When it comes to what we eat and how we eat it, there are obviously a few differences between football’s biggest stars like Ronaldo and Neymar, and the rest of us.
Elite football stars have dieticians on hand to ensure every calorie they consume contributes to their continued excellence on the pitch — and they have top chefs prepare those meals on their behalf.
While we can’t help you find a chef with that second problem, we do have some tips to get you past the first. How you play on the pitch is heavily influenced by what you cook in the kitchen, so we’ve prepared this guide on how to make some truly premier post-game grub to have you ready to go the full 90 minutes all over again.
Throughout the week
Just like you might attend football training sessions to get your body used to performing in a certain physical capacity, you can also train your body to adapt to the kind of foods that are going to make a big difference on match day. Otherwise, you may not be properly prepared to make use of all those nutrients you’ll be consuming when you need them the most.
In your weekly meal plan, you’ll want to strike the balance between three key areas: energy, immunity and focus.
Energy — Running around a football field for a full 90 minutes is exhausting. To keep your body fueled with the energy you need to keep you going after the halftime whistle, you need to eat plenty of starchy foods like potatoes, pasta and rice. Go for wholegrain when you can; these foods release energy more slowly so you have a more steady supply.
Immunity — Some players might miss a game due to an injury or strain, but how many times do they sit out because of a bad cold? They don't, because they work hard to keep their immune systems on top form. Eat plenty of foods high in vitamin A — orange foods like sweet potato, carrots and apricots are packed full of it. Vitamin C, found in oranges, peppers and spinach, is also important to help keep your immune system strong.
Focus — Keeping your eye on the ball isn’t easy if your attention span is wafer-thin. Luckily you can boost it with the right foods. Fish oils found in salmon and cod are a big help because they contain the fatty acids that your brain needs. You should also get plenty of good fats from foods like nuts and seeds, which you can eat on their own as a snack or quickly throw into a salad.
The day leading up to a match, especially one with spectators, can be a little nerve-racking. Don’t let those butterflies stop you from filling your stomach, though: you’ll need that fuel to ensure you get off to a good start.
Poached eggs on wholemeal toast make for a great pre-match breakfast. If you’re a terrible cook, why not try porridge with blueberries instead? Either way, you’ll get a nice balance of protein and slow-burning carbs to keep your muscles strong and your energy levels up throughout the day.
You’ll want to keep lunch fairly light so that you don’t feel bloated when you step onto the pitch. Try a wild rice salad with some orange, chicken and wild rocket. It’ll fill you up without making you feel weighed down, and is packed with plenty of vitamins to boost that immune system.
Most importantly drink plenty of water throughout the day. Studies show that just a 2% drop in your hydration levels can have a notable effect on your performance. Healthline advises you drink at least 2 litres of water each day to stay properly hydrated, which means drinking even when you’re not thirsty.
45 minutes down (plus injury time) and you’ve probably broken quite a sweat.
The most important thing you need to do at this point is to replenish those lost fluids. Put the sports drink down: traditional sports drinks are full of sugar, which means you’ll crash ten minutes into the next half.
Instead, try preparing your own isotonic drink by throwing some sliced cucumber and lime into a bottle of water. The lime provides you with natural sugars for some additional energy and the electrolytes in the cucumber help replenish the minerals you’ve lost through sweat.
Feeling peckish? Argentinian defender Marcos Rojo has been known to eat a banana before going back onto the pitch for a much-need potassium boost.
Things to avoid eating mid-match? Pies (Wayne Shaw) and, erm, other players (Luis Suarez).
You might be surprised to know that footballers don’t force down huge quantities of protein and energy bars after a match. Instead, they tuck into some freshly prepared sushi, according to head nutritionist for the England team, James Collins. Sushi is a great post-game meal because it’s high in amino acids, complex carbohydrates and protein, and it’s delicious!
If you can’t eat fish (or you just don’t like sushi), Nancy Rodriguez — professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Connecticut — advises eating beef jerky. “Enjoying sources of high-quality protein, like beef jerky, soon after exercise can enhance training, maximize muscle health and get you ready for your next workout,” she said in her 2015 paper on the subject. “Beef jerky is a high-quality protein snack that provides your body with essential amino acids needed to build, maintain and repair muscle.”
Vegetarians can get a similar dose of nutrients from a portion of nuts like Zlatan Ibrahimovic did once while playing against Paris Saint-Germain. We prepared some other ideas for protein-rich snacks here.
It’s best to eat these protein-rich snacks within an hour or so after the final whistle to help your muscles start repairing right away. After that, eat a small, high-carb meal about every 3 hours: your body will be searching for energy to make the repairs it needs to, so eating at regular intervals is the best way of keeping it adequately supplied.
Hungry for more? Check out our guide on how to make a nutrient-rich salad.