What to eat before a soccer game

It’s here. Game day! You’ve been training for weeks, you’ve been sure to get a good night’s sleep, and you wake up feeling ready for anything. 

You walk into the kitchen and open the refrigerator. And screeeeech go the brakes on that invincible feeling. What in the world are you going to eat to make your game day a great one?

It’s the middle of soccer season. I know some of you have questions about the best choices to eat before your games. Look no further!

Why meal timing matters

If you don’t eat enough, you won’t have energy for your game. That’s obvious. But if your stomach is too full, you will feel uncomfortable and may not play well as a result. 

The general advice to “wait about 3 hours after eating before exercising” might not be possible, depending on your school schedule, your sleep schedule, and the time of your game. 

Finding the right balance depends on a lot of things, but these guidelines can give you a good starting point.

Why this might matter even more for plant-based eaters

Plant-based foods tend to be higher in fiber than their counterparts. Fiber can be a tricky component to deal with around exercise, so food choices become extra-important.

Also, if you’re new to plant-based eating, you might not be consuming enough energy (calories) to fuel your activities. Eating the right things at the right time before your games can help.

meal timing might matter more for teens and for plant based eaters

Why this might matter even more for teenagers

Teenagers can face additional challenges fueling for sports. Their nutritional needs are already very high because of all the changes that are happening, from bone density to height and weight changes, to puberty.

Teenagers in school can have an even harder time with meal timing. Opportunities to eat can limited, and of course the exact thing you want might not be available in the school building.

Why this might matter even more for soccer players

Soccer is a tough game, with lots of running in short and long bursts, using different types of muscle fibers and taxing your cardiorespiratory system (your heart and lungs). It also requires a lot of focused attention. 

All of this means you want to be well-fueled before a game, so you can perform your best both mentally and physically.

The background

From a meal timing standpoint, we’ll start by considering soccer the same way we consider any cardiovascular exercise. If food is still in your stomach when you start your warm up, it can cause uncomfortable feelings, like side stitches, or belly pain, or worse.

The science-y stuff

When we eat, food travels into the stomach, then the small intestine, then the large intestine, and then it moves on out. In order for these processes to happen, those body systems need to receive blood flow.

When you start exercising, blood flow gets shifted from your GI system to other systems (heart, lungs, muscles). The food you were digesting slows down and sort of piles up. 

This means food is in your stomach for longer. You might start to feel some side effects, like cramps, a side-stitch, heartburn, reflux, nausea, or even vomiting.

Meanwhile, if there is food hanging out in your GI tract, it may draw extra water into your intestine, causing a bathroom emergency or loose stools. You also might get bloated or gassy. 

None of this is what we want!

Look! I made an infographic! You can pin it here.

Digestion speeds

There are a lot of factors that affect how quickly food moves out of our stomachs. But here are some very simplified numbers to remember:

simple carbs – 1 hour

fiber – 3-4 hours

protein foods – 2 hours

fats – 4 hours

These times can help guide you to what kinds of foods to eat, and when, relative to a soccer game. You want to be fairly sure your stomach isn’t full of food when you start!

Types of Meals and Snacks

Meals

Typically, a meal has at least three food components, chosen from protein, carbohydrate, vegetable or fruit. As these are eaten 3-4 hours before a game, we don’t have to worry about the fat or fiber content too much.

Meal ideas:

  • french toast or pancakes with syrup, 2 sausages (plant-based if desired) and fruit or juice
  • oatmeal or other hot cereal with dried fruit, brown sugar, milk (oat or soy if desired) and fruit or juice
  • bagel with nut butter and banana and a glass of milk (oat or soy if desired)
  • yogurt (1 cup) with granola and berries
  • avocado toast and a glass of milk (oat or soy if desired)
  • pasta with green peas and tomato sauce
  • salad with black or garbanzo beans and dressing of choice, plus muffin or granola bar
  • veggie burger with small side salad and a glass of milk (oat or soy if desired)
  • slice of sautéed tofu on bread or bagel with lettuce and sauerkraut, mayo optional
  • stir fry with veggies and tofu or beans over rice
  • sandwich and a glass of milk (oat or soy if desired) and fruit
  • for vegetarians: egg bagel sandwich with fruit, omelet with veggies and cheese and juice, scrambled eggs on toast with a glass of milk *

* these options are not available for vegans, as most egg and cheese substitutes  (lovely as they are) do not have the protein necessary to be considered a “protein” for pre-game eating

Snacks

A snack has at least two components, like protein and fruit or grain and veg. These should be eaten at least an hour before a game, so some fat and fiber shouldn’t cause a problem if we don’t overdo it.

Snack ideas:

  • granola bar or protein bar and fruit
  • raw veggies and hummus
  • yogurt (small cup) and berries
  • small bowl of cold cereal with milk (oat or soy if desired)
  • tofu cubes with vegetable
  • crackers and a glass of milk (oat or soy if desired)
  • smoothie made with fruit and milk (oat or soy if desired) or protein powder

Small snacks and gym bag foods

A small snack would be just one component, and is for use just before a game or warm up. These are purposely lower in fat and fiber, so they get digested more quickly and the energy is available quickly. The focus is carbohydrates.

These are also items to keep in your sports bag (maybe not the toast). If you feel the need for a small snack at a time when you weren’t expecting to, you’ll be ready.

Small snack ideas:

  • granola bar
  • banana
  • fruit gummies
  • box of raisins
  • piece of toast with jam/jelly
  • 6-12 ounces of a sports drink (not an energy drink)

Plans for different game times

Early morning game

Please do not go to your morning game on an empty stomach! Even if you’re not feeling hungry, realize that you have not eaten in many many hours and you need some food to fuel your game.

Best plan

snack 1-2 hours before warm up

Late Sleeper Plan

small snack before warm up

Pancakes with fruit and milk can make a great pre-game meal
Pancakes with fruit and milk can make a great pre-game meal

Mid-day game

For this I’m assuming it’s the weekend, and you’re free to plan your meals at whatever time you’d like. 

Best plan

meal 3-4 hours before warm up

small snack before warm up

Late Sleeper Plan

snack 1-2 hours before warm up

After-school game

I am assuming a game time of 3-5pm, with a school lunch time of 11-1 pm. 

3-4 hours between lunch and warm up

breakfast of choice

meal at lunch time 3-4 hours before warm up

maybe a small snack before warm up

1-2 hours between lunch and warm up

large meal for breakfast

snack at lunch time 1-2 hours before warm up

maybe a small snack before warm up

Evening game

For some people, eating too close to bedtime can affect sleep. For this reason, I recommend that if you have an earlier bedtime, you try to eat as much as you can in the hours before your game, without overdoing it, so you only need a small snack afterwards. This may or may not work for you.

This all gets even trickier, with varying school release times and varying bedtimes between our younger preteen and older teen athletes. Here are a couple of ideas.

Early bedtime plan

lunch at school

meal right after school, 3-4 hours before warm up

and then have a snack after the game

Later bedtime plan

large lunch at school

snack 2-3 hours before warm up

and then have a meal after the game

Evening soccer game, three players in goal
When to eat before an evening game? This can be tricky to plan because of variations in school release times and bedtimes.

Bottom Line 

Did you skip to this section? Here’s your very brief summary:

  • Try to have a meal 3-4 hours before your warm up and a small snack right before.
  • If this isn’t possible, have a snack 1-2 hours before your warm up, and a small snack right before if you feel you need it.
  • Avoid eating lots of fat and fiber right before your game, as they take a long time to digest.
  • Keep a granola bar and raisins or fruit gummies on hand, just in case you need them before or during your game.
  • In all cases, be sure to eat after your game.

Now go out there and knock ’em dead!

About the Author

Sarah Skovran, RDN LD ACE-PT, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, ACE certified personal trainer, mom of a teen athlete, and is mostly vegan. She writes about sports nutrition, plant based eating, and adolescent nutrition at Plant Powered Teens, and sees in-person clients at her private practice in Maine.

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