Fare or Foul: Fueling your young athletes to perform their best
By Shannon Ryan
You may have heard the phrase, “You are what you eat,” but did you know that you compete the way you eat as well? Yes, what and when your young player eats may drastically affect their performance on the playing field. For better or worse, food and beverage choices can change the game.
Eating too little before a game or training session is one of the biggest mistakes athletes make. This results in fatigue, ineffective training and risk of injury. Fueling up before a player gets on the field keeps them running farther and faster – especially later in the game. Skills and judgment will hold up through the end of the game when many other players tire out. Games are often won or lost in the final seconds, so kids can have an edge over their competition when their bodies are prepared correctly.
Make sure your player eats a meal 1½ to 3 hours before their event. Any earlier than that and their energy will be used up and their muscles won’t fully function toward the end of the game. Any later (less than an hour before game time), and their body won’t have enough time to digest the meal and could leave them feeling nauseous or cramped.
For breakfast, have them try yogurt with granola and a banana, or a bagel with cream cheese. Cereal with fruit is a good choice, or even a fruit smoothie. If there is a game after lunch or dinner, choose pasta with chicken and vegetables. For a non-meat option try a bean burrito with cheese, lettuce and tomato. A sandwich with fruit and yogurt, or a salad with low-fat cheese and bread, are great ways to fuel up, too.
Pre-game fueling is not effective if a player makes the wrong food choices, so remember:
- Avoid caffeinated beverages like cola and energy drinks. They make kids feel jittery and cause dehydration.
- Stay away from high-fat meals like burgers, hot dogs and French fries before a game. Fatty foods digest slowly, especially during intense exercise.
- Sugary foods like soda and candy may give players a quick energy boost, but the feeling fades quickly. They will be drained and hungry within an hour. There’s a time and a place to enjoy these types of foods, but not right before a competition.
Repeated sprinting and activity over the course of an all-day tournament can easily drain the stored fuel in an athlete’s muscles. When there are multiple games or training sessions in a single day, try having your player eat every hour or two. Keep small, energy-packed food in a sports bag to snack on between games, such as a half sandwich, bananas, raisins, pretzels and yogurt. Juice and chocolate milk are great beverage choices between sessions. But make sure they don’t stuff themselves since this could result in cramps when they take the field. Instead, have them snack lightly and as soon as possible after the first event to prepare their body for the next one.
Eating frequently throughout the day is critical for competitive athletes. Smart snacking is a good way to avoid the feeling of energy levels being too high or too low. Remember, if a player feels hungry, it means his or her energy levels are going down.
Don’t forget the most important nutrient of all: water, which makes up 70-75 percent of our brains. If deprived it won’t be able to concentrate or make quick decisions. Water makes up 70-75 percent of our muscles too, so becoming even slightly dehydrated will mean tiring more easily and losing coordination and strength.
By the time a player feels thirsty, he is already dehydrated by at least 2 cups of water! So it’s important to drink water all day long, especially before, during and after sports. Encourage players to drink water until they no longer feel thirsty, and then to drink one more cup 30 minutes before a game or practice. Have them continue drinking 8-12 ounces of water every half hour while playing and afterward to replace what was lost through sweat. They will need extra water on hot, humid days.
After a game, an athlete’s body needs to rebuild strength and repair the muscles that were challenged during the game. If they skip the post-game meal their muscles won’t fully recover, which can affect future on-field performance. Try feeding them 30 minutes after their game and again two hours later so their body can rebuild muscle tissue and replenish its energy stores.
If they want a higher-fat meal (like burgers or pizza) this is the time to do it, but be sure to include fruits and vegetables to keep their body fit and strong. Add whole-grain bread or pasta and a glass of milk with a serving of lean meat or beans and you have a winning combination.
Remember, it’s important to maintain healthy eating not just on game days, but throughout the season in order to maximize training and performance. Include fruits and vegetables at every meal and as between-meal snacks. And fill their plate with highly colored foods, encouraging them to “eat a rainbow” each day to fulfill their body’s nutritional needs.
Most sports use almost every muscle in the body. Because of this, the total energy and fluid demands during a game are very high. Eating incorrectly can lead to many problems on the field, including muscle fatigue, aches and pains, headaches, cranky behavior and the inability to make decisions. Don’t let your players get left on the nutritional sidelines. Help them make healthy choices to improve their game and compete to the best of their ability.
Shannon Ryan is a freelance writer and busy soccer mom of three active children. She lives in Dayton, Ohio and writes for both the juvenile and adult magazine and book markets.
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