6 Ways Football Players Can Improve Performance

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Few, if any, post-game interviews have gained more attention than the one with Richard Sherman after the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC Championship (if you missed it, you can watch here). It was an extreme interview, but Sherman’s explosive energy is what gave his football team the edge – it was the difference between first and second place, but it did not come from training. That energy came from proper nutrition.

Football is a challenging sport that requires dedication, strength, and energy – both on and off the field. The importance of nutrition in sports is gaining attention, and top athletes, such as Richard Sherman, understand that their energy level and performance ultimately depend upon what they eat. Now, all football players want to know: What do top football players eat, and how can I take my game to the next level? While each football player has slightly different needs, the best players follow these six fueling principles.

#1 They Consume Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, not proteins, are the main fuel source for all football players. They give them the energy needed to quickly move after the ball has been snapped - or, in Sherman’s case, jump to block the pass to help the Seahawks win the NFC Championship. Football players need to consume the right amounts, and types, of carbs if they want to play their best.

  • Carbs for long lasting energy: Ideal for meals 3-4 hours before a game or practice
    • Whole wheat pasta, bread and bagels, brown rice, and quinoa (Click here for a full list of whole grains)
    • Potatoes
    • Beans, lentils and peas
  • Carbs for quick, immediate energy: Ideal for snacks 1-2 hours before a game or practice
    • Fruit or fruit juice
    • Energy chews or gels
    • Pretzels
    • Crackers
    • Energy bars

#2 They Build Lean Muscle

Football players are known for being strong, and more muscle means more power. Proteins are the building blocks for muscle, making quality protein a staple in every football player’s diet. By increasing lean muscle mass, football players are better able to tackle opponents, run down the field, and hold their place in the line of defense.  

  • Choose lean options more often: 
    • Lean beef - flank, loin, or ground (90% lean or higher)
    • Grilled or baked chicken and turkey breast
    • Lean pork (pork chops, loin)
    • Eggs
    • Low-fat or fat-free dairy products
    • Soy and Tofu
    • Protein Powders (look for the NSF certified for sport logo on package)
  • Limit higher fat options:
    • Fatty beef - ribeye, porterhouse, or ground (less than 90% lean)
    • Fried chicken
    • Bacon and hot dogs
    • Whole milk or high fat dairy products

#3 They Achieve Their Ideal Body Composition

Every football player has to look and play his part on the field. Depending on the position, a player’s body composition can dictate how well he performs. For example, a linebacker and a running back aren’t able to switch positions and still perform optimally due to their body types. Body composition isn’t just about weight either; it’s about the amount of fat mass and lean mass each player has – which is greatly influenced by what they eat.

While gains in mass are necessary for performance improvement on the field, it is recommended that athletes achieve their goal body composition through healthful techniques using smart food choices, rather than unhealthful strategies such as the “dirty bulk” which includes choosing junk foods and fast food to consume excess calories.

Here are some recommended strategies to make sure you are consuming additional calories required to put on size, while still choosing nutritious foods:

  • Eat frequently - try for every 3 hours to increase your calorie and protein intake
  • Add healthy oils (olive oil and avocado oil) to entrees or sides
  • Eat nuts and nut butters as snacks which are higher in calories but still provide many beneficial nutrients
  • Increase the portion sizes of the nutritious foods on your plate at each meal

For additional information, check out This article that reports on how important it is to monitor athletes’ body fat to help them optimize their athletic performance.

#4 They Eat Right to Reduce Injury and Promote Recovery

Given the nature of the sport, football players’ bodies take a beating. Proper nutrition helps to keep players on the field longer - or return to the field faster if they get injured. When Percy Harvin had hip surgery, you bet that his nutrition, which was likely full of antioxidants and protein, helped him get back on the field to help his team. 

Antioxidants, which are primarily found in fruits and vegetables, reduce inflammation and fight off harmful molecules in our bodies that build up after intense exercise. Some excellent sources of antioxidants include:

  • Berries
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring)
  • Spices (such as turmeric and ginger)

Make sure that you are staying on track and meeting your body’s needs through nutrition by consuming adequate protein and energy necessary for repairing your muscles. Lastly, sleep is a critical factor in recovery from a hard game or practice, especially for football players where the physical demands of the sport are high. Try to get at least 7 or more hours of sleep each night to allow your body enough time to rest and repair before your next event, so you can continue to perform optimally.

Check out these articles for more information on recovery:

  • Nutrition and Injury Recovery by Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist from Charleston, South Carolina. It provides information about which foods can aid in recovery and if supplements, such as steroids and over-the-counter supplements, are effective in this process.

  • Nutrition and Injury written by the UCLA Bruin’s Nutrition Team, gives additional information on how to promote a speedy recovery through proper nutrition.

#5 They Focus on Pre-Game Nutrition

Proper nutrition is essential year-round for football players, but pre-game meals take the spotlight during the football season. Foods need to fuel the athlete, but not slow him down - especially a cornerback like Richard Sherman! Some of the key fundamentals to optimizing the pre-game meal include consuming adequate carbohydrate for energy and making sure you are properly hydrated to perform your best. More specific information regarding diet plans for football players can be found in Lisa Dorfman’s football nutrition E-book for My Sports Dietitian.

Pre-game Meal and Half-time Recovery Nutrition for Athletes is another great resource about pre-game nutrition. Here, Tavis and Ronnie, co-owners of My Sports Dietitian, provide information about the timing of pre-game meals, the breakdown of nutrients, and half-time nutrition for optimizing athletic performance. Be sure to check out the website – the first 50 athletes to sign up will receive a free coupon code for the course.

#6 They Don’t Ignore Fueling During the Game

Fueling during a game is extremely important, and that doesn’t just mean drinking Gatorade. Some professional football players think outside of the box – or cup – for their during-game fuel. Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch eats Skittles while on the sideline, and Gushers are Sherman’s go-to snack. Typically, we are told to limit our intake of simple carbohydrates from candy; however, during a game, simple carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel since they break down quickly, providing a rapid source of energy to keep you performing at a high level. It is important that you continue to prioritize carbohydrates that provide long lasting energy (whole grains, potatoes, beans) when thinking about your intake throughout the day and save the simple carbohydrates for game time. They can serve as a great option to kick-start any football player’s game.

Fueling during long workouts is just as important as fueling during long games. Here Tavis explains the role of nutrition during a workout. This is particularly important for football players, since practices can last for hours at a time.

If you’re interested in more information on these topics, check out the Performance Nutrition for Football Players eBook. This blog has highlighted a few of the key concepts that can be found there. Information on myfootballnutrition.com dives deeper into subjects such as position specific goals, supplementation, and many more nutrition-related concepts that are important for football players. It also provides examples of diets to follow, along with the scientific breakdown of how we use carbs, fats, and proteins for fuel and growth. Myfootballnutrition.com is a great resource for any football player wanting to optimize his performance and gain the advantage!

You can also listen to Lisa Dorfman's interview on the Next Level Podcast show as she discusses the challenges of fueling football players.

Links and Resources

Download Eat 2 Win Nutrition App