Andre Biernath – @andre_biernath BBC News Brazil in London
It would be wrong to think that great players have a life without restrictions: at least as far as food is concerned, they must follow well-controlled diets to withstand the rhythm of training and competition.
In recent decades, advances in science have allowed us to understand how the lack or excess of nutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and mineral salts – directly affects their performance on the ground.
When an athlete has low carbohydrate stores, for example, he may not have the energy to finish that last run and hit a decisive goal.
If he consumes high-fat foods a few hours before the competition, digestion becomes difficult and prevents active and vigorous movements.
Carbohydrates: the currency of exchange
It’s the key nutrient for good performance on the pitch: Carbohydrates found in bread, pasta, sweets and fruit are the energy our bodies use to move.
Exercise physiologist Bruno Gualano, professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of São Paulo (USP), explains that football is “a sport marked by intermittent tasks”.
In other words, we are talking here about an exercise that replaces the most intense moments – such as running to the goal line or jumping to play the ball – with other calm ones – in which the team members stand still, waiting for the opponent. “This type of activity usually requires a lot of carbohydrates, which are stored in two places: the muscles and the liver,” he explains. Nutrients are stored as glycogen. So when the body needs fuel, these reserves are quickly activated. “Glycogen creates ATP, a kind of currency of the organism, which converts chemical energy into mechanical energy and allows muscle contraction”, says Gualano. In short, when we eat a plate of pasta, for example, the carbohydrates in it are broken down and absorbed by the intestines. They are then stored in the muscles and liver – and used to produce the energy needed to move the body during physical activity.
But of course, football players cannot eat any kind of carbohydrates: the recommendation is that they should mainly consume fast-absorbing sources such as sweet potatoes, rice, pasta.
In some cases, health professionals recommend the use of specific supplements.
“It’s important to replenish glycogen stores immediately after sports and training,” Gualano points out.
“The faster these new blocks of carbohydrates are absorbed from the gut, the easier it is to recover from exercise-related losses.”
Although it is not easy to accurately measure these glycogen stores, experts know that athletes with low levels of this substance can show early fatigue during competition.
“Thus, they tire quickly, which is terrible for soccer, where you have to maintain high performance for 90 minutes or overtime,” the USP professor points out.
“And a lack of carbohydrates can even interfere with cognitive abilities, which are important for making decisions throughout sports.”
Proteins: The building blocks of the body
If carbohydrates are the fuel, proteins provide the structure the body needs to function properly.
“They are the guarantors of the process of building or rebuilding muscle mass,” Gualano teaches.
“If protein replacement is inadequate, there is a risk of muscle atrophy or muscle loss, which is not good for the athlete who depends on this structure to perform strength activities,” he adds.
The main sources of this nutrient are eggs, milk, dairy products, meat and grains – such as beans and soy.
“Today, it is entirely possible for a player to be a vegetarian and guarantee a good protein intake to ensure a high level of activity,” guarantees the physiologist.
Unlike carbohydrates, where nutrient deficiencies are common, protein intake is generally adequate among Brazilian athletes, Gualano notes.
“But one thing we’ve discovered recently is that protein intake needs to be evenly distributed throughout the day,” Gualano says.
“It makes no sense to eat too much of this nutrient at breakfast and ignore it at dinner.”
In practice, players are advised to consume around 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal.
Fats: Good or Bad?
Contrary to popular belief, fats are fundamental to good health when consumed in the right proportions.
“Fats are often blamed for being overweight, but this nutrient plays an important role, especially in the synthesis of fat, which is essential for building muscle fibers,” Gualano explains.
The physiologist points out that the problem starts when the athlete consumes more than he spends in training and games.
“We have stories of very talented players who always struggle to keep the weight off,” he recalls.
In general, experts recommend that such people do not eat very fatty foods a few hours before competitions.
This is because it usually takes a while to digest these molecules, and during this process we tend to fall asleep and feel tired (remember how you feel after that plate of feijoada).
Micronutrients: The details that make a difference
Vitamin and mineral deficiency is another determining factor in this sector.
In fact, many of these substances – such as sodium, calcium and potassium – ensure muscle function and the formation of firm and strong bones.
“Athletes undergo periodic evaluations to detect these deficiencies. If the health care professional detects low levels, they may recommend changes and additions to the diet,” describes Gualano.
According to the expert, the supplements industry has also grown a lot in recent years.
“In many cases there is no need to supplement with vitamins and minerals, but today there are options that improve specific aspects of athletic performance,” he says.
He cites as examples creatine, which directly supplies the body with this ATP molecule, and caffeine, which stimulates the central nervous system and increases focus. There are also products that relieve fatigue and the feeling of “heavy” muscles.
Let’s be clear: the use of these products is not indicated for everyone and it is fundamental to be accompanied by an expert in this matter to get the benefits without putting your health at risk.
Water: One sip as much as possible
To close the list, Gualano draws attention to the role of hydration in athletic performance.
“Some players even lose two to three kilos during the game. This is mainly due to glycogen burning and water loss.”
“One scene we’re seeing often at this World Cup is players taking advantage of any technical downtime to take a few sips from those little bottles,” he notes.
It should be noted that the tournament is taking place in Qatar, a very hot country with low air humidity, despite temperature control inside the stadiums.
All these conditions facilitate fluid loss from the body through sweating.
“Dehydration is more common in longer sports than football, such as marathons,” Gualano said.
“However, when games are played in very hostile conditions, extra caution should be exercised.”
“And feeling dry mouth or difficulty producing saliva are already signs of dehydration,” he concludes.
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