Fueling a Growing Athlete
By Emily Mitchell MS, RDN, CSSD, CDCES at Ludis Athletics, where sports meets science.
Young athletes dedicate numerous hours each week to training and competing, all while juggling the demands of school, friendships, family, and the many physical and mental changes occurring within their bodies. Because of this, it is important for these athletes to meet their estimated energy requirements in order to adequately fuel their workouts, optimize their sports performance, and support proper growth and development.
Parents and coaches can ensure that young athletes remain consistently fueled and hydrated throughout the day by devoting extra time to plan ahead and organizing within their busy schedules. Establishing a healthy eating schedule not only enhances athletic performance, but also contributes to injury prevention, promotes muscle recovery, strengthens the immune system, and boosts energy levels and focus throughout the day.
What and When Should You Eat Before Practice or Competition?
Ideally, it is best to have a meal 3-4 hours prior to practice or a game to optimize performance and ensure proper digestion.
For early morning training or competition, consuming a small meal or larger snacks 2 hours before is sufficient. As the activity draws nearer, it is recommended to choose options that are higher in carbohydrates and lower in fiber, protein, and fat.
What Should You Eat After Practice or Competition?
The completion of the activity is not the end; recovery nutrition is essential.
The optimal time for replenishment is within an hour when muscles are primed to absorb carbohydrates and protein, aiding muscle repair and growth. Liquid nutrition options such as chocolate milk, yogurt, or a smoothie with milk and fresh fruit are perfect choices.
Following the recovery snack, ensure your subsequent meal includes lean protein, grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy.
Best Hydration Options and Recommended Amounts
The best options for hydration are:
- Water – Strive for at least 64-80 ounces per day (or at least half your body weight in ounces)
- Milk – Consume 2-3 glasses of milk per day to fulfill calcium requirements
Whole fruits contribute to hydration, but it is recommended to restrict 100% fruit juices to 4-6 ounces per day.
Sports drinks, which contain carbohydrates and electrolytes, should be utilized when engaging in exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes or in between multiple games during tournaments.
Build Performance Plates for Meals
When building meals, it is important to consider the specific demands of training for the day or upcoming competition, as well as taking into account the athlete’s food preferences.
For intense training sessions or multiple sessions in a day, there is an increased need for carbohydrates to provide energy, as well as healthy fats and adequate fluid intake.
For moderate training sessions, the focus remains on carbohydrates, but there is also room to include a greater variety of vegetables and fruits to achieve a balanced meal.
During light training sessions or active recovery periods, the emphasis shifts towards a higher intake of vegetables and fruits, while the need for carbohydrates is reduced.
By tailoring meals to meet specific training demands and considering individual food preferences, athletes can optimize their performance and support their overall well-being.
Nourishing Snacks Between Meals or Before Practice
Nourishing snack options:
- Whole wheat crackers with Babybel cheese
- Applesauce squeeze and cashews
- Greek yogurt with blueberries
- Roasted snap peas and apple
- Hummus with carrots/cucumbers and pita chips
- Frozen grapes and pistachios
- Homemade trail mix with Cheerios, dried tart cherries, almonds, and pumpkin seed
- Whole wheat pita with hard-boiled egg and avocado
- Pretzels with guacamole
Putting it All Together: Fueling for Optimal Performance
To fuel for optimal performance, understand the role of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Prioritize carbohydrates as your primary energy source. Choose whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, starchy vegetables, and fruits for lasting energy during meals and snacks.
Ensure an even distribution of protein throughout the day to support growth and facilitate muscle building and repair. Incorporate both animal and plant-based protein sources into meals and most snacks, allowing your young athlete to benefit from the nutritional advantages.
Exercise caution when consuming foods higher in fat around practice and competition. These foods slow down digestion, which can be disadvantageous for athletes. Healthy fats should be incorporated several hours before exercise and at post-exercise meals and snacks. Greasy, fried foods and high-fat desserts may leave your athlete feeling tired and sluggish.
Instead, opt for balanced choices and reserve indulgences like fries or pizza for occasional treats, striving for overall balance in their diet.
Family Dinner Time
Quality family dinner time is an opportunity to involve your athlete in choosing and preparing meals.
Ensure All 5 Food Groups are Included:
- Low-fat dairy
Baked or broiled lean cuts of meat, poultry, or seafood – such as chicken breast, salmon, or tuna.
Incorporate whole grains like whole-wheat pasta or brown rice, and include their favorite vegetables or a side salad.
- Choose fruit-based desserts more often, such as baked apples or pears topped with Greek yogurt
As a parent, supporting your young athlete’s nutrition may feel challenging, but prioritizing their dietary needs in both training and everyday life will fuel their passion for the sport. Most importantly, a well-balanced and planned nutrition intake will support their growth and establish lifelong healthy eating habits.
Emily Mitchell is a Registered Dietician at Ludis Athletics. To learn more about our team of specialists, please visit www.ludisathletics.com. Our Certified Mental Performance Consultant, Doctor of Physical Therapy, and Registered Dietitian are ready to support you on your athletic journey. With personalized training, injury prevention, and fueling strategies, Ludis Athletics aims to optimize both your mind and body. Join us at www.ludisathletics.com and take the first step towards peak performance. Let’s fuel your success together!
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