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FA Cup final 2015: 10 things you didn’t know about footballers’ diets

James Collins, head nutritionist at FA Cup finalists Arsenal and lead nutritionist for England at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, shines a light on the unique challenges of feeding professional footballers.

Football fans and amateur players are always fascinated to know what professional footballers gobble before and after games. We want to discover the magical ingredients and elixirs that help separate elite athletes from mere mortals. But in the frenzied arena of professional football – in which players face a relentless treadmill of matches, daily training sessions and seemingly endless domestic and international travel – the biggest challenge for the elite nutritionists working within the industry isn’t just what players consume, but the basic logistics of how, where and when athletes eat.

Faced with so many practical obstacles, football nutritionists know that good education, intense preparation, effective routines and easy-to-follow formulae are all just as important as the actual ingredients on players’ plates.

James Collins is a leading sport and exercise nutritionist who helps to solve exactly these kinds of problems for elite players – so all they have to worry about is scoring goals. Having previously worked with the English Institute of Sport and Team GB, Collins is now head nutritionist for Arsenal and worked as lead nutritionist for the England football team at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Collins also works with personal clients at the Centre for Health and Human Performance in London’s Harley Street.

1. Footballers learn to experiment with food

“Before we even think about specific fuelling and recovery strategies, the primary focus when working with footballers is to make sure players experiment with their diet. We do blood tests to check their micronutrient levels and we find that players who have bland diets with less variety often have deficiencies in micronutrients which can affect performance.

“Simply making sure players eat different kinds of foods is one of our basic philosophies. That’s why clubs rarely give out composite dishes – everything in football is served buffet-style, so players can build their plate according to their needs. We normally have a variety of 4-5 carbs, 4-5 proteins, and a mix vegetable sources to ensure good menu rotation.”

2. Daily diets are adapted to match physical demands

“The portions of the different food groups change depending on the needs of the particular day. At its most basic level, what we call ‘match day minus one’ – the day before a game – will be about fuelling with more carbs, while ‘match day plus one’ – the recovery day – involves more protein and healthy fats for recovery.

“We might have information on computer screens or other educational signage around the ground to emphasise: ‘Today is a fuelling day: here are the key changes to make to your diet.’”

3. Good routines are key

“Players are in the same environment at the training ground each day so it’s important that the environment is shaped in the right way. For example, we look at how the food is laid out and the flow of the restaurant. Everything is signposted. At Arsenal we have many different nationalities so getting the message across in a concise way is a real consideration.

“In a training ground restaurant there might be a three-step guide. For example, on a recovery day foods will be labelled for their specific function, such as ‘refuel’, ‘repair’ and ‘protect’ and the counters are laid out in that way to ensure the flow is right and players take a selection of each.”

4. Food is about the mind as well as the body

“At the World Cup with England we deliberately wanted to change the routine and have different meals in different environments. During an intense event like the World Cup, a change from the routine can be beneficial because we want players to enjoy each others’ company. It might be something as simple as taking them out of the training ground to a normal restaurant environment but it helps them to relax and get a break.”

5. Education is the most important tool

“Sports nutritionists fundamentally coach players too. It’s about influencing the culture in a high-performance environment. Sports nutritionists used to give a player a one-page document and say: ‘go and follow that.’ But that doesn’t change behaviour. To make changes you need ongoing contact – just like a psychologist would – so we have regular one-to-one discussions with players.

“We don’t want to tell them what to do. We want to educate them and up-skill them so they make the decisions themselves.”

6. Nutrition has to change with the times

“Football is classed as an intermittent sport so when you’re working with the athletes you have to look at nutrition from a strength and power perspective as well as from an endurance or aerobic perspective.

“The data from the top clubs around the world over the last five seasons shows that there has been a huge rise in high-speed runs, so the game is more explosive. That has an impact on nutrition. It creates stresses on the body, affects fuelling strategies, and causes the under-recovery of muscles.

“We have to keep players fit to play up to 50 games a year and the nutrition has to mirror the physical demands that are being faced.”

7. Everything a player eats is monitored

“Players’ diets are monitored really well today. It used to be that only sports like cycling were measurable but now everything a player does can be monitored using GPS units in training and a range of body composition and blood tests. We monitor each individual’s body fat and muscle mass throughout the season to ensure it is optimal.

“It’s not just about making sure players don’t put on weight. Sometimes with all the games that are played, the athletes can become too lean, and that can affect muscle growth and repair and increase the risk of injury.”

8. Nutritional plans are altered for different kick-off times

“One of our biggest challenges is the range of kick-off times in modern football. The more recent 12.45 kick-offs take a lot of practice to prepare for, then you also have 3pm, 4pm, 7.45pm and 8pm, so we have to shift the meal plans and adapt accordingly.

“Players want to know what they are doing is tried and tested so we rehearse the plans in training to prepare for match day.”

9. Travel is one of a footballer’s biggest challenges

“Football players travel a lot with clubs and international teams so they need to be able to make good decisions. How footballers manage travel and fatigue and this level of detail can be helpful for businessmen who travel a lot too. It’s about managing what you eat and when, preparing in advance, and timing your meals correctly.

“We will often take a chef with us so the players always eat at the right times but simply preparing healthy food to take and choosing the right foods when you’re away is equally helpful for anybody who travels a lot.”

10. Players must look after themselves

“The evening is often when players have to take care of their own meals at home. Some players do educational work with the chef to learn how to prepare different dishes – discovering how to use healthy fats like olive oil, understanding basic food hygiene and cooking timings, following simple healthy routines like trimming visible fats, using new ingredients, and working with herbs and spices for flavour. Others find that their wives will cook for them and others get meals sent to them.

“We encourage them all to enjoy their food and to experiment while spending time with their families. Nutrition is so important for their performance and we want them to have fun with it.”

The Telegraph, FA Cup final 2015: 10 things you didn’t know about footballers’ diets [Mark Bailey | 30 May 2015]