June 12, 2014
Being As Healthy As A Pro Soccer Player
I should clarify, before I go on, that I am not writing to let you know all about what it is like for me being as healthy as a pro soccer player. Unless the advice I am going to give is “be pretty lazy and thoughtless with your diet except for the odd apple, then close your eyes and go to sleep and dream about being as healthy as a professional soccer player.” This is more a look at how top-level athletes stay in good condition, and what, hypothetically, we could learn from it.
There is a very good movie about soccer, or football as we Brits say, called The Damned United, about the turmoil and tribulations of Leeds United football club from the north of England, during the 1970s. One scene shows the dressing rooms being set up by backroom staff, as shirts are put on pegs, boots are laid neatly beneath each player’s place on the bench, and an ashtray is placed on the table in front of them.
These days, when a player is occasionally caught smoking, it makes the headlines as a scandal. Such are the expectations of fans that players should be at the peak of their fitness in order to compete at the top level, given the size of their salaries and the fees we pay for tickets. This is not to mention the expectations that the clubs have of them, not least, again, because of the financial investment in them. It must be difficult for young men with a lot of money to avoid going off the rails sometimes, but overall it is fair to say that highly paid athletes will be among the healthiest people in the world.
Aside from the obvious benefits of extensive physical activity everyday, diet is a huge part of a sportsperson’s life. The England cricket team was ridiculed during a recent series against Australia, in Australia, for sending ahead an 82-page book to catering staff at stadiums and hotels giving every fine detail of what the dietary requirements would be for the team. But that won’t be far off the attention to detail that most elite sporting organizations pay.
The Football Association (FA), which oversees soccer in England, has a webpage aimed mainly at young footballers while growing up, but which gives useful dietary advice for anyone doing sports, and for people in general. One interesting point is that 55 to 60 percent of anybody’s diet should be carbohydrates (it’s 70 percent for footballers), a word that to some people is synonymous with evil. But it makes sense that giving our body proper energy, which carbs supply, and then using it healthily makes more sense than depriving and starving ourselves, leaving us thin but lethargic. The FA also advises a balanced diet, of course, but that is not the same as a diet whose only purpose is to keep us thin. Some carbs are better than others, such as brown bread over white or sweet potatoes over regular, but carbs are not inherently bad.
Here is a list of the FA’s suggestions for snacks which are high in carbs but low in fat: banana, jam or honey sandwiches, Muesli bars, fruit cake, currant buns, scones, American muffins, crumpets, bagels, English muffins, scotch pancakes rusks and cereal, jelly cubes, jaffa cakes, low fat rice pudding, bread pudding, yogurts and milkshakes, fruit and dried fruit. Sounds like fun, most of that! They even suggest that another known evil, saturated fats, are part of a balanced diet, in the form of butter, margarine and cheese. Again, this is aimed at people who play sports, but it is advice for amateurs, and the expectation is that they will not be training for hours every day, but leading similar lives to all of us, as long as we get a decent amount of exercise.
Another useful piece of advice is in regard to water intake. They mention the well-known thing about clear pee being better than yellow pee, to show we are drinking enough, but also say that “being thirsty is an unreliable indicator of when you need to have a drink.” Only drinking when we are thirsty will never result in drinking enough fluid. It takes quite a lot of effort and a good memory to drink enough every day. Happily, some soccer nutritionists advise that chocolate milk is a good post-exercise drink.
I once heard that the great tennis player Martina Navratilova had such a finely tuned body that even eating a bar of chocolate made her feel ill. That is not what we are after, but the FA’s guidelines show something that so many diets are dismissive of: a broad and balanced diet with plenty of exercise is better than some crazy new fad. And a final a tasty tip from me, which I now read Uruguayan soccer legend Diego Forlan also enjoys: pineapple sandwiches on brown bread with a little butter are surprisingly delicious! There is something about that combination that just works, and, of course, it is all sanctioned by England’s leading football authority.
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