Fuel For Young Athletes

Along with the start of the school year comes the beginning of fall sports. Football, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and cross-country are just a few of the activities that define the season.

While training and coaching are important aspects of children’s success in their athletic endeavors, what they eat and drink before, during, and after their sport also matters. A conversation about this with your child will provide a great opportunity to introduce him or her to the important role of nutrition in sport performance. It also opens the door to teaching children about healthy eating habits.

Here are a few suggestions to help boost young athletes’ energy on the playing field, and to replace their energy once they’re off it.

Before Practice or Event

Prepare with fluids and complex carbohydrates. Two to four hours before practice or competition is perfect timing for a snack or meal. Some examples include: a sandwich with lean meat and a piece of fruit; pasta with tomato sauce; a bowl of cereal with milk; or an English muffin with honey and a container of yogurt. The American College of Sports Medicine also suggests 16-20 ounces of fluid within the two-hour period before exercise.

During Practice or Event

Maintaining energy and hydration is key during practice and sports events. Your child should drink an extra 8 to 12 ounces of fluid (water) for every half hour of strenuous activity. If your child is involved in events or practices that last for hours at a time, light carbohydrate snacks, such as fruit or fig snacks (i.e., Fig Newtons), along with water and a sports drink, will keep them energized.

After Practice or Event

Refuel and rehydrate. The energy spent during practice or competition needs to be replaced so your child is prepared for their next go-around. It’s best to refuel within 60 minutes after exercise and include both complex carbohydrates and a little bit of protein. Examples include:

  • Sandwich with 3 ounces lean meat, pretzels, a piece of fruit and a glass of milk
  • Pasta with marinara sauce, a slice of whole grain bread and a glass of milk
  • 3 ounces lean meat with cooked veggies, a serving of potatoes or rice, and a glass of milk

And don’t forget water! For every pound of body weight lost during exercise, replace with 24 ounces of fluid.

What About Sports Drinks?

Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, are beneficial for kids who participate in prolonged and rigorous physical activity that lasts more than 6o minutes, such as long-distance running or soccer. Other than that, plain water is the beverage of choice. Sports drinks are not necessary for casual athletes exercising less than 60 minutes per session, or for children who are generally inactive. In addition, highly caffeinated energy drinks or sugary soft drinks should be discouraged.

Keep it Simple

Kids who participate in sports don’t require fancy sports drinks, gels, or bars. For sport performance and good health, keeping it simple is the best (and easiest) approach. That translates into a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, with plenty of fluids and adequate rest.

Have a great season!

Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.