Is the Lighter Player the Quicker, Faster Player?
Many soccer players have engraved this message into their brains:
The lighter I am, the faster and quicker I will be.
While lugging around excess flab can indeed slow you down, many weight-conscious soccer players are already lean for their genetics—yet may yearn to be even leaner.
These tenacious dieters overlook the fact that weight is more than a matter of willpower, and ask:
- What is wrong with my diet? For all the exercise I do, I should be pencil-thin by now. What should I be eating to lose weight?
- Why am I not losing weight? Am I eating too much … or too little?
- When I first lost weight, I ran faster and played better. Now, I just get injury after injury. Do you think that’s because of my diet?
If any of this sounds familiar, keep reading.
Weight-conscious soccer players must remember they need to “nourish to flourish.”
Denying the body of food denies it of valuable fuel and nutrients. Speaking at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Exposition (FNCE), Mary Jane De Souza Ph.D. and Nancy Williams ScD, Penn. State University professors renowned for their research with female athletes, presented information that can help us learn why the quest for a lighter body commonly backfires into injuries and health issues that take a toll.
Here are some key nutrition points for soccer players of all ages and levels ponder:
You can only perform at your best if you are fueled at your best.
You cannot reach peak performance when you are poorly fed. While some soccer players might improve in the initial stages of weight loss, extended food restriction can lead to injuries as the body breaks down and lacks nutrients to heal quickly.
Players with a high drive for thinness might excel for a season or two, but then get sidelined with stress fractures, torn ligaments, or a cascade of other muscle and bone injuries.
Your body needs fuel
Fuel is needed not only to perform optimally but also to function (pump blood, make hormones, grow hair, etc.). The energy needed to stay alive—your resting metabolic rate (RMR)—accounts for about 60 to 70% of all that you eat. You do not have to exercise to deserve to eat!
When energy availability is low, the body initiates a dangerous cascade of adaptations that lowers one’s RMR, curbs growth, and hinders reproduction. Women can stop having regular menstrual periods, and men can experience a drop in libido and sperm quality, and motility. Both males and females need to eat enough to support normal body functions as well as their exercise.
Historically, female athletes thought loss of menses (amenorrhea) was a sign of training “hard enough” and being “lean enough” to be a successful competitor. We now know that amenorrhea means a 2 to 4 times higher risk of getting stress fractures (as compared to female athletes with regular menstrual periods).
Athletes who experience one stress fracture are at high risk of getting more stress fractures. The combination of an energy imbalance and altered hormonal status contributes to reduced bone density and culminates in stress fractures now, and osteoporosis in the future.
Weight-conscious male athletes commonly have low bone density, similar to that seen in female athletes.
Their bone injuries can often be linked to eating disorders. Yes, male athletes have eating disorders just like women do, though males, as compared to females, require a more severe energy deficit before bone and reproductive problems occur.
- Bone loss in the spine and hip can be 2.5% per year if left unchecked. Bone loss is slow to recover and not all reductions in bone density are reversible.
- Nutrition strategies to improve bone health include eating more food/calories, consuming calcium-rich food at least 2 to 3 times a day, and boosting vitamin D if blood levels are low.
- To resolve the energy imbalance, soccer players want to increase their food intake by at least 350 calories per day. This additional fuel can reverse the negative changes in men within a week, whereas in women, resuming menses can take months.
- Female players who eat more and still do not get a period for six months should consult with a reproductive endocrinologist to rule out any medical reasons for the amenorrhea.
Failing to consume enough calories can happen intentionally (with dieting) or unintentionally (with eating only “healthy foods”).
Hunger can inadequately cue an adequate intake. So how can you tell if you are undereating? Energy deficiency can be difficult to identify because an under-fueled player can be weight-stable. The body simply conserves energy, which stops fat loss. That’s when players start to wonder: Am I overeating or undereating?
If undereating, surely the players would be losing fat, right? No. Nature wants to protect athletes from starving themselves to death.
Measuring energy balance is challenging and fraught with error.
Counting calories and tracking how many calories you burned off with exercise can get obsessive and is generally inaccurate in that you have to account for your non-exercise calories. That is, after a long, hard training session, do you then become a “sedentary athlete” for the rest of the day?
Getting your RMR measured is one way to assess if you are eating enough. A simpler method is to notice if you are always cold, hungry, and thinking about food all day.
If yes, and not losing body fat, you could easily be undereating. Experiment with eating more, to discover if you feel warmer, are less hungry and are no longer thinking about food all the time.
SIDEBAR: Nutritional and medical advice changes with new discoveries and interpretations. Always check with your medical provider and/or nutritionist for what is best for you and your family.
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area, where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling (6th Edition) Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and Food Guide for Soccer, as well as teaching materials, are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. Click here for online and live workshop