Carbohydrates are currently the most misunderstood macronutrient, now that fats are beginning to become understood a little better by the public. It is easy to see why there is such abundant carb confusion. There are so many sides to the argument that it is overwhelming: are carbs the enemy? Are we supposed to be “carbo loading?” Is this gluten-free thing a diet fad that will fade out? Fortunately for soccer players, understanding what practices, games and lifting does to our bodies along with understanding how carbohydrates function within our bodies allows for us to know how soccer players should approach carbohydrates.
Once you do, you’ll get an email from me every day for the next week walking you through what a professional soccer player’s diet should look like. The goal of Optimal Soccer is to bring nutritional information that only the pros used to get access to you so you can use it to recover faster, put on lean muscle, and overall step your game up.
Let begin at looking at what carbohydrates contribute to our bodies. Simply put, carbohydrates provide glycogen for our body. Glycogen is how our body stores glucose, which is an energy supply for our bodies. When we eat carbohydrates, they get broken down into glucose. Then our body either stores glycogen in one of two places, our muscles and liver, or it converts the glucose it into adipose tissue, also known as body fat. Glycogen stored in the muscles can only be used by the muscles, but glycogen in our liver can be transported and used by any organs in the body.
Our body naturally needs about 125 grams of carbohydrates a day to meet its baseline needs. However, that low amount is only fine for people who are not burning through their muscle glycogen storages. This means we have to look at carbs specifically for soccer players who go through a lot of glycogen.
Carbohydrate intake for Soccer Players
As soccer players, we need to understand the reason we are eating carbohydrates. The first reason is to fuel anaerobic activity, which includes weight lifting, sprinting and explosive movements. This tends to be any activity that is over 85% of your maximal heart rate, which is the level at which your body can not longer burn fat fast enough to meet your energy needs. The second reason that we need to eat carbohydrates is to refill the glycogen storages that we used through our training. Lastly, we eat carbohydrates to help us grow muscles through the spiking our insulin at the correct time, which I will cover more about below.
So as a soccer player, we need to not only eat 125 grams of carbohydrates to cover our bodies’ natural functioning, we need to eat more to cover the three reasons above. Unfortunately, there is not exact number I can give you for how much you should be eating, since it is based off your activity level, along with your weight. There are several guidelines we can use however, that will help you determine how many carbohydrates you should be getting a day.
Soccer Player Carb Guidelines
- Unfortunately, there has not been a study on glycogen depletion for soccer players in a game, which is understandable, since it would be very different based off a player’s position and what type of player they are. However, it has been shown that professional cyclists run out of glycogen at about 4 hours of racing. This helps us see that a soccer game probably would deplete glycogen storages by ½ to 3/4ths, which is about 250-350 grams of carbohydrates.
- Our liver stores about 120 grams of glycogen, and our muscle store about 300-400 grams of it, so overall our body stores 400-500 grams of glycogen. (1)
- The rate at which our liver burns glycogen can increase by 10 times what it usually does. (2)
- Once our muscle glycogen in full, it does not empty out until we use it for anaerobic activities, since it can only be used for muscles.
- Symptoms of low blood sugar include weakness, hunger and dizziness, so if your fat and protein intakes are where they should be, it means your most likely are not getting enough carbohydrates.
- Glycogen refueling can take up to 24 hours, which means for the 24 hours after an intense workout, your body is trying to send glycogen to the muscles to refill them as long as the liver has enough glycogen to keep the body running normally.
Considering these guidelines will help you determine how many carbohydrates you truly need to be eating to reach optimal performance. Eating too little carbs cannot only under fuel your muscles, but can also cause problems with your nervous system. Eating too many carbs, beyond what your muscle and liver can store causes your body to convert the extra glucose into fat instead of glycogen, which we do not want either. As a soccer player, I would play with your intake until you find what is right for you and would begin by overshooting, since we workout enough to where it’s difficult for us to gain fat. Just be aware of your activity level, did you have practice today along with lifting, or is the beginning of the off-season and you are taking time off to recover? Did you get enough carbohydrates after practice last night or do you need more carbs this morning to keep refueling. With a better understanding of insulin, the hormone responsible for transporting and storing glucose in our body, we can better answer the above questions.
Insulin, the builder of muscle or the accumulator of fat
Insulin is a powerful hormone that is at the base of the carbohydrate confusion. It’s job is to take extra glucose from the blood stream, which is anything beyond the 80-100mg/dl that our liver spits out to keep our body functioning normally, and finds a home for it. This home for the extra glucose can either be converted to glycogen in our muscles, which is what we want, or it can be stored as fat. Like I stated above, our muscles are trying to replenishes glycogen storages for up to 24 hours, this means that if our liver glycogen needs are being met, then the insulin is going to take the extra glucose to the muscle to store it as glycogen (3). However, this is not all insulin does.
Insulin helps us out in a couple more ways. The first is that it stimulates protein synthesis by directing ribosome to make more protein. If we don’t have insulin in our blood, which doesn’t happen unless we have more than 100mg/dl of glucose in our blood, then our ribosome don’t get directed like they should. Therefore, we need to spike our insulin after workouts to promote muscle growth (4). Secondly, insulin helps transport amino acids into our muscle cells, which also promotes muscle growth and helps fight muscle breakdown (5).
With this knowledge, we now get a better understanding of why we need carbohydrates in our diet. To give us glycogen for normal bodily functioning, provide glycogen to our muscles for energy and to promote muscle gain. We need to play with our carbohydrate intake to see what level is correct for our activity level, since there isn’t an exact number that works for everyone. For example, midfielders are going to need a higher carbohydrate than keepers do.
Carbohydrate Food Selection
Now that we have looked why we need carbohydrates in our diet and what they do for us, it is only half the battle. We now need to examine where we should be getting our carbs from. If we do not and decide just to eat whatever carbohydrate we want, then we will cause massive problems and our game will suffer.
Let us begin with where we should not be getting our carbohydrates from in our diets.
- High Fructose corn syrup and sugars. While most soccer players already know this, it is still necessary to cover. Consuming these kinds of carbohydrates are terrible for your body. They spike your insulin too much and provide no nutritional value. They have can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity, along with decreasing plasma glucose and increased hunger. They are in over abundant supply in processed foods, such as cookies, chips and candy. What is even worse is that processed foods like these have been shown to be addictive due to flooding the dopamine and over stimulating your brain regions associated with reward and cravings, the same regions that get stimulated with illicit drugs (6).
- Foods that contain gluten. Yes, you should avoid gluten, which goes against everything I grew up believing but the more I researched it, the more it became obvious that this isn’t some diet fad. There is legitimate research becoming more and more prevalent every week. While you can expect an article dedicated to gluten and soccer players, lets look at some of the basics in the argument against gluten, along with some of the more deciding studies.
- Here are some of the symptoms that celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can cause:
- Abdominal pain
- Foggy brain
- Joint pain
- Numbness in the extremities
- There are two problems we have when it comes to gluten; it is celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
- Celiac disease is a real disease that has been around for a while, however, it has now become more in the limelight when the attack on gluten specifically.
- Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity is the basis of the new gluten free movement, and has been show to be a real physiological problem, similar to being lactose-intolerant, in that it is something that our body struggles to breakdown (7)
- One major problem we are having with determining gluten sensitivity is that it has only been recently discovered that it causes problems with humans. Although its issues have been around for decades, new testing and the increase in genetically modified wheat contribute to the recent uptake of going gluten-free (8, 9).
- Gluten-free diets have been shown to reduce chronic-inflammation, which is something that soccer players can really benefit from, since we are constantly putting our bodies under stress (10).
- Since gluten sensitivity in relatively new, we keep figuring out better ways to test for it, which are showing up more and more people suffer from it. One study, which tested blood samples, found that around 12% of healthy people are gluten sensitive. Another study that did fecal testing found that around 29% of healthy people have gluten sensitivity. This means that as of the latest testing, it appears that about 1 in 3 people are gluten sensitive (11, 12).
- It also appears that this number could be higher, because in a recent Australian study, it showed that around 50% of people carry genetic markers for associated with gluten sensitivity. While this doesn’t mean that everyone with the genetic markers suffers from gluten sensitivity, it does mean that they have the possibility of getting the symptoms if the wrong environmental factors are present, such as an inflammatory diet, chronic stress, etc. (13).
- There are also testimonials to going gluten-free by professional athletes, and while anecdotal evidence is not conclusive, it does make sense when combined with the latest studies (14).
- The most common foods that we eat that contain gluten are pasta and breads.
- Cereal Grains, which includes oatmeal. Most cereal grains contain the anti-nutrient phytic acid, which has been shown to cause GI distress and inhibit mineral absorption, which is problematic for soccer players who are constantly stressing their bodies and need all the nutrients possible. Since it takes high levels of phytic acid to cause digestion problems, it is ok to eat cereal grains occasional (unless they have gluten in them). They should not be your daily choice of carbohydrates. (15, 16, 17)
Now that I have unfortunately taken away the majority of carbohydrates you have been eating your entire life, let us now see where we should be getting our carbs from.
- Plants. You can never eat too many vegetables. They extremely nutrient dense and is where we should be looking for the get our micronutrient needs. They digest slowly, which is great for when you do not need to spike your insulin, but also means that when you do need to restore your muscle glycogen, you should add in some quicker digesting carbs.
- Fruits. Fruits are packed with vitamins and minerals, similar to vegetables. However, they are different in that they are a sugar carbohydrate rather than a starchy one. Although they are made of the sugar fructose, they digest slower then processed sugars when are sucrose due to the fiber that is in fruits. They do digest quicker than vegetables, so they are a good glycogen boost if you didn’t fully restore your muscle glycogen storages before your next practice.
- White Rice. Choose white rice over brown due to brown rice still having the bran on it, which contains phytic acid like cereal grains do. Since we are eating white rice purposefully to spike our insulin and deliver glucose to our muscles, the rate that it is digested at compared to brown rice doesn’t matter, and it’s actually not that big of a difference (18).
- Root vegetables. This includes yams, sweet potatoes and regular potatoes. Since they are a heft amount of carbs per serving, these are also a good go-to when it comes to restoring muscle glycogen after intense workouts.
If you didn’t notice, the carbohydrate recommendations are in line with the Japanese Village-style Diet, a culture that has a history of low obesity, diabetes and does not suffer from most diseases that plague our Western culture.
Carbohydrates are a bit tricky once you get into what they do for your body and where you should be getting them from, but hopefully you are now clear on this part of your diet. Just remember that carbohydrate intake should be based off your activity level. For people who don’t workout, they don’t need more than 125g of carbohydrates a day. For us soccer players, we may need up to 400 grams of carbohydrates depending on how intensely we practiced, how long we practiced for, if we also lifted, etc. So to find how many carbs you should be eating, experiment with your intake. If you’re eating too many, which may be difficult for some players, then you’ll start to gain fat, if you’re not eating enough, you’ll feel lethargic and won’t be recovering properly. I wish I could give a number, but it is not that simple. When it comes to what carbs to eat, vegetables and a couple pieces of fruit are great for reaching your body’s baseline of 125 grams of carbs, but when you really need to shovel some carbs down, white rice and root vegetables are your best options.
Have you experimented with higher or lower carbohydrate diets or have any questions concerning carbs? Let me know below in the comments
Thanks for reading. Until next time,
Head Trainer at Optimal Soccer