Nutrition for Football Players

Nutrition remains a very important part of sports in general and American football in particular. Athletes, especially football players, task their bodies to achieve a good amount during a game. The body, like a race car, needs the correct type of fuel to maximize its effectiveness in competition. Football is a very physically demanding sport that requires a combination of speed, agility, and endurance. Regardless of your age as a player, whether you are a 1st-year college freshman or a seasoned National Football League Pro, good nutrition should always be a priority.

There are four basic reasons why nutrition is important for football players:

  • It is a source of much-needed energy
  • It is necessary for building lean muscle mass
  • It helps a player achieve ideal body composition
  • It’s vital for staying healthy and reducing injuries

Hydration needs

Hydration is very important for football players regardless of local weather or time of year the season begins. Fluids should always be available for consumption during practices and games.

Players should aim for 8-16 oz. of fluid per hour with an ideal frequency of every 15-20 minutes or so. For those players who sweat heavily, they need to consider the need for additional electrolytes most frequently consumed in the form of a sports drink.

To always stay well hydrated, players need to develop the habit of taking fluids with all meals and snacks. It is a good idea to carry a water bottle with you throughout the day and drink 200-600 ml (8-16 oz) of fluid (especially water) just before the start of practice or games.

Players should also make use of any break periods during training or games to hydrate. Water remains the fluid of choice but other recommended sports drinks can also be taken. Such drinks are especially required when training or playing in the summer heat or during intense or long sessions, as they contain carbohydrate to help replace energy stores and electrolytes needed for mineral loss.

For every athlete, the foods consumed before, during and after competition and training can affect performance and how quickly their body can recover afterward. Players can follow specific guidelines to help them throughout the competition.

Pre-game diet requirements and examples

Eating before a game is usually recommended as it keeps the players from feeling hungry during the game as well as provide much-needed energy. Consuming a pre-game meal also helps in replenishing liver and muscle glycogen.

It is recommended that the pre-exercise meal be high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fiber, and come in a form that is readily digested. Therefore, carbohydrates should compose most of the pre-exercise meal; 1 g carbohydrate/kg body mass is appropriate 1 hour prior to the start of the game, whereas 3-4 g carbohydrate/kg body mass can be taken 3-4 hours before the game begins. Liquid carbohydrates are preferred as they are easily digested.

Conversely, foods with high-fat content should be discouraged as they take longer to digest, compared to foods with high carbohydrate content.

The right diet during the game and examples

The very nature of American football, as an intermittent sport that can be riveted with long breaks between offensive and defensive plays, makes it important to take advantage of such periods to provide the right fueling. Because environmental conditions such as temperature, altitude, and humidity can change from game to game and in between seasons, players’ needs change accordingly. That includes their nutritional requirements.

These conditions, as well as whether a player consumed a pre-game meal at a particular time, can affect carbohydrate consumption during a game. And so for higher-intensity performance with shorter durations, a carbohydrate gel pack (GU Energy Original Sports Nutrition Energy Gel) can improve performance, potentially by stimulating centers in the brain related to fatigue, stamina, and motor control. Taking quick carbs while playing, like those contained in sports drinks will help boost stamina during the game.

Whether a player benefits more from a carbohydrate drink or water depends on a variety of factors, especially the duration of the exercise, body composition, temperature, sweat loss rates and more. Consuming a carbohydrate-containing beverage during exercise may be necessary for players who:

  • Engage in intense training or training at a moderate intensity for a prolonged period
  • Take part in two-a-day practices or events
  • Train in the heat, cold or altitude
  • Have not consumed a pre-game meal

Post-game diet requirements and examples

The fact that football players usually have more time before the next game means better recovery. Generally, NFL football games take place once a week on Thursday, Sunday or Monday nights, while college football games are played on Saturdays. Since players have a week before their next competition and a full day off before resuming practice, an immediate post-game recovery diet is not as essential as in other sports. However, since most football teams train 4-5 days per week, it is still important for players to pay close attention to nutrition recovery after practices.

Rehydration is the most important factor in post-play recovery. Because of the physical nature of the game, even in the coldest climates, football players can significantly sweat during a game or practice session. While playing, along with fluids, players lose essential minerals in their sweat – such as potassium and sodium. Fruit juice, sports drinks, and mineral tablets like Hydralyte can help replenish the fluids and electrolytes they have lost during an intense practice session or a game.

Eating carbohydrate-rich snacks such as granola bars, whole-grain crackers, or whole-grain pretzels right after practice or competition is also a good way to replace lost energy. This should be followed with a protein-rich meal to help retain muscle mass and repair injuries.

The Gatorade Sports Science Institute has published a very comprehensive and useful nutrition guide for football players titled: Fueling a Football Team.

Football nutrition best practices

It has become vital for football players to adhere to best practices when it comes to nutrition. As an athlete, what you eat matters, as well as when you eat it. Knowing what and when to eat makes the difference between proper and poor nutrition.

Players who want to achieve long-term success must adhere to nutrition best practices in maintaining the right muscle to body mass ratios as well as help in reducing injuries caused by lack of proper nutrition.

Following these six muscle-building nutrition tips between practices and games, both before and during the regular season, will result in enhanced recovery and proper nutrition habits.

Consume Calories Early with a Big Breakfast

It is important for players to start the day with a hearty breakfast of muscle-building protein, mixed with nutrient-dense and energizing carbohydrates as well as adequate healthy fat. Breakfast should be taken at least 2 hours before practice or a game. High-calorie breakfasts can include the following:

  • Eggs and toast
  • Banana
  • Slices of whole grain toast with peanut butter
  • Whole milk
  • Breakfast Smoothie

Take Starchy Carbs for Energy and Calories

Consuming complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, yams, brown rice, whole grain toast, cereals, or whole wheat pasta not only supplies energy for practices and matches, but also provide additional calories to help maintain weight.

Keep Your Body Well Hydrated

During practice or play in hot and humid conditions, the body loses a good amount of water and electrolytes. Since muscles are primarily composed of water, staying hydrated is extremely important to in maintaining performance and stamina. It is good practice to drink water before, during and after training and games. Eating plenty of water-rich fruits and vegetables help in staying well hydrated while providing needed macro and micronutrients.

Eat High-Calorie Protein and Carb Snacks

Shortly after practice or a game, taking a protein-rich snack of nuts and some high-carbs dried fruits like raisins, dried apricots, dried cherries, or prunes help in repairing and rebuilding your muscles.

Take Protein with Every Meal for Muscle Repair and Growth

Protein-rich foods like poultry, meat, beans, eggs, seafood, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, nuts, and seeds help build, maintain and repair muscle during the on and off-season.

Consume Healthy High-Calorie Fats

Although fats are not considered an athlete’s friend, some healthy fats supply energy and help in muscle repair and recovery during the course of a long season. Example of healthy fats include olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and seafood.

Example diets from football celebrities

A player’s performance on the field is usually the result of different factors such as getting things right in the gym, developing the right mental approach to the game and so on. But as has already been indicated above, taking your diet and nutrition seriously is just as important. This will enable your body to get the nutrients it requires to maintain strength, muscle, and athletic ability, resulting in success on the field.

One player who has not only realized the importance of diet but has utilized it to enhance his output on the field is New York Giants offensive lineman Justin Pugh. Pugh didn’t always focus on his nutrition early in his career, but once he found out about his slight gluten intolerance, he changed his dieting and the results have made a huge difference. He once stated:

“I have to make sure that I’m as strong and explosive as I can be coming into training camp.

“I did not have a strong grasp on my diet coming into the league. I have learned a lot about it and it is huge for me to eat whole, clean foods while limiting the amount of gluten in my diet,” he said.

Pugh has revealed that he supplements his workouts with the proper diet: “I think that I am much more aware of what goes into my body and how it affects me,” Pugh said. “This is my body and this is my career—I have to take what goes into it very seriously.”

He starts his day with a nutritious, balanced breakfast. Pugh downs a shake filled with fruit, vitamins, spinach, and protein every day.

Usually, Pugh mixes it up with a wide range of options during the day: “For breakfast, I go with a smoothie packed with fruit, chia seeds, oats, wheat, and protein and sometimes I’ll have eggs on the side if I’m really hungry. I take a multivitamin and Vitamin C every day, a fish oil pill, and also use MusclePharm and a protein powder. Lunch is usually a salad with some protein or a wrap with protein, then for dinner, it’s chicken or steak with vegetables and potatoes.” Pugh has stated that he also likes healthy snacks like trail mix, Kind bars, and fresh pressed juice which he takes as appropriate in-between meals.

Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., C.D.N., C.P.T., is the CEO and the founder of The NY Nutrition Group. “Starting your day off with a healthy, balanced breakfast is crucial for optimal recovery and getting the results you are looking for while training,” says Moskovitz. “Skipping breakfast and starting your day on an empty stomach can wreak havoc on energy levels, blood sugar, and even your bodies ability to sufficiently burn calories throughout the day.”