AFL footballers need to eat a diet high in carbohydrates for fuel, and high in protein to aid recovery and muscle strength gains.
Footballers also need to have a balanced diet, ensuring they eat a wide variety of foods to ensure vitamin and mineral needs are met.
The amounts and timing of these important nutrients vary between the pre-season phase and during the season, due to differences in training demands.
During the three-to-four month period of pre-season training, energy and protein demands are at their greatest due to the volume and intensity of training. As well as grueling running sessions, players also generally do three-to-four weight sessions per week to improve strength and/or muscle size.
Carbohydrates are therefore in high demand to provide the energy (glucose) for high intensity training, and protein is required for growth and repair of muscle tissue.
An AFL footballer may need between 6-8 gm per kg of body weight of carbohydrate during the pre-season. For an 85 kg player this means around 500-700 gm per day of carbohydrate, so the following healthy carbohydrate foods need to form part of players’ diets.
In addition to these foods, players may need extra carbohydrate from drinks such as sports drinks, cordial and soft drinks to meet such high carbohydrate needs.
Protein needs are also high during pre-season, particularly as recovery from training sessions is so important and weight training is frequent. An AFL footballer may require between 1.2-1.6 gm of protein per kg of body weight daily. An 85 kg player will therefore need approximately 100-140 gm per day.
Important protein foods include meat, fish, chicken, eggs, dairy products, legumes and nuts.
This table shows 10g protein serves:
35g cooked lean beef/pork/lamb
4 slices bread
40g skinless cooked chicken
3 cups wholegrain cereal
50g cooked fish or canned tuna/salmon
2 cups cooked pasta
1 cup low fat milk
3 cups cooked rice
200g low fat yoghurt
¾ cup cooked lentils/kidney beans
30g reduced fat cheese
70g cottage cheese
60g nuts or seeds
2 small eggs
1 cup soy milk
To achieve both the carbohydrate and protein necessary, players usually eat their three meals per day but also need to have regular snacks between their meals. Good snacks that contain both carbohydrate and protein include: low fat yoghurt and custard, low fat milk and smoothies, liquid nutritional supplements and sports bars.
Although players are playing a game every week during the AFL season, their training throughout the week is generally of a lower intensity than during pre-season.
Some players may also significantly reduce their weight training sessions to only one-to-two per week. Hence the demand for fuel from carbohydrate is less. There is possibly a small reduction in protein needs as well.
If players keep eating the same amount of food/carbohydrates as in pre-season throughout the season, due to the reduced demands, body fat gains can result from excess energy (kilojoule) intake.
Many players therefore reduce their carbohydrate intake, in particular earlier in the week as needs are reduced. Later in the week, in the lead up to the weekend game, players need to increase their carbohydrate intake to load their muscles and liver with carbohydrate fuel for the upcoming game.