Fitness, Nutrition, Science

Common Training and Nutritional Mistakes in Elite Level Soccer

As the final assignment in my Advanced Exercise Physiology class, I had to write an 8-10 page paper about common training and nutritional “mistakes” in the sport or exercise of my choice.  Of course, for me there was only ever one sport of choice!

Below is the entire paper, including references.  I’d love to know your thoughts.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

Fitness training and nutrition in elite level soccer are both topics that should be of primary importance to coaches and fitness coaches wishing to optimize players’ development and performance.  If elite level soccer players are not presented with adequate and optimal training loads, their bodies’ physiological systems (including the cardiovascular system, neuro-endocrine system, and musculoskeletal system) will not undergo any performance-enhancing changes or adaptations.  Thus, all aspects of physical fitness training in elite level soccer, including time/duration, intensity or training load, type or specificity of exercise, as well as recovery and rest periods, must be comprehensively planned and executed in order for beneficial changes to performance to occur.  Similarly, nutrition and hydration in elite level soccer must be optimized to allow players to maximize performance and minimize the damage and risks for injury that can be caused by training and playing matches.  This paper will discuss some common training and nutritional mistakes made in elite level soccer, and suggest strategies to correct these mistakes.

One common training mistake that can occur in elite level soccer is the addition of too many extra or supplemental fitness training sessions in a given period of time, commonly termed “overtraining.”  This problem can lead to an increased risk of injury, as well as decreased physical performance.  Coaches or fitness coaches must be careful that they do not overload players with extra fitness training, in order to prevent overtraining stimuli from occurring.  In one recent study done on elite level Portuguese professional soccer players, researchers from the University of Lisbon examined the effects of the addition of either one (1) or two (2) supplemental contrast training sessions per week to a professional team’s regular training schedule (Maio Alves et. al., 2010).  Results of this study indicated that,  regardless of one or two contrast training sessions per week, speed and vertical jump were improved compared to the soccer players who did not participate in the additional contrast training (Maio Alves et. al., 2010).  The implications of these findings for coaches and fitness coaches working with elite level soccer players are that, because significant improvements in speed and vertical jump were seen with only one supplemental fitness session per week, they may be able to avoid overtraining stimulus by limiting their supplemental training to one session per week instead of two or more.

Other studies have also demonstrated that it is possible to achieve improvements in physical fitness through a minimal training load.  A recent study by Buchheit at. al. (2010) demonstrated that just one training session per week over a 10-week training period (10 training sessions in total) of either repeated shuttle sprint training, or explosive strength training, was able to elicit significant improvements in maximal sprinting speed in elite level youth (under-15) soccer players.   It was noted that the repeated shuttle sprints improved the athlete’s best and mean repeated shuttle sprinting more than the explosive strength training, whereas the explosive strength training had a greater effect on countermovement jumps and hopping (Buchheit et. al., 2010).  These findings seem to reinforce the notion that significant improvements in elite level soccer players’ physical fitness can be achieved through a low or minimal training load.  Coaches and fitness coaches working with elite level players should thus plan to limit their fitness training interventions to one supplemental fitness training session per week, in order to minimize or even eliminate the risks of overtraining.

A second common training mistake in elite level soccer can occur when the wrong type of training is selected.  If, for example, coaches or fitness coaches have the goal of improving players’ running speed and power, but they choose to have players perform a lot of aerobic endurance training or long slow distance running training, they will likely not achieve the desired goal of improvements in speed and power.  In a recent study done by Mujika et. al. (2009), researchers working with professional soccer players in Spain compared the effects of a short-term (7-week) protocol of either contrast training (alternating heavy-light resistance with additional soccer-specific drills) or sprint training (2-4 sets of 4x 30m line sprints with 180 and 90 seconds of recovery, respectively) on soccer players’ short-distance (15 metre) sprinting ability.  Results of the study indicated that in the short term, contrast training is superior to linear sprint training when trying to improve 15 metre sprint performances in soccer players (Mujika et. al., 2009).  These findings should be especially valuable to soccer coaches, as they demonstrate that having players conduct some of their fitness training with the ball (“additional soccer-specific drills”) can lead to improvements in physical fitness and performance.

Because the sport of soccer requires high levels of both aerobic fitness (high intensity running ability), and anaerobic fitness (muscular strength, speed, and power), coaches and fitness coaches may often feel the need to combine aerobic and anaerobic training exercises in their fitness sessions.  The exact training loads (intensities) as well as the amount of time spent working on the different energy systems can be difficult for coaches and fitness coaches to plan for.  If too much load or too much time is spent on either the aerobic or anaerobic, improvements in one or both energy systems may be compromised.  In a recent study done by Wong et. al. (2010), professional soccer players in an experimental group participated in concurrent strength and high intensity interval training (2 times per week) in addition to their regular soccer training (a control group participated only in regular soccer training).  Results of this study indicated that the experimental group significantly increased their scores in vertical jump height, 10 metre and 30 metre sprint times, distances covered in the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test and maximal aerobic speed test, and maximal aerobic speed (Wong et. al., 2010).  Another study, done by Jasterzebski et. al. (2013) examined the effects of mixed aerobic and anaerobic training, using either “lactate training” – aerobic training – or “nonlactate training” – anaerobic training – in elite level male youth soccer players (Under-17).  The training produced no significant increase in the players’ VO2Max, however, the players did maintain VO2Max levels of an elite caliber; the starting first team players reached their peak in the middle of the season whereas the substitute players reached theirs at the end of the season (Jasterzebski et. al., 2013). In addition to the maintenance of elite caliber endurance (VO2Max), the training also significantly improved the players’ leg power and speed endurance, decreasing their 5m sprint times (Jasterzebski et. al., 2013).   If, as these results indicate, concurrent use of aerobic and anaerobic training might lead to enhancements in soccer players’ aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, then coaches and fitness coaches in elite level soccer with short pre-season training periods may be able to make the best use of their time by using a similar approach and combining aerobic and anaerobic training protocols.

Optimizing nutrition and hydration for elite level soccer players is another challenge faced by coaches and fitness coaches working in the sport.  Soccer is a sport, in which competitive matches are played at a high intensity for a minimum of 90 minutes, and often players must play more than one of these intense matches every week during the competitive season.  Throughout the week, elite level players and teams will also likely be participating in training sessions almost every day.  This combination of intense training and match loads with limited recovery serves to highlight the importance that must be placed on optimal nutrition and hydration strategies in soccer.  A primary concern regarding soccer-specific nutrition is the intake of carbohydrates, which serve as the main source of energy during soccer training and match play.  Of specific importance is the intake of carbohydrates post-training/match, as muscle glycogen – the body’s  stored form of carbohydrates – can be significantly depleted during an intense training session or game.  One common mistake made by elite level players is to ingest too few carbohydrates following training and/or match play.  A recent study by Bangsbo et. al. (2006) examined the effects of a carbohydrate-rich diet versus a normal diet on muscle glycogen resynthesis in elite professional Danish soccer players at specific times (0-42 hours) post-match play.   Results of this study indicated that the carbohydrate-rich diet resulted in significantly greater muscle glycogen resynthesis at 18- and 42-hours post match play as compared to the normal diet (Bangsbo et. al., 2006).  Because of the aforementioned high training and match loads in elite level soccer, faster muscle glycogen resynthesis can make a big difference in a soccer player’s ability to sustain the necessary levels of energy and to participate fully in all training sessions and matches.

Protein intake following training and match play is another important nutritional concern in elite level soccer.  Dietary protein helps to rebuild the damage caused to muscles and tissues following intense exercise.  Inadequate intake of protein following intense exercise will thus lead to inadequate repair of muscle and tissue damage.  In soccer, elite level players who make the mistake of not adding enough protein to their diet post-training and match play will likely be putting themselves at greater risk of injury and overtraining stimulus.  While it is important and essential for elite soccer players to consume protein throughout the day, oftentimes protein consumption immediately following a training session or game can be more difficult because of limited availability of high protein foods during this time.  A simple solution that is supported by empirical evidence is to ingest a high-protein drink such as chocolate milk.  In a recent study by Ferguson et. al. (2011), elite level cyclists were given either a chocolate milk drink, a carbohydrate drink, or a placebo drink post-exercise, and instructed to perform a 40-kilometre time trial exactly 24-hours post-exercise.  The results of this study indicated that the group given the chocolate milk drink (which contains both protein and carbohydrate) had both a significantly lower time in the time trail, as well as a significantly higher power output (measured in watts) as compared to either the carbohydrate drink or placebo drink groups (Ferguson et. al., 2011).  Although this study was done on elite level cyclists as opposed to soccer players, the results are still applicable to soccer because they indicate an improved aerobic/anaerobic capacity in athletes with adequate protein intake following intense training.  Soccer players who want to improve and optimize their post-training or match recovery should consider using chocolate milk or a similar high-protein drink during this time.

Replenishment of electrolytes during elite level soccer is another area of nutrition in which mistakes can be made.  Because electrolyte content in individual players’ sweat can vary, players who follow general guidelines may not necessarily be optimally replenishing the electrolytes they lose during match play.  Inadequate replenishment of electrolytes and low electrolyte levels in the body can lead to serious health consequences including impaired muscle function, impaired neural function, and even death.  Compounding the problem is the fact that typical sports drinks, while they do contain the electrolytes sodium and potassium, may not necessarily contain enough of these electrolytes to replace the quantities lost by elite level soccer players during match play.  One recent study which highlights this problem was done by Stone et. al. (2005).  This study examined  specific water and electrolyte needs among three different professional clubs in the English Premier League.  The findings of this study indicated that there was a large variability in “salt” (or sodium) content of players’ sweat among the three professional clubs.  The range of “salt” loss through sweat was as low as 1.8 grams (1800 milligrams), to as much as 5 grams (5000 milligrams) (Stone et. al., 2006).  As mentioned previously, typical sports drinks like Gatorade or PowerAde contain only 250 milligrams per 500 millilitre bottle, so a professional soccer player who attempts to replenish lost electrolytes by drinking one full bottle of Gatorade or PowerAde will not be adequately replenishing lost sodium during match play.  In order to address this problem, elite level players should consider adding some salt to their sports drinks when playing matches on hot days.  This way, they will add to the total electrolyte content of the sports drink and help with replenishment of this necessary nutrient.

The sport of soccer presents many unique challenges to coaches and fitness coaches, including those related to physical fitness training and to nutrition and hydration.  When planning fitness training, coaches and fitness coaches working with elite level soccer players must try to utilize exercises that present players with a high intensity, but a low training volume (possibly as low as one training session per week).  In order to maximize players’ energy system development, the use of combined aerobic and anaerobic training protocols, as well as the combination of physical fitness training with ball work, are likely to be more effective methods of training.  When considering elite soccer players’ nutrition, special attention must be given to ensuring optimal intake of carbohydrates, protein post-training/match play, and replenishment of lost electrolytes.  Taken together, a well-planned training and nutritional program will help to ensure that elite level soccer players stay healthy and perform at their best over the course of the competitive season.


Bangsbo, J., Mohr, M., Krustrup, P. (2006).  Physical and metabolic demands of training and match-play in the elite footballer.  Journal of Sports Sciences, 24(7): 665-674.

Buchheit, M., Mendez-Villanueva, A., Delhomel, G., Brughelli, M., Ahmaidi, S. (2010).  Improving repeated sprint ability in young elite soccer players: repeated shuttle sprints versus explosive strength training.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10): 2715-2722.

Ferguson-Stegal, L., McCleave, E.L., Ding, Z., Doerner, P.G., Wang, B., Liao, Y.H., Kammer, L., Liu, Y., Hwang, J., Dessard, B.M., Ivy, J.L. (2011) Postexercise carbohydrate-protein supplementation improves subsequent exercise performance and intracellular signaling for protein synthesis.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25: 1210-1224.

Jastrzębski ,Z., Rompa, P., Szutowicz, M., Radzimiński, L. (2013).  Effects of applied training loads on the aerobic capacity of young soccer players during a soccer season.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(4): 916-923.

Maio Alves, J.M., Rebelo, A.N., Abrantes, C., Sampaio, J. (2010).  Short term effects of complex and contrast training in soccer players’ vertical jump, sprint, and agility abilities.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(4): 936-941.

Mujika, I., Santisteban, J., Castagna, C. (2009).  In-season effect of short-term sprint and power training programs on elite junior soccer players.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(9): 2581-2587.

Stone, M., Shirreffs, S., & Sawka, M. (2006). Water and electrolyte needs for football training and match-play.  Journal of Sports Sciences, 24(7): 699-707.

Wong, P.L., Chaouachi, A., Chamari, K., Dellal, A., Wisloff, U. (2010).  Effect of preseason concurrent muscular strength and high-intensity interval training in professional soccer players.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(3): 653-660.

2 thoughts on “Common Training and Nutritional Mistakes in Elite Level Soccer


      Thanks for your comment Dean. I think that if more coaches use a science-based approach, then mistakes made by following fads or trends in fitness (or in coaching) can be minimized. Thanks for reading and I hope you are enjoying our posts!

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