By Michael Morris, MD
Medical Director and Orthopedic Surgeon, Seattle Sounders FC
Department of Sports Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center
Youth soccer tournaments present a unique challenge not present in the upper levels of soccer. Playing multiple games a day over several days does not happen in college or professional soccer. Clearly, performance in the latter games can suffer and injury risk does go up. What are some strategies to mitigate these issues?
Hydration is critical for recovery between matches and maintaining performance. During a game in warm weather, a player can lose as much as 3-4 pounds of fluid. It has been shown that a loss of just 1 percent of body weight can lead to decreased performance. Greater than 2-percent loss of the body weight in hot weather can be a safety issue, leading to issues such as heat exhaustion.
Water or sports drink? There remains some controversy over this, but in general, before a game water is best. During or after a game to help replace electrolytes and some carbohydrates, a sports drink should be utilized.
How much should a player drink? Here are a few suggestions. Within a few hours before playing, drink 16-20 ounces of water. During a game, drink 20 ounces of a sports drink at halftime. Weigh yourself before and after a game. Any weight loss is mainly attributed to fluid loss. For every pound of weight loss, drink 22 ounces of a sport drink or water. This last tip is especially important for tournaments where you will play more than one game in a day. (Take a scale for the team to use). Another trick to evaluate hydration is to check the color of your urine. Dark urine indicates dehydration. If it is the color of lemonade, hydration is good. If it looks like apple juice, you need to hydrate more. Hydration is not just for kids. We have signs to remind the Sounders to stay hydrated in their training room.
Obviously, tournament situations drain the player’s energy stores. Replacing these is vital and specific, focused strategies are critical. To understand this, a brief bit of science.
Glycogen is stored in our muscles and is the fuel our muscles need to work. Exercise depletes the glycogen stores in our muscles. Carbohydrates replenish muscle glycogen stores. Studies in high-level professional soccer players in the English Premier League showed that those players who optimally replaced their glycogen stores in the first 30 minutes of a game performed up to 25 percent better in the next game situation.
We also need protein to perform our highest level. During a game, our muscles break down and need protein after play to help rebuild. It is important to get the carbohydrate and protein into your body shortly after training. If one waits for a couple of hours and then eats, it will not have the same effect. Optimum effect is in the first 30 minutes after games and training.
Here is a good rule of thumb: Eat one gram of carbohydrate for every two pounds of body weight and eat 10-20 grams of protein. So, a 120-pound player would eat 60 grams of carbohydrates and 10-20 grams of protein. Chocolate milk is a very good recovery drink. One cup of chocolate milk contains 30 grams of carbohydrate and eight grams of protein; so two cups of chocolate milk would cover the appropriate amount of replenishment that a player needs. A good choice for this is the packaged chocolate milks that are available at a source such as Costco. Other options include nutrition bars or a combination of sports drinks and bagels with peanut butter. Be sure to check the nutrition labels to see how many grams of carbohydrates and how much protein are available.
How about meals during a tournament? Low carbohydrate and caveman diets are not for youth soccer players. Players need carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the fuels that replenish the muscle and liver glycogen stores. Decreased glycogen is the major reason for fatigue at the end of a match and during a tournament.
How many carbohydrates does a youth soccer player need when competing? They should eat at least four grams of carbohydrate per pound, per day. Here is a list of a few substances and their carbohydrate value: rice (45 grams per cup), bagel (60 grams), beans (45 grams per cup), a banana (20 grams), yogurt with fruit (45 grams).
Protein is also critical to build and maintain muscle and strengthen the immune system, but protein is only useful if you consume enough carbohydrates to provide the body with energy. How much protein should a youth soccer player take in when competing?About 0.5-0.7 grams for each pound of body weight.
Rest between games is critical. Get those lights out early, put away the phones and sleep. Eight to nine hours is a minimum for youth athletes. Sleep is when our bodies recover and regenerate. Between two games in a day, rest quietly with the legs up. If there is a long period between games, a short nap may be beneficial, but not longer than 30 minutes.
Some of the following regeneration strategies can help recover and prepare your body for games that are close together. Although ice baths are somewhat controversial, there are studies that show they can be of benefit and most professional athletes use these after games. Try to get this done as soon as possible after the game to slow the inflammatory process in your muscles. Ten to 15 minutes in the bath at 50-60 degrees is about right. Light, passive stretching or more active pool work, such as gentle exercises in the hotel pool, may help prepare the muscles for the next game as well.
The bad news is that no matter how hard we try, our performance level after five games in 2-3 days is going to suffer. The good news is that if you are in that fifth game, you are battling for the championship. Use the strategies above to help you raise that first-place trophy.