Meeting the Sports Nutrition Needs of Young Athletes

As if trying to feed teenagers a nutritious diet wasn’t difficult enough at times, taking care of your adolescent athlete can be even more of a challenge. Not to mention that as the parent of an athlete, you’re busy. In addition to driving your athlete to practices and games, you’re stocking up at the grocery store to try to keep up with their appetite. Proper nutrition is imperative for optimal growth and peak performance in adolescents. Unfortunately, most American youth today do not meet the minimum recommended amount of fruits, vegetables, or whole grains, and most go far beyond the recommended daily intake of sodium. On average U.S. teenagers consume more soda than milk or other healthful beverages. How is your teenager doing, and what is it they need?

Nutrition and Competition

It is without a doubt that what young athletes eat potentially affects their health as well as their performance skills in the sport. If they eat a poor diet, they not only risk illness but also their ability to best train and compete. Eating the right foods and drinking plenty of fluids before, during and after each training session ultimately helps young athletes perform better, have reduced fatigue and additionally, helps prevent them from getting ill.

Providing sufficient fuel for muscles, maintaining adequate hydration, and promoting post-exercise body recovery can be achieved best by considering these three distinct phases: before, during and after training.

Before training

It is critical that young athletes begin each training session with energy stacked to the brim and hydrated properly. This will provide them with endurance to enable them to exercise much harder and for a longer period. They should consume enough carbohydrates, to prevent the risk early fatigue coupled with poor performance. The athlete may feel weak and lag behind their teammates, occasionally resting.
When should young athletes eat before training?

The appropriate time to eat before exercise is 2 – 4 hours. Carbohydrate, are usually digested immediately as they enter the body and are broken down to provide energy within the stipulated time. They will top up muscle and liver glycogen levels enhancing performance. If young athletes leave a gap more than 4 hours, they will feel hungry during training, tired and sometimes light headed, leading to poor concentration and performance levels. On the other hand, if they eat too close to training, it becomes uncomfortable making them feel ‘heavy’ or nauseous, and unable to train. Since all the blood supply in diverted to facilitate digestion instead of transporting energy to the muscles.

What should young athletes eat before training?

Foods for a pre-training athlete should be composed primarily of carbohydrates, like potatoes and whole grain cereals. In addition to supplying the much-needed energy in the form of glucose, they also provide fiber, B-Complex vitamins and essential minerals like Potassium and Sodium. Additionally, the athlete may need to include some protein like chicken, eggs, lean meat, fish, cheese, beans, lentils or nuts, in the meal. This will lower and regulate the overall glycemic index of the meal, providing sustainable energy and improving performance.

Porridge, oatmeal, cereal with milk, a jacket potato with beans, or a light pasta meal would be suitable pre-workout meals.

Is sugar good or bad for young athletes’ performance?

Eating sugar before exercise doesn’t improve performance or stamina. On the contrary, it triggers insulin production, which transports sugars out of the bloodstream instead of the opposite, leaving the athlete tired, weak and light-headed. Also, high insulin levels can trigger the onset of diabetes type 2. If a pre-training energy boost is needed, I recommend bananas and dried fruit that won’t distort your blood sugar levels.

During training

After ensuring the pre-training nutritional needs have been met, hydration during training is critical. Young athletes should continue hydrating themselves at regular intervals more in hot, humid weather or during intense, strenuous exercise.

What should young athletes drink during training?

Water is okay, but its effects last only an hour, for a long lasting hydrating component choose a drink that provides carbohydrates such as squash, which increase endurance, stamina and improve performance.

After training

A post training meal needs to contain healthy fats, like avocado and proteins, in large amounts for the restoration of muscles and, additionally, adequate amounts of carbohydrates to replenish the depleted fuel.

What are the snacks to eat after training?

Also termed as recovery snacks, they are composed of extra protein. Good choices include low-fat milk, fruit with yogurt or a homemade milkshake. Several studies have suggested that low-fat milk is better for rehydrating athletes, because as it’s imbued with proteins to promote speedy muscle recovery.

Protein in Sports Nutrition

What about the all-famous protein? Doesn’t it build muscle? While amino acids are essential for helping build our muscles, an exorbitant amount of protein is not necessary. Strength training builds muscle. It is simply important to consume enough protein to ensure that our body doesn’t break down muscle to use as energy while training. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics teenagers in the U.S. already consume twice their protein needs. However, your athlete does need more than their average peers. Protein supplements are not necessary if eating a well-balanced diet, and remember that protein comes from sources other than meat (eggs pack one of the most powerful protein punches). The recommendation is that endurance athletes should get 1.2-1.4 g of protein/kg of body weight. Strength-trained athletes may need up to 1.6-1.7 g protein/kg body weight. (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds).

How much protein do young athletes need?

For a young athlete, it’s stipulated that they need more protein than their non-athletic counterparts, 1.4g per kg body weight. That is 84g for a 60kg athlete. Daily inclusions of 2 – 3 portions of protein-rich foods daily makes it easy for young athletes to meet their recommended daily protein requirement.

How much fat should young athletes eat?

The balance of a young athlete’s calorie intake comes from fats. To be precise, the good fats, i.e. unsaturated and natural like avocado, whole fat butter and coconut oil and not the processed Trans-fats and saturated fats like margarine. A young athlete’s fat intake shouldn’t be of concern since they have high energy needs and require fats for this. Encourage them to consume natural fats and use plant-based oils in their salads and meals preparations.

Vitamins and Minerals in Sports Nutrition

Though vitamin and mineral needs may increase slightly for athletes, these needs can be easily met by a well-balanced diet. Daily supplements are only needed if you have a particular concern that your teenager isn’t getting adequate nutrients through their food. You may hear it over and over again, but it’s true: it’s the well-balanced, multi-colored diet that’s key. One nutrient to be on the lookout for, however, is iron. Iron deficiency is most prevalent in adolescent athletes, particularly females. Iron helps the red blood cells deliver oxygen to the muscles as they work. Some iron-containing foods to include in their diet are meat, legumes, vegetables, and grains. Before pumping your athlete with iron supplements, it is beneficial to have your doctor take a blood test to diagnose if there is an iron deficiency. Overdosing on iron can cause abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Those symptoms are sure to inhibit performance!

Do young athletes need extra vitamins and minerals?

Young athlete’s diets need the necessary vitamins and minerals. Include them in their diet and vitamin and minerals will complement the major food groups. Vitamins and minerals make it easy for the major food groups to be transformed in the body as well as their transport and metabolism.

The best way to provide these supplements to young athletes is by encouraging them to eat a nutrient-rich diet, rather than taking supplements. Include fruits and vegetables, in their diet in about five daily portions and additionally ensure they consume whole grain cereals.

Carbohydrates in Sports Nutrition

When most people think of a performance or sports diets, they think of sports drinks and carb loading. There’s a lot more to it than that, though. Without adding sports into the equation, teenagers already require extra calories for growth (as if you haven’t noticed that your teenagers seem to be eating you out of house and home). Depending on their sport and activity level your athlete may need up to 4,000 calories/day. Yes, although your MVP can afford to eat those extra doughnuts during his two-a-days in the summer, the bottom line is that it’s not developing good habits for a future time when he’s no longer as active. It will catch up with him. Not to mention, the doughnuts aren’t providing any other sustainable nutrients. The right kinds of carbohydrates are very important to an athlete, though, so let’s talk about how to use them.

Complex carbohydrates provide sustained energy, which is why they’re eaten by most athletes before a game, competition, or long race. The appropriate amount of extra carbohydrates will be stored in the form of glycogen (long chains) for later use as energy – perfect for your athlete! A carbohydrate meal such as orange juice, toast, and jelly can be eaten 3-4 hours before competition. Easily-digested and carbohydrate-rich foods such as banana, bread with jam or honey, or bite-sized pieces of low-fat granola are great snacks to have on hand to keep the fuel up during a long event. The key to carbohydrate consumption is to ensure that you’re not just throwing “empty nutrients” at them. Offer your teen lots of whole-grain bread, potatoes, legumes, corn, whole-wheat pasta, hearty cereals and fruit.

Carbohydrate loading is beneficial when an athlete will be exercising for more than 90 minutes at a time, or at many intervals during a 24-hour period. This means eating nearly 70% of total calories from carbohydrates 15 hours before a competition to build up large glycogen storage, preventing muscle fatigue later. It also means an appropriate tapering of activity in the days before. If this is something your teen wants to do, it’s best to speak with his/her coach before to make sure they’re on board with this plan.

How many carbohydrates should young athletes eat each day?

For a young athlete, relative to their training schedule, should consume carbohydrates about in a ratio of 1:660 to their body weight. For example, if you weigh 60kg, consume, 360g of carbohydrates daily. As a thumb rule, young athletes should eat the following in order to meet their carbohydrate requirements.

  • 4 – 6 portions of grains/ potatoes (equivalent to 8-12 slices of bread or 150g of potatoes)
  • 5 portions of fruit/ vegetables (equivalent to 5 bananas)
  • 2 – 4 portions of dairy products (equivalent of 1 liter of milk)

Fluids in Sports Nutrition

What’s last, but has just as much importance as the others? Don’t ignore the fluids. Drinking water is just as important as eating foods. It’s needed to control body temperature, prevent heat exhaustion and even death, in extreme conditions. It’s important to drink plenty of water not just during an event, but also before and after. Recommendations for fluid consumption are as follows:

  • 2 hours before event/activity: 16 oz.
  • 5-10 minutes pre-activity: 4-8 oz.
  • During the event: 8 oz. every 30 minutes
  • After the event: at least 24 ounces

Fluids consumed with carbohydrate-rich foods help to speed up the transport of that fuel to the muscles during that long-endurance event. While sports drinks can provide important electrolytes such as potassium and sodium that are lost in sweat during exercise, watch out for sports drinks that look deceptively healthy, but contain little more than sugar. Electrolyte packets are available if you simply want hydration with electrolytes and nothing more. It’s really all about the combination. Too many carbohydrates or not enough fluids can result in cramping or other intestinal problems/discomforts. The goal is a happy, healthy athlete who is developing good eating habits for life!


Learn More

The Dangers of Sports Drinks and Drinking Too Much Water


Share This