Nothing excites global sports fans more than the World Cup—except, maybe, their team snagging the title. But despite the fact that fans take wins and defeats seriously (the earthquake in Mexico last week was rumored to have been caused by fans celebrating a goal), the players are the ones who feel the most pressure.
And with the pressure of the World Cup comes some pretty intense pre-tournament prep.
Fitness is a key aspect of any sport, but soccer—or football, as the rest of the world calls it—requires specific areas of focus. Since players run an average of six to 10 miles in a game, mostly in bursts of sprinting, players train to achieve speed and endurance. Considering the extreme lower body and abdominal strength needed to pelt the ball across the field, precision and force are also essential in pro soccer training.
But what exactly do pro soccer players do to get ready for the big game? Here are a few ways these athletes reach peak fitness ahead of key tourneys like the World Cup.
The pre-game diet
The Mexican World Cup team has one thing to be thankful for: now that they’re at the tournament, they can finally eat beef again. Because many farmers in Mexico use growth-enhancing clenbuterol, a banned substance, the team didn’t eat any beef in Mexico prior to the big tournament.
Most players will tell you they observe a strict diet year-round and prepare for training as though every day is game day. But the routine gets far more specific the day or so before a match. On actual game days, many players begin to consume 1-4 carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight in the seven hours before hitting the field. That equates to breakfast, then a lunch three hours before the match and a high-carb food or beverage in the hour just before the game. Players typically opt for familiar foods that won’t upset their stomachs or cause bloating and fatigue.
Hydration is obviously key. Players are often told to ingest 400-500 ml of water in the hour before the match; that’s about 1.5 to 2 cups. Isotonic sports drinks are also a go-to supplement, since the additional carbs are particularly useful for “topping up” those storages of muscle glycogen.
These isotonic sports drinks are different from other beverages because their concentration and thickness are believed to be akin to the viscosity of human blood. This sounds a bit gross, but there’s a reason why isotonic beverages are used among athletes. In one study, drinking an isotonic sports drink boosted runners’ treadmill running time to exhaustion by 27%—meaning, they were able to run for longer without getting fatigued.
The footballer’s take on supplements
The U.S. Men’s National Team has participated in training camps revolving around better nutrition education. One of the top takeaways? Supplement wisely. And it seems other players and teams are following suit.
As Mexico’s team nutritionist told the Associated Press, every player’s nutritional needs is different. For the team, supplementation and diet are customized—and monitored closely for any banned substances.
Meanwhile, top American footballer, Los Angeles Galaxy defender and U.S. National Team hopeful Omar Gonzales sets out strict guidelines for the supplements he relies on. Gonzales isn’t content to purchase the supplement with the most hype or eye-catching packaging. Instead, the athlete examines the ingredients in his supplements before purchase to ensure there’s no banned substances involved. While it’s less than likely that you’ll be tested for drugs in the same manner as a professional soccer player, it’s still essential that you rely on quality reviews for your own safety.
The player also seeks out supplements geared toward his lifestyle and sport. Professional footballers prioritize calorie-laden, carb-heavy shakes and supplements to provide the energy this high-intensity sport demands. Gonzales also makes one demand of his supplements that anyone would be happy to follow: they have to taste good. Not necessarily spaghetti-with-red-sauce good, but the athlete warns against buying flavors you won’t enjoy taking daily.
This self-care makes sense. In the moment, purchasing a protein powder or supplement that doesn’t totally delight your senses might seem especially disciplined, but in the long run, you’re less likely to commit to a regimen you don’t find tasty. And science backs this up. Although you can train your taste buds to be ok with bitter, less than appealing flavors, we’re biologically conditioned to steer clear of particular tastes that in nature are more likely to be poisonous or toxic.
With the rise of banned sports supplements and a more captive audience than ever, pro athletes are paying closer attention to their nutrition than ever before. How will that dedication to fitness pan out at the World Cup? We’ll just have to wait and see—at least until the finals on July 15.