Good nutrition choices can support the health and performance of footballers, whereby the intake, type, quantity and timing of foods, fluids and supplements can optimise the performance and recovery of players within and between matches (1,2). The use of nutritional supplements in football is widespread and there are hundreds of products available. But which supplements can support performance in football?
Nutritional supplements have multiple potential benefits and they include sports foods (e.g., carbohydrate drinks or gels and whey protein shakes) to aid performance and/or recovery, ergogenic aids (e.g., caffeine and creatine) to boost performance, as well as others to assist with immune support and health maintenance (e.g., vitamin D3 and probiotics). Here we look at some of the more common ergogenic supplements used in elite football to boost match-day performance. This will not include the effects of carbohydrates (drinks, gels, bars) or supplements for health and immune function as this is covered elsewhere.
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Exercise, immunity and infection (lecture)
Which supplements work in football?
A small number of dietary supplements may be effective in improving performance of footballers... although there is no guarantee that they will work for everyone. It is important to try these out in training first before being applied in a match situation in case of adverse side effects like gastrointestinal discomfort. The supplements recommended for use in the UEFA 2020 expert group position statement on nutrition in elite football (1) were limited to creatine, caffeine, β-alanine, and nitrate. See our previous blog on the UEFA 2020 expert statement on nutrition.
Creatine and football
Increasing dietary creatine can increase the creatine and phosphocreatine content of the muscles providing a greater energy store for rapid use during very high intensity exercise, such as sprinting (3,4). 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 (b.w.) gain but this can usually be avoided by ingesting 3-5 g/day for 4 weeks instead.
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Caffeine and football
Caffeine is a stimulant that is found in coffee and chocolate; it can also be taken as a pill or chewing gum. Caffeine can improve performance in a variety of exercise tasks, probably via direct effects on muscle and on the brain (3,4,5). 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 (2).
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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. Beetroot juice supplementation for 6 days has been shown to improve high-intensity intermittent exercise (yo-yo test) performance in trained football players (6). About 400-800 mg of nitrate is needed and this can be taken as one or two 70 mL shots of concentrated beetroot juice 2-3 hours before kick-off (3,4). Drinking a daily dose for a longer period (3-6 days) before a game may increase the chances of a positive performance effect.
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The latest on nitrates (lecture)
Buffers and football
β-alanine is an amino acid but not one found in proteins. It combines with histidine to form carnosine which acts as a buffer to mop up acidity in the muscles during high intensity efforts, thereby delaying fatigue and improving performance. Bicarbonate acts as an extracellular buffer which increases acid removal from muscles during high intensity exercise. High doses of sodium bicarbonate (0.3 g/kg b.w.) taken in capsules with fluid 1-2 hours before matches could potentially enhance repeated sprint performance (5) but is often ignored due to the high risk of gastrointestinal discomfort. However, it could be tested in training to determine individual player tolerance.
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Incorporating supplements into the nutrition plan
The amounts and timing of supplements alongside normal meal and sport food based macronutrient intakes needs careful planning on match days (2,7) as illustrated in figure 4. Nutrition supplements can be effective provided the dosage and timing of intake is appropriate, and the risks are understood.
Combinations of supplements such as caffeine and nitrate could be more effective than a single ergogenic supplement (2,5). Recently there has been an increase in the number of commercially available product formulas that contain creatine in combination with carbohydrate and protein (whey and/or collagen) in post-exercise recovery shakes (some of which may also contain leucine or glutamine and also plant polyphenols, tart cherry or curcumin for their anti-inflammatory properties). There are also mixtures of caffeine, sugars and maltodextrin in energy gels for use before or during a match. There are also several pre-match formulas containing a mixture of ergogenic aids such as caffeine, citrulline, β-alanine, taurine, and cordyceps but there is a lack of scientific studies to justify claims that they are more effective than just a single component such as caffeine alone as a pre-exercise ergogenic.
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Risks of contamination
Supplements come with the risk of contamination with substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned list and a positive doping test on an individual player will result in a lengthy ban. Current WADA rules state that 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. Therefore, professional players in particular are advised to use supplements from reputable companies that use third-party testing programmes such as ‘Informed Sport’. Although these programmes cannot entirely eliminate the risk of contamination of products with doping agents and they do not test for the presence of the active ergogenic substance, they minimise the risk of a positive doping test.
Recommendation for using supplements in football
In conclusion, any nutritional programme for a football player should be centred on a ‘food first’ approach, with supplements used only to meet specific performance, recovery or health objectives. Performance benefits from ergogenic supplements that work are usually of the order of 1-3%. It is worth bearing in mind that substantially larger gains in performance (maybe up to 30%) are likely from ensuring glycogen stores are adequate and diets meet minimal needs for energy and essential nutrients. Supplements can be thought of as just the cherry on the cake and should not be considered as a substitute for a healthy, well-balanced diet.
For more content on nutrition in football:
Collins J, Maughan RJ, Gleeson M et al. 2021. UEFA expert group 2020 statement on nutrition in elite football. Current evidence to inform practical recommendations and guide future research. Br J Sports Med 55(8):453-455.
Gleeson M. 2022. Nutrition for Top Performance in Football. Meyer & Meyer Sport.
Maughan RJ, Burke LM, Dvorak J et al. 2018. IOC consensus statement: Dietary supplements and the high-performance athlete. Br J Sports Med 52(7):439-455.
Peeling P, Binnie MJ, Goods PSR et al. 2018. Evidence-based supplements for the enhancement of athletic performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 28(2):178-187.
Christensen PM, Shirai Y, Ritz C, and Nordsborg NB. 2017. Caffeine and bicarbonate for speed. A meta-analysis of legal supplements potential for improving intense endurance exercise performance. Front Physiol 8:240.
Nyakayiru J, Jonvik KL, Trommelen J et al. 2017. Beetroot juice supplementation improves high-intensity intermittent type exercise performance in trained soccer players. Nutrients 9(3):314.
Hulton AT, Malone JJ, Clarke ND, and MacLaren DPM. 2022. Energy requirements and nutritional strategies for male soccer players: a review and suggestions for practice. Nutrients 14(3):657.