Feeding the footballers – the role of a sports nutritionist

It’s all about education

The main role of a sport nutritionist or dietitian is to educate players and support staff on how dietary strategies can enhance performance, recovery and health. This is even more relevant in a season including a World Cup as footballers have to extend their season by an additional four to eight weeks on top of their busy club calendars.

How would Harry Kane’s diet differ from Jordan Pickford’s?

It’s not one size fits all – the physiological demands, and consequently energy requirements, of the game differ according to the player’s position on the team. 

For instance, while midfielders usually cover the longest distances (10-13 km – about a quarter of a marathon) per match, goalkeepers cover very short distances (around 1 km). 

Intensity is another key factor to consider, with forwards usually covering the longest high-speed running distances (0.6 –1 km). On average, a top class player performs about 150-250 brief intense actions during a game requiring a combination of speed, agility along with strength. 

Therefore, while forwards and midfielders may require more energy in the form of carbohydrates, goalkeepers with lower energy requirements may need less, and instead opt for more quality protein, vegetables and salads. 

Forwards and midfielders such as Harry and Kane and Jesse Lingard may require more energy in the form of carbohydrates than Jordan Pickford in goal

Player tracking technology 

Nowadays, technology is helping sport nutritionists to adjust the diet for each player. Professional football clubs utilise global positioning satellite (GPS) systems to monitor the players’ speed and distances covered during training sessions and motion camera tracking (MCT) systems in competitive matches. The further and more intensely they run, the more carbs they will need. 

Home comforts are key

Jaffa Cakes are just one of a number of items the England squad have had shipped from home to Russia

Diet is something more than meeting the nutritional requirements, as it is also a sensory experience. Nutritionists must take into account the taste of the foods especially in a World Cup involving several weeks of living in different facilities away from home.

It is common that teams ship food and drinks to their quarters during the tournament in order to make food more appealing to the common dietary pattern of footballers. 

For instance, England has shipped a load of food and ingredients to Russia including Jaffa Cakes, teabags, mustard, chocolate, tomato sauce, herbal teas, oatcakes and hundreds of baked bean tins. 

This is not only important to make the diet more player-friendly, it may also help to avoid gastrointestinal problems.

Food testing 

Any food causing a possible digestive side-effect could hamper performance so nutritionists have to check and test all the food provided to footballers. 

Usually, they work side-by-side with chefs in order to test the quality of fresh meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, milk and water supplied for example to the base near St Petersburg, so nothing can derail their campaign.

Hydration station

Another key factor for nutritionists is to ensure that footballers are well hydrated before each game. They can use different strategies to ensure that this happens. For instance by analysing urine specific gravity with a portable refractometer or reagent strips. 

They can also assess sweat rates during training at different temperatures and environments to adapt hydration more individually.

Don’t just take our word for it…

Sport nutritionists are becoming common within professional football teams as coaches are fully aware of the key role that nutrition plays to achieve the best of their teams. Arsene Wenger once said: 

“Footballers cannot afford to practice every day in the pursuit of becoming a star and then end up eating something that destroys all the good work that they put in the ‘visible part’ of their preparation.”

Pep Guardiola also shares this view and he requested a team of nutritionists when he joined Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Which was backed up when his midfielder Fabian Delph declared that changing his diet helped to kick-start his career: 

“I stopped eating red meat but still eat other meat,” he said. “I have changed my diet in terms of getting it more balanced, more healthy by eating more greens, more vegetables – and I’ve cut out sugar. It’s helped me tremendously. I kept picking up muscle injuries. I was obviously getting older. I have always trained with crazy intensity. We have got a fantastic nutritionist at the club, and he has helped me tremendously.”

Fancy a career offering nutritional advice to the stars?

Study a range of courses at Plymouth

“I look back on my time at Plymouth as a time of enjoyment and personal development. Although the course was very challenging, it enabled me to pursue a career I feel passionate about.”

– Claire Davis, BSc (Hons) Dietetics graduate