Football players can benefit from good nutrition choices to support their health and performance, and nutritional supplements can play an important role in optimizing players' performance and recovery between matches. However, with hundreds of supplements available, it can be difficult to determine which ones are effective for football. In this article, we will explore the benefits of some of the most common ergogenic supplements used in elite football.
Benefits of Supplements for Football
Nutritional supplements have multiple potential benefits, including sports foods, ergogenic aids, and others to assist with immune support and health maintenance. This article will focus on the more common ergogenic supplements used to boost match-day performance in football.
Which Supplements Work in Football?
While only a small number of dietary supplements may be effective in improving footballers' performance, there is no guarantee that they will work for everyone. It is essential to test these supplements in training first before applying them in a match situation, to avoid any adverse side effects like gastrointestinal discomfort. The supplements recommended for use in the UEFA 2020 expert group position statement on nutrition in elite football were limited to creatine, caffeine, β-alanine, and nitrate.
Creatine and Football
Increasing dietary creatine can provide a greater energy store for rapid use during very high-intensity exercise, such as sprinting. Vegetarians may experience greater benefits as their diet contains very little creatine. The potential disadvantage of short-term creatine loading with 20 g/day for 5-7 days is a 1-2 kg body weight gain, but this can usually be avoided by ingesting 3-5 g/day for four weeks instead.
Caffeine and Football
Caffeine can improve performance in a variety of exercise tasks, probably via direct effects on muscle and the brain. There may be improvements in performance of tasks that require sustained alertness and concentration, and there is some evidence that caffeine use may improve skill and fine motor control. The effective dose is probably much smaller than previously thought, and benefits have been reported with doses as small as 100-200 mg, allowing players to gain benefits without some of the potential adverse effects of higher caffeine doses. Caffeine in chewing gum is absorbed more quickly than other forms and is a good choice for half-time.
Beetroot and Football
Beetroot is a good source of nitrate, which has been shown to reduce the oxygen cost of exercise and improve endurance performance. Drinking one or two 70 mL shots of concentrated beetroot juice 2-3 hours before kick-off can provide about 400-800 mg of nitrate. Drinking a daily dose for a longer period before a game may increase the chances of a positive performance effect.
Buffers and Football
β-alanine combines with histidine to form carnosine, which acts as a buffer to mop up acidity in the muscles during high-intensity efforts, delaying fatigue and improving performance. High doses of sodium bicarbonate taken in capsules with fluid 1-2 hours before matches could potentially enhance repeated sprint performance, but this is often ignored due to the high risk of gastrointestinal discomfort.
An Example of Match Day Nutrition for Football
The amounts and timing of supplements alongside normal meal and sport food-based macronutrient intakes need careful planning on match days. Nutrition supplements can be effective provided the dosage and timing of intake are appropriate, and the risks are understood. Combinations of supplements such as caffeine and nitrate could be more effective than a single ergogenic supplement.
Risks of Contamination
Supplements are not regulated in the same way as pharmaceuticals, which means that there is a risk of contamination with banned substances. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has a list of prohibited substances, and if a player tests positive for any of these substances, they can receive a lengthy ban from competition. Furthermore, if three or more players from the same team commit an anti-doping rule violation in the same competition period, the entire team may be disqualified from competition.
To minimize the risk of contamination, professional players are advised to use supplements from reputable companies that use third-party testing programs such as ‘Informed Sport.’ Although these programs cannot entirely eliminate the risk of contamination, they reduce the risk of a positive doping test.
Recommendations for Using Supplements in Football
Any nutritional program for a football player should be based on a ‘food first’ approach, with supplements used only to meet specific performance, recovery, or health objectives. Ergogenic supplements that work typically provide performance benefits in the range of 1-3%. However, it is important to note that ensuring glycogen stores are adequate and diets meet minimal needs for energy and essential nutrients can lead to substantially larger gains in performance (maybe up to 30%). Supplements should not be viewed as a substitute for a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Football players should be aware of the risks associated with supplement use and should take steps to minimize the likelihood of contamination. Professional players are advised to use supplements from reputable companies that use third-party testing programs, such as ‘Informed Sport.’ Supplements should be used only to meet specific performance, recovery, or health objectives and should be viewed as a complementary addition to a healthy, well-balanced diet. By following these recommendations, football players can safely and effectively use supplements to support their overall health and athletic performance.
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