Top 3 nutritional mistakes by youth football players

Blog post by Adam Lloyd,

You’ve made it into a professional football academy. Congratulations, you’re going to receive the highest level of football coaching available at your age in this country.

However, what are you doing about the things that affect your performance away from football? Often lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep and enjoying time away from football can be the difference between realising your potential or not making it.

As Smith et al said about youth athletes: “Proper nutrition is a fundamental component of athletes’ training and performance plan. Proper nutrition ensures that an individual is amassing the fuels necessary for the energy production needs related to activity and recovery (1).” This statement demonstrates the importance of nutrition for youth footballers. But I think that the responsibility for young footballers goes beyond this. It’s not solely a performance issue. Adolescence is a period of intense physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. The high rates of growth, bone health, sexual maturation and psychosocial development at this time all need to be supported. Nutrition plays a fundamental role in all of these areas. What, therefore, are the three most important nutritional aspects for youth footballers to be aware of?

Under-fuelling

There are two aspects to under-fuelling for youth footballers. One is a health issue and the other is a performance issue. Let’s take the performance aspect first. This could be considered in a fairly straight forward way; lack of energy means running out of energy towards the end of a game or training. This has been proven by research, showing that a lack of available energy results in slower muscle activation and lower top speeds (2).

Other studies have also demonstrated that low energy availability has been found to have a direct impact on sports performance, but not only in the obvious way outlined above (3). Low energy availability can affect: bone health, making an athlete more susceptible to long-term injuries; it has an impact on neuromuscular functioning, leading to poorer decision making; and continued low blood sugar availability can result in reduced muscle mass (3).

In my practice, when food diaries have been reviewed, the trend is that players are not meeting the energy requirements that research suggests they need. Another problem is that if these athletes are under-fuelled, they also don’t consume the required amounts of micronutrients because of a low consumption of vegetables and a lack of variety in their diets. Research has also demonstrated that adolescent athletes will tend to use supplement products such as protein powders and energy drinks at the expense of nutrient-dense real food (4). Reliance on such products has the potential to result in a combination of low energy and low nutrient status in youth football players.

Interesting, in recent research by Hannon et al, who assessed resting metabolic rate, it was noted that the energy requirements of youth footballers may actually be higher than previously thought (5). The same author went on to give some practical considerations for youth footballers’ nutritional requirements (6). Some of the challenges faced by this group are that they get hungry when they are not in a position to have a meal. For example, travelling back home after training and stopping at service stations to buy food, an undesirable practice that can become habit. As Hannon suggested, planning out the food for the week can be essential to avoid such emergency refuelling stops.

Making protein a priority, but ignoring carbohydrates

I often hear young athletes say to me that they have protein prior to training or a game “to give them energy”. This is not surprising based on the way marketing teams choose to advertise their products. Often protein and energy are used together on the packaging. When we look more closely at the macronutrients, though, we see that carbohydrates are a more appropriate macronutrient for energy. Understanding this could be vital for young footballers.

Although we must acknowledge that sports nutrition should always be tailored to the individual because everyone is different, there remains clear evidence that carbohydrates are required to fuel football performance. Consistently, the evidence shows that a player’s carbohydrate stores are depleted during a football match and that as these stores deplete, fatigue can occur, meaning that agility, dribbling performance and shooting accuracy are also compromised. Therefore, if carbohydrates are consumed at the right time and in the right amounts, performance increases (7). Carbohydrate is also important for recovery – adequate intake after exercise helps to replenish energy levels and prepares the athlete to go again (8).

But there’s more to carbohydrates than just energy provision, and more types than just bread, potatoes and rice. Carbohydrates can give a young footballer colour on their plates - examples are carrots, sweet potato, red and black rice, berries and other types of fruit. That colour provides prebiotic fibre, helping to keep the player’s microbiome stay healthy, which is now being linked to improved performance outcomes (9). The colourful vegetables also provide vital micronutrients that support bioenergetic processes. Therefore, healthy food sources of carbohydrates, although sometimes receiving bad press in the media, social or otherwise, are vital for the performance of football players.

‘Unsmart’ snacking habits

Snacking can be a very effective way to add nutritious calories to a young footballer’s routine. Unfortunately, a snack is often a packaged, convenience food, high in saturated fat and sugar, or a poor-quality shake out of a tub that doesn’t provide vital micronutrients and phytonutrients, and is likely filled with ingredients that the liver needs to detoxify – an energetically costly process.

It’s important to point out that sugar, in the context of a carbohydrate needed for human metabolism, is not the demon that many would like to make out. However, as much as possible, we should be choosing nature-made sugars from natural sources such as fruit, starchy vegetables, unrefined grains and sweet treats like raw honey, and avoiding man-made refined snacks. What’s more, sugar should be eaten at the right times or eaten strategically to have a positive effect and to reduce any possible negatives. Eating high-sugar snacks on an empty stomach could be a poor way to get the best out of them, leading to sugar spikes and ultimately, energy drops later down the line. High-protein natural snacks can also be a great way to recover from exercise, giving the young footballer a more wholesome alternative to protein powder.

Another consideration is that pre-packaged snack products often have calorie information all over their packaging. “This snack contains 110 kcals per portion” is a familiar claim but the problem is that we have no idea what “a portion” is. Even if we decide to look closer at the nutritional information on the packet, we’ll find that a portion is given in grams. So 25g equals a portion, and a portion equals 110 kcals. But what does that mean in practice? Is it a large handful or is it half the pack? And who decides that amount is a portion anyway because with sugary foods, once we’ve eaten some, it’s often very difficult to stop with a handful!

If we eat high-fat, sugary snack foods, we’re wasting an opportunity to nourish our bodies, our brain, our liver and our muscles. I’m not saying that we should never eat these foods – for most people that would be unrealistic – but they are not good options pre- or post-training, or in helping us achieve sporting goals.

A good rule of thumb is to make snacks as varied and as colourful as possible to fuel health and performance. Here are some examples:

  • Mixed berry and Greek yoghurt smoothie
  • Cottage cheese on oatcakes with beetroot
  • Homemade flapjacks
  • Veg sticks and hummus
  • Avocado and goat’s cheese on rice cakes
  • Mixed nuts and seeds, cacao nibs and dried fruit
  • Homemade protein balls

In short, a young football player’s nutritional priorities should be adequate levels of fuelling, appropriate amounts of good-quality carbohydrate, and smart protein-packed snacks. This will support their health that will feed performance on the field, enabling them to sustain energy, ensure muscle repair and strong bone development, and meet all the demands of a growing body. These three components will help the youth footballer reach their potential.

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References

  • Smith JW, Holmes ME & McAllister MJ (2017). Erratum to “Nutritional Considerations for Performance in Young Athletes.” J Sports Med. 2017:1–1.
  • Ziegenfuss TN et al (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 14(1):1–21.
  • Logue DM et al (2020). Low Energy Availability in Athletes 2020: on Sports Performance. Nutrients. 12(835):1–19.
  • Bergeron MF et al (2015). International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. Br J Sports Med. 49(13):843–51.
  • Hannon MP et al (2020). Cross-sectional comparison of body composition and resting metabolic rate in Premier League academy soccer players: Implications for growth and maturation. J Sports Sci. 38(11–12):1326–34.
  • Hannon MP, Close GL & Morton JP (2020). Energy and Macronutrient Considerations for Young Athletes. Strength Cond J. Publish Ah(June).
  • Currell K, Conway S & Jeukendrup AE (2009). Carbohydrate ingestion improves performance of a new reliable test of soccer performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 19(1):34–46.
  • Krustrup P et al (2011). Maximal voluntary contraction force, SR function and glycogen resynthesis during the Wrst 72 h after a high-level competitive soccer game. Eur J Appl Physiol. 111(12):2987–95.
  • De Oliveira EP, Burini RC & Jeukendrup A (2014). Gastrointestinal complaints during exercise: Prevalence, etiology, and nutritional recommendations. Sport Med. 44(SUPPL.1):79–85.