Fuel for the work

Nutritional support for football players

The aim of physical training is to elicit positive adaptations leading to an improved performance. To control this process, we invest considerable time and resources in training load monitoring. The content of training sessions is carefully planned and the risk of under- or overloading is avoided by targeted interventions such as top-up exercises or additional rest. In a previous blog post, we highlighted that off-field stressors should also be considered when interpreting the load-recovery balance. This post originated from the idea that there is a mismatch between staff efforts towards certain topics and their impact on the training process. For example, a lot of attention is given to the micro-management of external load (e.g., high-speed running distance) but, in our view, there is considerably less attention for other basic training aspects such as dealing with psychosocial stressors. And what about the nutritional habits of players? Appropriate nutrition is required to optimise training adaptations. But do clubs invest sufficient resources to develop nutrition interventions?

A recent study of Daniel Carney and colleagues (Liverpool John Moores University) aimed to answer this question. Carney used a survey to audit the nutrition services provided by 89 English elite academies. A summary of some interesting findings:

  • The prevalence of nutritional support increases with the level of the academy but is in general under-resourced. Only 64% of the high-level academies (i.e., Category 1 Elite Player Performance Plan) has a full-time nutritionist employed.
  • Nutritional support is often provided by non-accredited staff members such as sports-science staff.
  • There is less nutritional support for younger players (U12-U16 teams) compared to older players (U18 to U23 teams). However, players may actually require more support between the ages of 10-16 years to deal with growth-related issues. We feel that there is a tendency in football to invest most resources in the support of older players (e.g., full-time coaches) but, again, is there no mismatch? Optimising the training process (with respect to youth players’ mental and physical health) may be especially important at younger ages where we develop basic abilities and adopt a general lifestyle, and where players adapt faster to training.
  • Interventions for younger players mainly focus on group and parent education. Older players also receive one-to-one support. Educational practices focus both on basic nutritional knowledge and performance-related fueling before and after exercise.

This study provides a clear description of current practices in English elite youth academies. The study does, however, not provide insight into the quality and effectiveness of the practices. Based on the reported results, we feel that clubs are willing to pay attention to nutrition services but we also think that they could take a step further by employing accredited nutritionists to guarantee professional and qualitative support. We highlight that players’ welfare should always receive priority when conducting these practices. Nutritional interventions for young players should not primarily focus on performance-related nutrition. It should mainly focus on the development of general healthy eating habits, which are more difficult to develop or change at a later stage.

So, would you like to improve your training practices? Maybe the main priority should not be detailing analyses about external load, but rather we should focus on linking external load analyses to appropriate nutritional interventions before and after the training session. Focus on the basics first.

Please find here some interesting guidelines for adult football players developed by Liam Anderson and colleagues.

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