Players at all levels of the game spend countless hours training and refining techniques to give themselves the best opportunity to perform well on match-day - but optimising performance for the match is more than just improving technical skill.
Being ‘prepared’ is multifactorial in nature and should encompass many aspects in the days leading up to the game. Leaving one area to chance can significantly impede your overall performance on the pitch.
Most sports require more athleticism now than they ever have, with one example being football. People are running faster, jumping further and covering more distance on top of doing it more frequently than ever before, so you need to provide your body the components it needs to deal with this stress.
Within Sport Science there is a phenomenon known as the ‘Supercompensation Cycle’ (Figure 1 below). Any training or match stimulus causes a degree of fatigue and in order to reach the same physical output, we must adequately recover first. If sufficient recovery has taken place before the next stimulus, there may also be a small window where our performance may even be enhanced.
So preparing and recovering well may improve your performance over time and prevent the gradual decay in performance from inadequate recovery between matches. In-season there is a constant preparation-recovery cycle as you are either preparing for a game or recovering from one. This blog post aims to set some guidelines of how these two key elements of performance are synonymous with each other.
Below I outline some recommendations for the days leading up to a game, match-day preparation and some recovery activities that can be used to minimise the impact of fatigue and stress of match-play.
Figure 1. Supercompensation cycle
Prior to match day
Preparation for match day should start around 3-4 days before the game and incorporates various different aspects including nutrition, hydration and physical preparation. There is currently much debate within relevant research areas about the correct nutritional strategies for athletes. The truth is, there is no one-size fits all approach.
The fundamental aim of adequate nutrition leading up to any sports event is to ensure that you have sufficient stores for the primary energy systems (carbohydrates and some fat), you prevent gastrointestinal discomfort (excess gas, bloating, acidic build up, frequent toilet breaks and cramping) and that you are adequately hydrated well in advance of the match.
The foods that people eat to achieve the goals above will vary depending on age, experience, preferences and even culture but this should be given some attention leading up to a match.
Generally the guidelines would be to slightly increase carbohydrate intake 2-3 days before a match, drink adequate amounts of water to maintain healthy hydration status (Figure 2 below) and aim to eat a portion of lean protein with every meal for recovery. This should be accompanied by 4-5 smaller meals each day to help maintain blood glucose levels.
Some suggestions for meals leading up to game day are identified below (Table 1) and incorporate a selection of healthy meats, vegetables and protein sources.
Alongside nutrition and hydration status you should pay attention to physical preparation. It is possible that especially in-season you may be carrying knocks or niggles from previous matches so maintenance work and tapering (gradual reduction) of training towards game day is crucial. Yoga, static stretching and low-level aerobic work is great to help prepare the body in the days leading up to a match.
Ideally, you want at least 48 hours of recovery between the last high-intensity session and a match to help your body recover and avoid competing with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Figure 2. Hydration chart – aim to stay within zones 1, 2 or 3
Table 1. Suggested meals for days prior to match-day
The match day routine and ritual is a highly individual and personal process. People prepare psychologically and physically in many different ways. Look to try different things until you find a process that suits you.
With afternoon kick-off times it's advised that some very low level activity is performed in the morning to help the transport of nutrients around the body and take the mind off the match. Walking, yoga and relaxed cycling could be good methods to do this.
Generally the main pre-match meal should be consumed around 3-4 hours before the match. This allows sufficient time for the body to digest the food and for it to be used as energy during the match. This meal should be eaten based on comfort, preference and confidence (often people eat the same for each match) and should consist of good carbohydrate and protein sources and be accompanied by some water or juice rather than sports drinks.
Although sports drinks are great and have a place, they should be avoided in the hours before a match – these are most effective immediately before or during the match (half-time and/or during drinks breaks). Ingesting these too early before kick-off may accelerate your use of carbohydrate as energy and leave you feeling tired and lethargic later in the game.
The pre-match warm-up is your opportunity to prepare mentally and physically for the game ahead and should follow a structured and progressive RAMP process:
Raise – increase your heart rate through pulse raising activities (low level sports or movement skills).
Activate and Mobilise – wake up key muscle groups and take joints through their full range of motion (using dynamic stretching).
Potentiate – higher intensity sport specific exercises that replicate match activities.
The on-pitch warm-up should last 25-30 minutes and start with simple, low-intensity movements before progressing to higher-intensity sport specific movements or drills. The final few minutes should be geared towards match intensity so that you are ready to start when the whistle blows and help reduce the likelihood of injuries from a rapid increase in intensity.
From a psychological perspective people have different approaches. Many like to chat and talk about the match and tactics or use mental imagery to practice key movements of the game; others like to use headphones and listen to their favourite music to reduce anxiety. Ultimately, this is down to the individual to choose a method that prepares them for the match in the best possible way.
After the match the cycle starts again and the first part of preparation for the next game is the recovery from this one.
Below (Table 2) is a simple points system approach to optimising recovery. After each match it is recommended that players obtain at least 10 points between the match and the next training session to help minimise the effects of fatigue and stress of the match.
The more effective and crucial aspects of recovery are weighted with higher points and should be the cornerstones of any recovery system (sleep, nutrition and physical maintenance), with the meal hopefully coming as soon as possible after the match. Once the primary aspects of recovery have been covered, supplementary recovery methods such as active recovery and compression clothing could be considered.
Table 2. Point system for maximising recovery from matches.
Athlete Development Coach/Lecturer
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