Exclusive report: how do professional soccer players stay fit?

Fit & Training door anna FG

I am a girl, and in general most girls don’t like soccer. I am not an exception to this rule. Whenever my significant other is watching Studio Sport on Sundays, I get really annoyed by the monotone booing in the background. I do, however, enjoy stuff like the World Championship. The festive vibe and togetherness around events like these, suddenly make wanna know every player in the national team and scream like a madman when the referee messes up. Apart from that, I just don’t really ‘feel’ the game. But when I got the chance to visit AC Milan, I said yes immediately. Who says no to Milan, right? I was curious if a trip like this could change my attitude towards soccer.

So how did I end up at AC Milan in the first place? Well, #FITGIRLCODE got invited by Nutrilite, an organic nutrition supplement brand, and MilanLab, the high-technology interdisciplinary research center of AC Milan, to learn more about their partnership. The main focus of their partnership is to educate the red-and-blacks to follow a correct and customized nutrition and food supplements plan, as a solid foundation to improve their physical and sports performances.

I thought that sounded pretty interesting, because personalization is something we really believe in at #FITGIRLCODE. You have to unlock your own personal code to a healthy lifestyle. What works for you does not necessarily work for someone else. You have to experiment to find what works best for you and your body. So I got curious how they implement this on professional sports level.


How do professional soccer players stay fit

Behind the scenes at Stadio San Siro AC Milan

Before I’d get all my questions answered, I got immersed in the world of AC Milan. We did a museum tour, during which I got to see the famous Trophy Room, a t-shirt van Basten wore, the clubs’ first soccer shoe and a lot more stuff die-hard soccer fans most definitely get real excited about. I have to admit I did get me in the mood. ;) After a crash course  of AC Milan history, we went to the San Siro Stadium were we would watch the Genoa - AC Milan game in the evening. But before that, we got to sniff the players’ t-shirts and shoes in their locker room - normally a highly restricted area -, chill in the seats where the coaches normally sit and walk through the player tunnel. Pretty exciting I have to admit!

When I spoke to my journalist colleagues, I learned that Milan’s current season appears to be a story of crises, false downs, injuries and new signings who have failed to settle. Well that’s definitely something you could 'feel' while watching the game. Not even half of the stadium was filled and before the referee officially called the end of the game, the supporters already left their seats. I found it somewhat humiliating. If you’re a real fan, you stick to your club for better or for worse right? You’re not walking out of a friendship when your friend is going through a rough patch either, right?


Personalized nutrition plan for top performance

The next day we went to the Milanello training center, where we got the chance to interview people from Milan Lab and see their advanced testing methods from up close. The cherry on top: we would meet some of the players too!

We all know that soccer players earn/cost a decent amount of money. They cannot be replaced very easily, so you have to prevent them from getting injured. An athlete’s training starts when sitting down at the table. Nutrition will not help them win the game, but it sure will help them perform better in the long term. That’s why the young talents and their family are educated about food from an early age. Italian people are used to eating a lot of pasta and sweets for breakfast, hence young Milano football talents do so too. Through education programs they learn what they should eat instead, or how they can cook a healthier version by using whole wheat pasta for example.

These education programmes are just the beginning. Each and every athlete undergoes a series of tests (genetic, blood and biodynamic) and a detailed questionnaire about lifestyle and food preferences. According to the results of these, each player gets a customized nutrition and supplement plan. If your test results show, for example, that you lack vitamin D -- then your personalized plan contains vitamin D supplements. The objective is to set up the right conditions for a top performance and improvement of recovery time. If you train A LOT, your body needs good food to build and repair the muscles.

The image above shows the essential dietary compents. These are the essential components for every single person, not just for athletes. Macronutrients are the relatively the easiest ones to get into your system, but micronutrients can be a tough cookie. Especially when you’re traveling a lot trough different time zones and climates, like professional players. Your body can really use an extra dose of vitamins to stay healthy, and that’s where the supplements come in.

The difference between macronutrients and micronutrients is that you can never get an overdose from micronutrients, this is because whatever your body doesn’t need it will get rid off trough urine. On the other hand, if you eat more macros than your body needs, carbs for example, your body stores this as fat. Eating the recommended amount of plant-based food in order get enough minerals and vitamins can be quite challenging though.

Why exactly are fruits and veggies good for your health?

Like I already mentioned earlier, MilanLab collaborates with Nutrilite to create the customized nutrition and supplement plans for the AC Milan player. Nutrilite produces organic vitamins and nutrition supplements. But why would you choose natural supplements over synthetic ones? From a strictly chemical point of view there is no difference between, for example, synthetic or natural vitamin c. The key factor lies within the phytonutrients (phyto is Greek for plant), which can be only found in plants.

Everybody knows that eating fruits and vegetables is good for our health, but not everyone knows why. In addition to the large amounts of vitamins, minerals and fibers, the only kinds of food that contain phytonutrients are fruits and vegetables. These are natural and protective compounds that keep plants from aging and against microbial attacks, which often give them their unique color. These compounds enhance the absorption of vitamins and minerals into our system.

For example an acerola cherry does not just contain vitamin C, it contains other health promoting stuff too. However, availability, cost, cultural diets and geography make eating the recommended amount of plant-based food a challenge. So if you ever doubt if you get enough vitamins and minerals into your system, supplements could be good addition to your diet. Better safe than sorry, right?

Big brother is watching

As soon as the players have their personalized plan, every element, every activity undertaken (from personal data to lifestyle, from diet to exercise routine) is monitored and evaluated. For example, before every training, each player needs to undergo a quick serie of tests. If they fail a certain test this could mean that they’re not allowed to train those days or they have to do an adjusted training. The project leader told me that if one of the guys had been drinking the evening before, he could instantly tell this by the tests. Big brother is watching you! Besides these daily tests, players undergo more extensive tests every two weeks. In the lab they test things like hand-eye coordination, the position of their jaws (for the right balance), flexibility (enough oxygen in the muscles), their mood (happy, sad, sleeping well) and way more. These results show if the player is doing okay, or if his training and nutrition plan might need to be adjusted. The project leaders of the MilanLab inform and advise the trainers about each individual player.

AC Milan is the only soccer club in the world that uses science to improve the physical and sport performances of their players. That makes this a unique case study in the field of professional sports nutrition. 

How to stay motivated when shit gets tough?

Of course I knew that being a professional athlete doesn’t come easy, but hearing all this made me realize that professional soccer players really need to live a very disciplined life to stay on top of their game. Logically they have their down moments too, like you and me ;) so I was curious to how they stay motivated when things get tough. Individually they put a lot of effort and discipline into being successful as a team. But how do they keep a good spirit if all this effort doesn’t seem to pay off, like loosing a few games in a row, and fans acting all frustrated (like they did in the stadium the evening before). AC Milan players Giacomo Bonaventura and Mattia De Sciglio told me that playing soccer at such a high level means that they have mastered the game, but their passion is what keeps them thriving when things get tough.

Like every other person, professional athletes need a break from life sometimes too. For example soccer players are known for gaining quite a lot of weight during their holidays, unlike other athletes. The players said that's because they live such a disciplined life, when they are on a holiday really need to let go of everything. That means enjoying a big plate of pasta and a greasy pizza too. Which appears to be their favorite cheatmeal! Who blames them right? “No thanks, pizza is gross”, said no one ever.

A fruitful trip

When I got the chance to visit AC Milan I wondered if it would change my attitude towards soccer. I don’t think I will join my boyfriend every Sunday to watch studio sports, but I do have a new interesting topic to impress my guy friends with ;)  A topic I never thought would arouse my interest in the first place. It definitely was a fruitful trip!

If you have any questions on this topic, please let me know!