With increasing physical demands placed on players at the top levels of the game, professional football clubs are putting greater emphasis on strategies, which aid player performance, health and recovery.
One such area that the top professional clubs recognise is the importance of nutrition and the provision of specialised nutrition support.
Considering the risks to player performance, health and club finances of poor nutrition and poor nutrition advice, it’s important that clubs are protected by using recognised and suitably qualified nutritionists. The Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr) is a voluntary professional register for sports nutritionists that accredits suitably qualified and experienced dietitians and nutritionists to work with performance athletes.
On a day-to-day basis, the nutritionist at a professional football club will carry out a number of duties:
A fundamental role of the nutritionist at a professional football club is to provide an education service, equipping the professional player with the knowledge and skills required to make better informed decisions about the type, amount and timing of foods and drinks they consume.
The players need to be able to make decisions about their diet independent of the crutch of the club – they may spend about six hours at the training ground most days, but a lot of their meals each week are consumed at home.
The information the club nutritionist delivers to the squad can be communicated through both group and one-to-one formats:
Group education sessions provide an effective platform for communicating broad messages and strategies to the wider squad and staff.
For example, discussing hydration strategies for training or post-game recovery nutrition.
One-to-One Nutrition Support
One-to-one support offers a personalised approach to nutrition education. This method allows for the delivery of customised information to the individual player.
When the diversity of player requirements, backgrounds and cultures is considered, there is significant need to personalise information to maximise performance.
For example, midfielders cover the most ground and have the greatest number of high intensity events during a game and therefore their carbohydrate intake should be tailored to reflect this. This could result in a change to the three to four meals leading up to kick-off or an amendment to their half-time nutrition strategy.
Another common scenario would find the nutritionist working with new signings who may come from a very different food, cultural and performance background and need personalised support to adjust to their new club.
Most top clubs will provide breakfast, lunch and snacks to the players on training days.
The nutritionist will work with the catering team to devise squad and player specific menus to align with the physical demands of training and the proximity of the next game.
Squad catering is a tricky balance between providing the nutrients that the players need whilst catering for the variety of tastes and preferences within a squad.
Shaping the Player Environment
Manipulating the surroundings of the player (dressing rooms, café/food service areas, team rooms etc.) to positively influence food and drink selection is a valuable tool for a nutritionist.
Our environment shapes our behaviour and prompts such as posters and display screens allow for the communication of key nutrition-related messages at critical times.
This could mean colour coding the food in the team canteen according to its nutritional profile then using posters to indicate when certain colours should be promoted over others.
Player monitoring is commonplace in modern football, typically the nutritionist will be involved in the monitoring of:
• Food and Fluid Intake – Players may be asked to keep food diaries, or meals at the training ground could be monitored to allow the nutritionist to provide specific advice on areas for improvement.
• Body weight – A player’s weight will be monitored most days at the club’s training ground. Each player will perform at their best within a relatively narrow weight range. The nutritionist can use this data to help manipulate the player’s diet and keep them in an optimal zone.
• Body composition – Regularly measured throughout the season, this allows the nutritionist to better understand the impact of training and tailor the player’s intake to optimise their muscle mass and body fat.
• Blood – A player’s blood profile is important to help identify deficiencies which could be corrected in their diet. For example, iron, which is found in red meat, can contribute to premature fatigue if the players iron stores are sub optimal.
• Urine – The concentration and volume of urine is a convenient way to assess hydration status. Some clubs will assess this on a daily basis in order to advise on fluid intake to prevent poor performance in training and matches due to dehydration.
• Training and match load – The nutritionist will work closely with the sports science team to understand the workload of a player throughout the week in order to better prescribe fuel and recovery nutrition strategies. This will involve monitoring heart rate, GPS, wellness and exertion data.
With an increasing number of sports nutrition supplements available with widely varying claims, it is common to find confusion over which products are most suitable for a player and whether a particular product is safe from both a health and anti-doping perspective.
This is where the club nutritionist plays a key role, providing education and advice on how to balance the role of supplements and foods.
Great care is taken over the selection of nutritional supplements in order to ensure performance efficacy, but also to minimise doping risk.
An SENr nutritionist will understand the importance of batch-tested supplements (such as those registered with Informed-Sport) to protect the player against inadvertent consumption of a banned substance.
Furthermore, their decision making around the use of supplements is carefully guided by the SENr Supplement Position Statement.
Poor match-day nutrition can result in premature fatigue, which is evident through decreased running speed, decreased distance covered and impaired skill execution.
Therefore, players should emphasise the need for a well-considered and rehearsed eating plan on match-day.
The hours leading up to the match are a critical period for fuelling and to ensure adequate hydration status.
The pre-match meal in most cases will be served three to four hours prior to kick-off. Carbohydrate is the primary energy for high-intensity exercise and therefore the pre-match meal focuses on providing carbohydrate-dense options such as rice, pasta and breads.
The fibre content of the meal is generally kept low to prevent any stomach upset and the protein content is typically from lean sources such as chicken and white fish.
On arrival into the changing room, the nutritionist may have prepared personalised drinks and various nutrition products for the players to consume in the final hour before kick-off. These may include stimulants such as caffeine or additional energy sources such as carbohydrate-dense energy gels.
The half-time period is a key opportunity for players to replace lost fluids and take on additional carbohydrate.
The outcome of a game is often decided in the last 15 minutes when players are fatigued and errors become more frequent.
Therefore, utilising nutrition strategies which extend running time, preserve sprint-speeds and maintain skill performance levels provides a significant advantage over fatigued competitors.
During the half-time period, the club nutritionist will oversee fuelling and hydration strategies and ensure that these strategies are adhered to.
Fixture congestion and European travel can significantly reduce recovery time between games so optimising player recovery is crucial to ensure squad consistency and success over the course of a season.
The key nutritional components of recovery to consider are:
• Replace carbohydrate reserves – A game is highly demanding on a players carbohydrate stores and these should be replenished quickly to support immune function and prepare the player for the upcoming training week.
• Repair of damaged muscle tissue – Providing a source of protein quickly after the game and regularly thereafter for the next 48 hours will help repair damaged tissue.
• Rehydration – Replacing the fluids lost from sweat is important to support immune function and delivery of nutrients to the damaged muscles.
Quite often a player can have a reduced appetite for a few hours after a game, this is where the nutritionist becomes creative in finding solutions to ensure nutrition needs are met without increasing the player’s discomfort.
For example, working with kitchen staff to develop meal replacement drinks or creating healthy alternatives to junk food snacks which are more appealing yet have a superior nutritional content.
With the wide range of performance and health benefits that customised nutrition can provide to professional footballers, it is no surprise that many clubs and players are enlisting specialist nutrition support. This article has highlighted work typical of that carried out at professional football clubs by performance nutritionists accredited through the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr).
“Correct sport nutrition can help the professional football player to 1) maximise their body composition, 2) enhance game day performance, 3) recover from games and 4) keep well throughout the season. There has been a growing appreciation of the importance of sport nutrition in these 4 key performance factors hence the increasing number of sport nutritionists working in professional football. It is important that teams get their advice form accredited practitioners and looking for those on the SENr register helps to identify such people,” Professor Graeme Close, Nutritionist to Everton FC.