Understanding the Science Behind Sports Nutrition & Recovery

Nutrition plays a key role in supporting the performance of the football athlete.

Although football is a team sport, individualised nutritional philosophies are followed in many situations as a result of matching the correct nutritional recommendations with the individual requirements of each athlete, can lead to optimal performance.

When addressing nutrition’s role in recovery, there are 3 R’s that need discussion:

  1. Refuel
  2. Repair
  3. Rehydrate

In terms of refuel, we are discussing the refuelling of muscle glycogen and will highlight the importance of carbohydrates in football performance.

What is muscle glycogen? Muscle glycogen is an important fuel source during exercise.

Inadequate glycogen availability results in reduced endurance exercise capacity and an inability to continue exercise because of impaired excitation–contraction coupling once glycogen stores are depleted.


The importance of muscle glycogen was highlighted by a group of Danish researchers (Figure 1) who found that sprint performance is reduced both temporarily during a game and at the end of a soccer game.

The latter finding may be explained by low glycogen levels in individual muscle fibres (1).

Figure 1: Decrease in muscle glycogen stores during a match (Duplicated from: Krustrup et al., 2006).

From Refuel to Repair

To replenish muscle glycogen stores, carbohydrates (CHO) need to be consumed. It was found that consumption of an optimised diet immediately after a game and for up to 72 hours after the game resulted in improved muscle glycogen resynthesis (Figure 1)(2).

 This highlights how import nutrition is in restoring muscle glycogen to re-competition levels.

To expand on this, we will focus on the timing and types of CHO that should be consumed.

In terms of timing, Ivy and colleagues (1988) found that “delaying the ingestion of a carbohydrate supplement post-exercise will result in a reduced rate of muscle glycogen storage”, specifically that the first 2-hours post-exercise of utmost importance.

Regarding the types of CHO, Burke et al. (1993) found that “the most rapid increase in muscle glycogen content during the first 24 hours of recovery is achieved by consuming foods with a high GI.”

Moving from refuel to repair, we will focus on the importance of protein in recovery.

The various actions associated with football performance, namely, high-speed running and sprinting, accelerations, and decelerations, and change of direction all result in muscle damage (4).

This affects muscle function and muscle soreness for up to 3-days, and ultimately the ability of players to perform maximally over that 72-hour period (5).

This alone becomes incredibly significant when the team must play 2 games over a 3-day period.

The question that needs to be asked is, “What can we do to mitigate this reduction in muscle function?”

As we did with CHO, we now will look at the timing and type of protein that will assist in the repair process. Players generally require +/-25g of protein every 3-4 hours to facilitate and maximise muscle growth and repair.



This becomes particularly important pre-bed following match-play, as this is when muscle damage is at its highest, and even though sleep is an important factor in recovery, the role of protein cannot be diminished in maximizing muscle repair (7).

To off-set this, it is important to supply players with a pre-bed snack of minimum 25g protein.

It was found by Abbott and colleagues that pre-sleep ingestion of protein accelerates functional recovery in professional soccer players and can therefore be considered a practical means of attenuating muscle performance deficits in players following match-play (8).

In terms of type, animal sources of protein are superior to plant-based proteins, as plant-based proteins have less of an anabolic (muscle building) effect than animal proteins, this is because of their lower amino acid content (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) – with amino acids being the building blocks of muscle (9).

Finally, we will move on to the final “R” of Recovery – Rehydrate.

Hydration status is individualised and affected by several variables (10,11,12,13), namely:

  • Pre-match/training hydration status
  • Volume of fluids consumed
  • Co-ingestion of other nutrients
  • Duration and intensity of training/match-play
  • Individual factors (age and sweat rate)
  • Environmental factors (temperature and humidity)
  • Clothing

Due to the various factors that can alter hydration status, it is important to adopt an individualized rehydration strategy for the team as opposed to a “blanket” strategy.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to measure player mass pre- and post-match/training to estimate fluid loss.

With the American College of Sports Medicine’s position stand on exercise and fluid replacement noting that for every 1kg of fluid lost 1.5 litres of fluid and electrolytes should be ingested (14).

It should also be noted that not all fluids are equal when considering the optimal rehydration of players, with rehydration salts, milk and skimmed milk being found to be superior (15).


Summary: Sports Nutrition & Recovery

To conclude, I will outline the practical applications of the scientific knowledge compiled:

The first 60-minutes post-match are incredibly important, and teams should look to refuel, repair, and rehydrate to increase muscle glycogen resynthesis, mitigate muscle function decrements and muscle soreness, and replenish lost electrolytes.

In this window, players should have some form of CHO, ideally a chocolate milk, and then high-GI items to accelerate the muscle glycogen resynthesis and muscle repair, i.e., pizza, potato wedges, fruit platter, chicken skewers.

The next 2-3 hours it is important that the players have a substantial meal, with a large source of carbohydrates and protein.

Dessert can be considered, such as a yoghurt fruit-pot; with bottled water and rehydration salts being suggested as well.

Moving into the next 2-3 days, the team should look to ensure that muscle function is maximized, and muscle soreness is minimized.

One such way of doing this would be to provide a CHO-based breakfast to the players before training (pancakes or oats and fruit).

A CHO-rich lunch with animal-source protein (e.g., pasta and mince) and fruit juice (high sugar content boosts muscle glycogen resynthesis); and encouraging players to have a CHO and protein-based snack before bed.

Join Our Soccer Nutrition Course

New literature in this space has reported a new way of maximising nutritional intake through individualised ‘nutritional periodisation’ strategies, however, this is discussed in more depth within the ISSPF online football nutrition courses.

Furthermore, many experts in sport & football nutrition such as Dr. Eirini Manthou (ISSPF Faculty Member), Virginia Santesteban (ISSPF Faculty Member) CF Real Sociedad ‘Head of Performance Nutrition’ & Dr. Lloyd Parker (ISSPF Faculty Member) Everton FC ‘Head of Nutrition’ plus many more global experts, cover in detail the role of nutrition across all levels of the game within our ISSPF accredited football nutrition online course.

The demand for football nutrition experts, performance & coaching specialists in football & team sports is growing year upon year.

Thousands of students are leaving university with a sport science degree, however many of them asking the key question – What now?

  • How do I get a job in football?
  • What’s the next step?
  • Which area of sport or football science do I want to specialise in?

This is certainly an interesting question as progressing from completing a sports science or nutrition-related degree to then working in professional football & trying to understand all the key components, and soft skills that come with jobs in football or careers within sport.

The bespoke courses developed by ISSPF Elite Faculty members are a way of further exposing sport science & nutritional related students, individuals working within the game & other football science enthusiasts with a thirst to develop further in this specific nutrition & performance area.

The link below will take you to the hugely popular & expertly designed ISSPF endorsed & accredited Soccer Nutrition online sport science course, where you will be exposed to football science & specific sports nutrition coaching led research, practical examples used by leading practitioners.

Soccer Nutrition Online Sport Science Course

How This Course Will Improve You

  • Understanding the key energy sources required to perform repeated high intensity & explosive movements within the intermittent nature of soccer is of paramount importance.
  • Fueling to perform & recover from both training, competitive games are very specific across a range of levels of the game.
  • All practitioners and coaches can only benefit themselves and their players even further by having a more in-depth knowledge of sports nutrition.
  • It may help us to reduce the risk for non-contact muscle injuries, through a better understanding of key timing of nutrients.

What Does This Course Cover?

Outline of the Accredited Sports Nutrition Online Course:

Module 1: Energy balance & body composition: basics of soccer physiology
Lecturer: Sam McHaffie (England Football Association)
Topic: Sport Nutrition & Environmental

Module 2: Understanding Macro & Micro-nutrients
Lecturer: Dr. Eirini Manthou (Olympiakos) Greece
Topic: Sport Nutrition & Environmental

Module 3: Soccer health & wellness (vitamins, minerals)
Lecturer: Matthew Jones (West Ham United FC) England
Topic: Sport Nutrition & Environmental

Module 4: Fluid balance & soccer specific hydration
Lecturer: Virginia Santesteban (Real Sociedad CF) Spain
Topic: Sport Nutrition & Environmental

Module 5: Training, Match & Recovery Fueling – Soccer Nutrition to Perform
Lecturer: Dr. Adam Owen (Lech Poznań) Wales
Topic: Sport Nutrition & Environmental

Module 6: Maximising nutrition through injury
Lecturer: Faisal Alshawa (Aspire, Qatar) Kuwait
Topic: Sport Nutrition & Environmental

Module 7: The role of nutrition for the female soccer player
Lecturer: Dr. Yasemin Batmaca (Besiktas) Turkey
Topic: Sport Nutrition & Environmental

Module 8: An introduction to nutritional supplementation and ergogenic aids
Lecturer: Matthew Jones (West Ham United FC) England
Topic: Sport Nutrition & Environmental

Soccer Nutrition Online Sport Science Course

Article References

Reference List:

  1. Krustrup P, Mohr M, Steensberg A, Bencke J, Kjaer M, Bangsbo J. Muscle and blood metabolites during a soccer game: implications for sprint performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Jun;38(6):1165-74. doi: 10.1249/01.mss.0000222845.89262.cd. PMID: 16775559.
  2. Krustrup P, Ortenblad N, Nielsen J, Nybo L, Gunnarsson TP, Iaia FM, Madsen K, Stephens F, Greenhaff P, Bangsbo J. Maximal voluntary contraction force, SR function and glycogen resynthesis during the first 72 h after a high-level competitive soccer game. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Dec;111(12):2987-95. doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-1919-y. Epub 2011 Mar 30. PMID: 21448723.
  3. Ivy JL, Katz AL, Cutler CL, Sherman WM, Coyle EF. Muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise: effect of time of carbohydrate ingestion. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1988 Apr;64(4):1480-5. doi: 10.1152/jappl.1988.64.4.1480. PMID: 3132449.
  4. Harper DJ, Kiely J. Damaging nature of decelerations: Do we adequately prepare players? BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2018;4:e000379. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000379
  5. Nedelec M, McCall A, Carling C, Legall F, Berthoin S, Dupont G. The influence of soccer playing actions on the recovery kinetics after a soccer match. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jun;28(6):1517-23. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000293. PMID: 24172722.
  6. Moore DR, Camera DM, Areta JL, Hawley JA. Beyond muscle hypertrophy: why dietary protein is important for endurance athletes. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014 Sep;39(9):987-97. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2013-0591. Epub 2014 Feb 7. PMID: 24806440.
  7. Snijders T, Res PT, Smeets JS, van Vliet S, van Kranenburg J, Maase K, Kies AK, Verdijk LB, van Loon LJ. Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men. J Nutr. 2015 Jun;145(6):1178-84. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.208371. Epub 2015 Apr 29. PMID: 25926415.
  8. Abbott W, Brett A, Cockburn E, Clifford T. Presleep Casein Protein Ingestion: Acceleration of Functional Recovery in Professional Soccer Players. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2019 Mar 1;14(3):385-391. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2018-0385. Epub 2019 Feb 17. PMID: 30204517.
  9. Berrazaga I, Micard V, Gueugneau M, Walrand S. The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1825. Published 2019 Aug 7. doi:10.3390/nu11081825
  10. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research; Marriott BM, editor. Fluid Replacement and Heat Stress. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1994. 15, Environmental Issues That Influence Intake of Replacement Beverages.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK231133/
  11. Edwards AM, Mann ME, Marfell-Jones MJ, Rankin DM, Noakes TD, Shillington DP. Influence of moderate dehydration on soccer performance: physiological responses to 45 min of outdoor match-play and the immediate subsequent performance of sport-specific and mental concentration tests. Br J Sports Med. 2007;41(6):385-391. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2006.033860
  12. Kiitam U, Voitkevica L, Timpmann S, et al. Pre-Practice Hydration Status in Soccer (Football) Players in a Cool Environment. Medicina (Kaunas). 2018;54(6):102. Published 2018 Dec 5. doi:10.3390/medicina54060102
  13. Rollo, I., Randell, R., Baker, L., Leyes, J., Medina Leal, D., Lizarraga, A., Mesalles, J., Jeukendrup, A., James, L. and Carter, J., 2021. Fluid Balance, Sweat Na+ Losses, and Carbohydrate Intake of Elite Male Soccer Players in Response to Low and High Training Intensities in Cool and Hot Environments. Nutrients, 13(2), p.401.
  14. American College of Sports Medicine, Sawka MN, Burke LM, Eichner ER, Maughan RJ, Montain SJ, Stachenfeld NS. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Feb;39(2):377-90. doi: 10.1249/mss.0b013e31802ca597. PMID: 17277604.
  15. Shirreffs, S., Watson, P. and Maughan, R., 2007. Milk as an effective post-exercise rehydration drink. British Journal of Nutrition, 98(1), pp.173-180.

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