Most athletes recognize the importance of nutrition and the implications it has on sports performance. At what age, and at what level of sport, it is appropriate to start addressing nutrition with an athlete is a common point of confusion for both parents and coaches alike. Fortunately, the answer is simple – as soon as an athlete begins any level of competitive sport.
Since nutrition literally is the fuel that drives an athlete, this fuel needs to be present at any age, not just when the athlete gets to high school or college. In fact, the young athlete (between the ages of 7-13) not only has to provide fuel for his or her exercising body, but also needs nutrients for growth and development. Because of this, you could argue that nutrition is more important for a young athlete than it is any other point during his or her career.
Now, obviously, the nutritional requirements of Division I college athletes and little league baseball players are quite different, and with the seemingly limitless body of information on sports nutrition available on the internet, it can be difficult for parents and coaches to determine what to emphasize with their young athlete. This article will summarize important nutritional do’s and don’ts for your young athlete:
Remember they’re kids.
Always realize that your young athlete is still a kid, and being a kid should be fun. It should mean enjoying sport, for the sake of sport, and it also should mean not having to stick with a strict, regimented eating plan. One of the fastest ways to give a young male or female athlete some pretty significant psychological issues with eating (issues they’ll carry with them the rest of their lives) is to emphasize nutrition too much at a young age. Calorie counting, strict eating rules, and depriving your child of certain foods is not a healthy way to develop good eating habits. You should encourage your young athlete to eat healthy, nutritious foods, and educate them about the importance of nutrition (for health, not just performance), but let them be kids. Allow them to have pizza, ice cream, or the occasional cookie. The high metabolism of a young, growing body affords them this luxury. Just teach them the ever-important moderation principle.
Focus on what’s easy.
It’s hard enough to get adults to make changes to their eating habits, and most adults understand the reason behind what they are doing. Kids, on the other hand, tend to be a little more resistant to nutritional changes, mainly because they can’t always draw the connection between eating better and performing at a higher level (or they do draw this connection but don’t care). With that said, the easier the nutritional strategy, the better, and the simplest thing to address is eating right around games or practices. Now, I’m not talking about going to get ice cream win or lose; I’m talking about nutrient timing for young athletes. Yes, just like we advocate for older athletes, young athletes also need protein and carbs around training (game, practice, or workout). These need to come in the form of something simple and palatable, but not the commercially available over-the-counter supplements (not yet at least). For the young athlete, 8-16 oz. of Gatorade 20-30 minutes prior to the start of exercise is a good starting point; another 8-16 oz. per 30 minutes of exercise is a great way to sustain energy during performance. If Gatorade is too sweet for your young athlete, try diluting it in a little water, and always have water available to drink during games or practices, just in case they don’t want the Gatorade. Post-exercise can be a real treat for your young athlete. Within 20 minutes of stopping exercise, have the athlete consume 12-16 oz. of low-fat chocolate milk. This provides sugar to fill up depleted carbohydrates stores, and protein to repair broken down muscle tissue.
Do the hard thing.
The flipside of number two is to try to avoid feeding your young athlete solid food within the window spanning 60 minutes before exercise to 30 minutes after exercise. The body doesn’t digest and absorb solid food very well at all during exercise, so a big bowl of pasta an hour before training is probably not your best bet. Also, try to avoid candy bars, chips, and other snacks right after the game. Get the chocolate milk into them, give it 30 minutes, and then you can give them solid food. This can be difficult, however, as athletes may be going right from school (where they had lunch before noon) to a 3 or 4 o’clock practice, and they may want something in their stomach. If this is the case, try something small, simple, and easily digested. Small granola bars, Snickers Marathon Bars, Power Bars, and Nutri-Grain bars are usually good options. Combining a couple of small bars with a little bit of Gatorade can be a great way to provide your athlete with energy, as well as put something in their stomach to keep them from getting too hungry.
Provide good well-balanced meals.
Ultimately, the way your children eat is up to you more than it is to them. If all you buy and make for your young athlete is high fat, high sugar foods, then that’s all they have to consume. Buying and preparing healthy meals with good proteins and carbohydrates will provide an important nutritional base for your young athlete. Minimally, breakfast, lunch, and dinner should combine some serving of protein with a complex carb. Your best bets for proteins are milk, eggs, lunch meats, turkey, and chicken – as these are all high quality protein sources. Good sources of complex carbs could be whole grain cereal (like Cheerios), wheat bread, sweet potatoes, and even white rice/pasta (these aren’t all that bad for the young athlete who needs to expend a lot of energy during activity). Remember: you have to prepare it and make it available — if not, the alternative is nowhere near as healthy!
Set a good example.
Parents tend to cringe a little when I say this, but kids learn by observation as much as anything else. If your eating habits are poor, theirs will be too, because they’re observing your poor behavior. Like so many other aspects of your child’s life, you set the example they will come to emulate. The better your eating habits are, the better theirs will be, which makes this a win-win for both of you.
So, there you have it — five simple rules to fuel your young athlete for games, practices, and life. Implement these rules for the next three months, and I guarantee you and your young athlete will see such significant strides in performance that you won’t ever look back again.