Oct 4, 2017
On the Run
Randy Bird

Soccer is a sport where proper nutrition greatly affects performance. During a game, the average player will cover five to seven miles and needs to be energized for both endurance and repeated energy bursts. Games last 90 minutes with few opportunities to refuel. And players sometimes compete in two games over a three-day period, further emphasizing their nutritional needs.

The key fueling source for a high intensity, maximal-outburst activity such as soccer is carbohydrates. More precisely, carbohydrates should represent at least 55 percent of calories eaten. Consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrate maintains training intensity and promotes rapid recovery.

However, many soccer athletes simply don’t consume enough carbohydrates, which can lead to early fatigue and decreased performance. Studies have shown that the diets of soccer players are not much different from the general public. And when athletes are balancing sport with study and social activities, they sometimes say they just don’t have time to eat enough high-quality carbs.

The sample diet below is for a female soccer player who is also involved in many extracurricular activities. “I really don’t have time to stop and think about what I’m eating,” she says. “I need to grab something on the run.”

For her, we started with a little education. We explained that carbohydrate-containing foods should be eaten at each meal and also before, during, and after exercise.

  • At meals, carbohydrates should take up about two-thirds of the plate.
  • Pre-game carbohydrates should be consumed to help delay fatigue.
  • Sports drinks should be consumed during competition to help the body maintain energy late in the contest.
  • Carbohydrates should also be eaten within the first 30 minutes after games and practices to improve muscle glycogen storage, which will ensure adequate energy for the next practice or competition.

While focusing on carbohydrates, soccer players still need to consume adequate protein and fat. Protein has a role in muscle growth and repair and in boosting the immune system. The main sources should be low-fat dairy, chicken, fish, and lean cuts of beef and pork.

Fat has a bad reputation for increasing weight and disease risks, but eating too little may impair performance. Fat is the primary energy source for low- and moderate-intensity exercise. A diet high in animal fats is not the goal. Athletes should strive to include healthy fats from nuts, seeds, and fatty fish such as salmon every day.

Hydration is another important goal for our busy soccer athlete. Here are the tips we provide for proper hydration:

Pre-hydrate: Drink 16 to 20 ounces of water two to three hours before practice or competition. Drink eight ounces of water or sports drink 10 to 20 minutes before practice or competition.

Hydrate: Drink sports drinks during practice or competition, and don’t wait until you’re thirsty.

Re-hydrate: Drink 20 to 24 ounces of water or sports drink for every pound of weight lost.

Athletes’ bodies function best when fueled throughout the day, so we advised this athlete to eat a meal or snack every two to four hours. We also told her that a little pre-planning can help her reach these nutritional goals, without taking up much time at all:

  • Bowls of cereal are quick and nutritious.
  • Fruits such as bananas take no preparation time and are easy to pack. Grapes and apples are another good suggestion as all they need are a quick rinse in the sink.
  • Taking five minutes in the morning to pack some snacks and lunch for later in the day is key. Investing in an insulated lunch pack and a small freezer bag ensures that foods needing refrigeration can also be included.
  • A nutritious dinner can also be prepared quickly. Boiling some spaghetti, heating up prepared sauce and a chicken breast, and adding a prepackaged salad to the plate is quick, easy, and healthy.



    1 1/2 cups raisin bran

    8 ounces skim milk or soy milk

    1/2 cup grapes

    Morning Snack:

    1 chewy granola bar

    1 medium banana

    1/4 cup dry roasted peanuts


    2 slices whole wheat bread

    2 Tbsp. peanut butter

    1 Tbsp. jelly

    1 medium apple

    8 ounces sports drink

    Pre-Practice Snack:

    1 1/2 ounces pretzels

    Post-Practice Recovery Snack:

    20 ounces sports drink

    1 piece light string cheese


    2 cups spaghetti noodles

    1/2 cup marinara sauce

    3 ounce chicken breast

    2 cups salad

    2 Tbsp. Italian dressing

    8 ounces skim milk or soy milk

    Late Night Snack:

    3/4 cup frosted mini wheats

    8 ounces skim milk or soy milk

    1 medium banana

Randy Bird, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, is Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Virginia.

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