diet), and seeking a balance of whole food macronutrients – dips, drops, and dragging feet (also known as “hitting the wall”) can be prevented.
Along with hydration, this recipe results in a focused and high functioning athlete.
Nutrients power athletic precision
Macronutrients — carbohydrates, protein, and fats — provide the energy and essential building blocks necessary for physical feats and mental acuity.
Not only is it important to eat a good balance of macronutrients, but we want to choose foods that are dense with micronutrients. Vitamins and minerals unlock energy, support reactions, and complete pathways to keep athletes in top condition.
Vitamins and minerals unlock energy, support reactions, and complete pathways to keep athletes in top condition.
The athlete diet is more than calories — it’s nutrients that power peak potential.
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How you play is affected not only by what you eat hours before the game, but also by your nutrition choices on the days and weeks leading up.
Best foods to eat for soccer players
Aim for nutrients to come from real foods rather than gels, bars, powders, and supplements. Eating real food is “best practice” for strong bioavailability and micronutrient attainment.
Avoiding packaged supplements also helps athletes develop healthy relationships with food. Packaged products draw us to the nutrition facts labels and can lead to obsessive behavior over food components. In comparison, whole foods elicit an innate appreciation for pure nourishment and satisfaction.
All athletes benefit from an everyday healthy diet that is made up of the following macronutrients, which bring plenty of micronutrients along for the ride.
1. Real food carbohydrates
Unprocessed carbohydrates are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and easily convertible energy. On the contrary, processed carbs have been stripped of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, leaving us with empty calories.
Sugars and refined flours are also digested quickly, resulting in blood sugar and insulin spikes, which zap energy and lead to overeating. Avoid soda, juice, and candy, as well as meals emphasizing baked goods, breakfast cereals, refined breads and pasta, and packaged snack foods before game time.
Winning plates are built from a variety of carb sources including:
- Colorful fibrous vegetables
- Root vegetables: carrots, beets, parsnips, etc.
- Yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squash
- Sourdough bread, Ezekiel bread, sprouted corn tortillas
- Oats and quinoa
2. Quality protein
Eating adequate protein allows the body to maintain and build tissues – including muscle – for strength, agility, recovery and repair. Bonus — the more muscle mass you have, the more glycogen you can store!
The most complete and available protein comes from foods such as:
- Beef, bison, lamb
- Fish and seafood
3. Healthy fats
Fats are the fuel for daily life and low-intensity, longer duration activity. Fats have the least impact on blood sugar levels, so they provide sustained energy without dips and crashes.
Both dietary fat and stored adipose tissue can be efficiently used for fuel when carbs and protein are properly managed.
Fats are important for brain health, good mood, cell structure, hormone function, satiety, temperature regulation, and more – all critical for soccer success.
We aren’t talking about donuts, cupcakes, French fries, and other junk foods, but we are talking about fats sourced from:
- Nuts and seeds
- Fatty cold-water fish
- Egg yolks
- Olive oil
Soccer and hydration go hand in hand. Starting the day with a glass of water and continuing with small sips is a great strategy for staying ahead of dehydration and poor performance.
Drinking half an ounce of water per pound of body weight is a general guideline for minimum fluid intake. An 85-pound athlete should drink at least 45 – 50 ounces of water per day.
More water is necessary for hot weather or during intense training sessions. Just being 2% dehydrated can negatively affect an athlete’s performance. Read more about general guidelines HERE.
Rather than reaching for the standard sports drinks packed with high fructose corn syrup and artificial colorings, look to choose:
- Water with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt
- Coconut water
- Diluted sports drinks for a long duration (more than three to four hours), high-intensity events, and hot and humid conditions (options without artificial coloring and sweeteners are best)
What, when, and how much to eat before game-time
I’m a believer in simplicity. A few simple guidelines will help you establish optimal pre-game nutrition:
- Eat a balanced pre-game meal: The main meal before game-time should include real food carbohydrate, quality protein, and healthy fat.
- Time it right: This meal should be enjoyed two to three hours before go-time.
- Replenish during the game: The key during competition is hydration, electrolyte replenishment, and simple real food sugars such as fruit.
- Establish a game-day routine: Avoid experimenting with pre-game food on the day of a big game — take advantage of practice days to try something new. Establishing a game-day routine can be a great thing!
WHAT to eat for your pre-game meal
The body is first going to look for the fuel that is easiest to burn. During a soccer game carbohydrates win the contest.
There may be small amounts of sugar in the blood that can be used, but when it comes to carbs we are primarily talking about using glycogen, or stored glucose to produce energy.
Trying to oversaturate the blood with sugar and simple carbs close to the start of a game may cause insulin to spike and trigger low blood sugar (followed by headaches, light-headedness, and fatigue).
Instead, the meal leading up to the event should help top off glycogen stores with at least forty percent of calories coming from real food complex carbohydrates.
As part of the pre-game meal, protein helps stabilize blood sugar, provide satiation, and deliver the building blocks needed for post-activity recovery. It also helps initiate the unlocking of fat stores for slow-burning fuel. Include an average of twenty grams of protein in your pre-game meal — about a deck of cards sized piece of meat, or three large eggs.
Most of the fat that is used for energy during soccer will be pulled from existing fat stores, but it is still a good idea to include healthy fats on your pre-game plate for satiation, nutrient absorption, and insulin and glucagon balance for blood sugar stability.
WHEN to eat before the game
With high-intensity exercise, the body shifts up to 80% of its blood supply towards muscle tissue and away from the stomach. This will dramatically slow and interrupt digestion, causing distress and discomfort if your belly is full of food.
Most athletes do best eating a higher calorie meal two to three hours before any intense activity. Time your meal around the start of the game by working backwards.
Your meal timing may look something like this:
- Eat a great dinner the night before
- Breakfast before a soccer game should be at least two hours prior. If you need to eat closer to game time, a light meal is usually tolerated one to two hours in advance.
- Breakfast will be the main pre-game meal to focus on
- A light meal may be added for an early afternoon start
- Have a good-sized balanced breakfast
- Lunch is the main pre-game meal
HOW MUCH to eat before the game
The time of day that a game takes place will help you plan how much to eat in advance.
A great place to start when building your main pre-game meal is with:
- One palm-size portion of protein
- A cupped hand of starchy carbohydrates
- One to two thumb sizes of fat
- Fill the rest of your plate with colorful veggies and fruits
Clearly defining general nutrition recommendations is nearly impossible due to individual differences including age, skill, exercise intensity and duration, stress levels, food preferences and availability, and the open systems of athletic games.
My number one recommendation is to use this information as a base to build on. With your unique circumstances in mind, find what works for you and the young athletes in your family. Take notes and adjust accordingly. If you run into challenges, seek out the advice of a qualified sports nutritionist to help direct individual needs.
Making adjustments for consecutive game fueling, light eaters, and gastric distress are common concerns.
Youth soccer players often participate in more than one game in a day. Refueling after one and before another can help refill glycogen stores and maintain energy levels.
Opt for starches such as sweet potatoes, bananas, and white rice to top off muscle fuel. Fruit can help refill liver glycogen and offer refreshing fluids.
Protein has been shown to increase the rate of muscle glucose uptake and glycogen repletion, so adding a small portion between games may be helpful.
Avoiding significant fat at this time is beneficial. Fat will slow absorption and digestion and the replenishment of glycogen stores.
With young athletes who are small eaters, avoid large quantities of fluid right before and during a meal. Liquids fill the belly and signal satiety without the calories and nutrients to match.
Some light eaters are constant grazers, but I find a balance of real food nutrients hard to obtain with this style. Encouraging time to sit down and eat an actual meal typically results in deeper nutrition and less need for snacking.
While healthy fats are necessary for a healthy athlete, meals that are high in fat can slow digestion. If eaten too close to go-time, this can leave an athlete feeling like they’re carrying the ball in their stomach rather than dribbling it with their feet. Enjoy higher fat meals away from activity.
High fiber foods can also cause distress. Cooked vegetables are easier to digest and some athletes feel better avoiding beans and legumes before sporting events.
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Perfect meals to eat before a soccer game
Here are some meal examples for how to get energy for a soccer game.
Breakfasts before a soccer game
- Scrambled eggs (protein, fat) with sweet potato (carb) and pepper hash (carb)
- Oatmeal (carb) with chopped nuts (fat), fresh fruit (carb), and chicken sausage (protein) on the side
- Apple Cinnamon Pancakes (fat, carb, some protein) with fried eggs (protein, fat)
Pre-game lunch ideas
- Deli meat roll-ups (protein) with spinach and peppers (carb), leftover roasted potatoes (carb), grapes (carb), and olives (fat)
- Almond butter (fat, protein) and banana (carb) sandwich on sourdough, or sprouted grain bread (carb). Pair with veggie sticks and hummus (carb), and jerky bites (protein)
- Leftover Korean Beef Bowls (carb, protein, fat)
Balanced dinners on game night
- Chicken (protein) stir-fry with veggies (carb), cooked in coconut oil or avocado oil (fat), over rice (carb)
- Garden Harvest Meatloaf (protein, fat) with baked sweet potato (carb), Roasted Broccoli (carb)
- Salmon Chowder (carb, protein, fat), a green salad (carb)
Light meals and snacks for between games
Nutrient-rich carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and fluids are all important for youth soccer players, and athletes of any age. Knowing when to emphasize some over others around game-time can be a game-changer.
I hope this article gave you a better understanding of what to eat before a soccer game and why food choices matter for peak performance. We took a look at the best foods for an overall healthy athlete, and how these foods help maximize nutrients, proper fuel, and stable energy.
It’s time to take the suggestions of what, when, and how much to eat on soccer game day, along with the meal ideas provided, to put together a plan that will set your young athlete up for success.