Nutrition for female footballers during COVID-19

The day-to-day lives of female footballers have completely altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes in activity levels and training plans need to be reflected in your diet. We spoke to Alex Boyle, Head Nutritionist at Athlete Focused, to get his top tips on how to adjust your diet during lockdown.

Adapt your food intake

Chicken in a pan with red spatula

Most athletes will probably be doing a reduced amount of training right now. While you might be able to do a daily dose of conditioning, you’re not going to have your extra two hours on the pitch that you usually do. Obviously, you won’t be burning as many calories. While you might burn, for example, 1000 to 1500 calories from an on pitch session, you’re probably limited to a maximum of about 800 calories through a really intense running or conditioning session.

For the majority of athletes, the main focus will be to stay lean. In order to do that, you’ll likely have to reduce your food intake, probably anywhere between 10-20 per cent, depending on how much activity you’re managing to do. The average daily calorie intake for a female is 2000, if you reduce that appropriately, then you’re looking at consuming as low as 1600 calories a day.

For those athletes looking to build muscle this could be a really beneficial time, particularly because you’re reducing the amount of calories you’re burning through football exercise, and can instead reserve those calories which would normally be put to growth and recovery. If you can continue to do weight sessions and get that muscle stimulus while maintaining your usual calorie intake you should be able to build muscle.

Think about food volume

Variety of fruits and health foods in bowls and on a chopping board

Instead of looking at calories, consider looking at food volume. As an athlete, it’s likely your day’s quite extended because you’re up, you’re out travelling to training, you’re at training twice a day. Now, though, many people are struggling to fill up their days, resulting in a shorter day. It’s therefore worth considering whether you really need as much food as you’re used to having. It’s all about being considerate about your food intake. Think about delaying, combining or dropping a meal .

If you’re an athlete that eats breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, so around five or six meal eating times a day, could you cut it back? So maybe have just three meals and a snack, or two meals and a few snacks. Or maybe delay breakfast and have brunch instead, so you’re combining two meals, then follow that with a snack and dinner.

How you do it depends on you as an individual and what’s comfortable to you. Think about whether you’re a grazer or if you feel more satisfied knowing that you’re full then build your eating around that.

Increase your protein intake

Six eggs in a box, one cracked

Most athletes will generally have quite a high protein intake, but it’s likely boosted by lots of carbohydrates used to fuel training sessions. As the amount of activity has dropped, you need to focus on making sure you’re eating enough protein, then supplementing it with carbohydrates when you need it. Protein will also keep you fuller for longer and hopefully stop you snacking on extra sugary or unrefined carbohydrates.

We use grams per kilogram of body weight as the measure; somewhere between 1.6 and 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight is likely a typical protein intake for a fit female - that’s about 110 to 150 grams of protein spread out across the day for a 70 kilogram female. An athlete is usually at the lower end of that, somewhere between 1.6 and 1.8 grams per kilogram.

If you’re trying to make fat loss gains or reductions, then because you’re actually doing less, you should be aiming to get even more protein than normal - you could therefore aim towards 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Increase your fibre intake

Sliced brown bread on a chopping board

There’s no magic pill nutrition-wise to help you deal with what’s going on at the moment, however you obviously want to stay as healthy as possible. One way to do that is by getting extra fibre in your diet. There’s a great opportunity right now to focus on more wholemeal and whole grain foods rather than eating sugary carbohydrates. Having a lot more legumes, and beans and grains in your diet will help slow down digestion and allow your system to soak up as many nutrients as possible. Added to that, you’ll be fuller for longer so you won’t be craving any snacks.

Increase your fruit and veg intake

Variety of fruits sliced in half

Eating fruit and veg is vital for keeping healthy. In the first couple of weeks of the pandemic it was quite hard for some people to get access to fruit and veg, but now we’ve got companies doing fresh delivery food boxes and supermarkets have caught up with the demand. Frozen vegetables and fruits are a great option as well, they hold the nutrition value really well.

Maintain a level of activity

Woman legs walking on path next to grass

Despite the limitations, try and maintain a level of activity as much as you can. Maintain your fitness. As an athlete you might have some hard conditioning sessions. Try and use your conditioning sessions for that one hour a day you get outside, and try and get those hard running sessions done.

Try to keep doing home workouts too - there’s plenty you can do. Most people are quite active in their daily life, it’s often easy to get 10,000 steps. That’s obviously harder in the current situation, so consider setting yourself challenges. Can you get 10,000 steps at home? You could do it by walking up and down the stairs, walking around the house, or walking around the garden if you’re fortunate enough to have one. Whatever way you do it, trying to get your steps up is another good way to make sure that you’re still keeping your metabolism going.

Use tasks to keep a regularity to your day. Do your household chores or get on with some DIY you haven’t had time to do before. These things all help to keep your general health and your mental state intact, which is all especially important right now.

Match your eating to your training

Woman doing sit ups indoors

One way to look at putting together and scheduling meals is through a traffic light system. In that system you’ve got three kinds of plates:

  • Green: predominantly protein and vegetables plus healthy fats. Mediterranean-style salad with chicken.

  • Amber: an equal balance of protein, carbs and vegetables. A roast dinner-style plate with meat, veg and potatoes.

  • Red: a protein, a smaller portion of veg and two portions of carbohydrates. A pasta or risotto or a roast dinner followed by fruit crumble.

These plates can then be used at different points in the day. If you’re not training, adding more green plates to your day is probably best. If, for example, you’re doing a session mid-morning, then have an amber plate for breakfast, something like scrambled egg on toast with some orange juice. That way you’re getting a bit of carbohydrate source for your training session. Then once you’ve done your training you need to replenish what you’ve put in - if you’ve done a hard session, the best time to replenish your carbohydrate stores is immediately after the session. So depending on the intensity of your session, have either an amber or a red plate to replenish and load up your carbohydrate stores. Then, later on in the evening, if you’re not doing any more exercise you have a green plate.

You can also look at how you use these plates over a whole week and how your eating on a harder-loaded day will look compared to a recovery or walking day.

Stay hydrated

Glass of water on wooden table

An average person needs at least two litres of water a day. Generally, athletes need more than that due to what they’re releasing through activity. Given that you’re likely doing a bit less you might not need as much as you usually do. Make sure you get at least two litres - it will help physiological function.

Keep a healthy sleep pattern

Woman sleeping head on pillow under duvet

An average person should try to get seven hours a night at least, but with doing less activity you can end up staying up later and lying-in in the morning. Try to avoid that and maintain at least a solid seven hours - a regular sleep pattern is really important. As much as possible avoid using your phone or other electronic devices an hour before bed and an hour after waking.

What’s becoming apparent now is that people tend to get lost in checking their messages and their updates and they end up being in bed for an extra 40 minutes to an hour each morning just scrolling. It’s good for you to get up, get active, get moving around, eat some breakfast breakfast, and then you can go into updating yourself on social media or whatever it might be. It’s important to make sure that you have that hour either side of sleeping and waking in order to keep yourself healthy and in a good state of mind.

Athlete Focused Nutrition has produced a free nutrition PDF information booklet Dealing With The Lockdown which you can access here.

Athlete Focused has a free two week lockdown training programme which you can sign up to here.

Follow Athlete Focused on Instagram at @athlete_focused and @athletefocusednutrition on Twitter @athletefocused and on Facebook @athletefocused and @athletefocusednutrition.