Sports Nutrition for Youth Athletes

By Bob Seebohar | July 25, 2019, 10:57 a.m. (ET)

sports nutrition for youth athletes

Out are the days where we assume young athletes should follow the same daily nutrition plan as their parents. Young athletes have different needs not only based on their developmental stages but also their learning preferences and environment. By recognizing some of these differences, you can better understand how to implement nutrition strategies that support youth throughout the continuum of their sport development.

Teaching Basics

Just because an athlete is younger does not mean that they will not comprehend what you are trying to teach them. The stage of development should be kept in mind when providing nutrition education to anyone under 18 years of age. Here are some tips to remember when working with and teaching younger athletes about sports nutrition:

  1. Make it simple. The younger the athlete, the less technical you should be.  Avoid using jargon. For example, instead of saying, “it is important to eat fruits and vegetables because they provide antioxidants”, try saying “eat fruits and veggies to give you energy to exercise”. Even with adolescent athletes, stick with simple sports nutrition messages. Keep in mind that as young athletes progress through their stages of development, you can put more emphasis on the importance of nutrition as it relates to performance. For example, you can teach them what antioxidants are and their the functions, why they are important in their training program, and what foods contain antioxidants. The more involved they become in their sport and more years under their belt, the more it is important to make the link between eating for health and performance. Once they are in high school, they should be able to easily make the association between using food to enhance health and improve performance.
  2. Assess knowledge base. Depending on the young athlete’s upbringing he/she may or may not have basic knowledge of nutrition. It is important to realize that some young athletes may know that a fruit is a carbohydrate and that it supplies fuel to the muscles and brain while others may need more basic information regarding the classification of macro- and micronutrients.
  3. Repetition. A young person’s brain is like a sponge. They absorb and process a great deal of information and are usually good at learning facts. However, repetition, as for most athletes, is the key. To ensure that they understand the basic daily nutrition principles and begin to learn the nutrient timing concept, constantly reinforce sports nutrition messages before, during and after practice sessions. Good methods to accomplish this include asking them what they ate for breakfast that morning and provide frequent fluid breaks so they grow accustomed to the routine of hydration and learn the importance of it.  Actions speak louder than words with youth.
  4. Practice what you preach. It is important for adults to be positive role models, especially when it comes to eating behaviors and food choices. Far too many times, I have witnessed young athletes develop their nutrition habits from doing what their parents or coaches do themselves. If you expect a young athlete to eat more fruits and vegetables, take a long look in the mirror before sending a verbal message and set the image you want to portray. On the flip side of this is the banning of foods or classifying them as “good” or “bad”. Young athletes are easily influenced and will trust adults. Teach them that eating a variety of foods is paramount to their health as first priority and performance as second priority. There is a fine line between practicing what you preach and teaching from the other end of the continuum that includes classifying foods into categories and scoffing at kids when they may eat a food that you do not think is best for them. Kids are only human so let them enjoy an occasional “miss” but place more emphasis on foods that give them energy rather than highlighting the fact that they may have had a piece of cake, a cookie or some candy. A healthy relationship with food should be taught at a very young age. It is the image and association of foods that you teach that is important.

Nutrition Basics

When it comes to teaching specific sports nutrition principles to younger athletes, the topics are similar to ones used with adults. There are a few differences as I will note but as a whole, nutrition should support physical training cycles as they progress through different volume and intensity cycles (otherwise known as nutrition periodization).

Frequency

Youth need to balance their blood sugar just like adults but for different reasons.  Performance in school becomes the primary purpose. The goal when teaching kids about frequency of eating is to associate changes in energy and mood with food and fluid intake. Emphasize eating every 2 - 3 hours to maintain blood sugar levels to prevent hypoglycemia and thus preventing a decrease in cognitive abilities including concentration in the classroom. Performance in sport is also important and eating frequently will assure they that have the mental and physical energy to get the most out of a practice session no matter the time of day. 

Quality

It is always beneficial to teach the importance of the quality of food. Focus on educating youth on the technique of combining foods. That is, ensuring that a source of protein, fiber (fruit, vegetable, whole grain) and fat is eaten at almost every meal and snack. This will improve blood sugar stabilization and improve concentration for school work and energy level for training sessions. A great method to do this and engage the young athlete is to ask them to write down the foods they enjoy eating and classify them into the categories of protein, fiber and fat. Next, ask them to pick one food from each list to make a breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack.  This brings this exercise to life and improves self-confidence since they did it without you telling them what to do. Provide them light supervision with much more independence when they participate in this specific exercise and it will empower them greatly. Be sure to mention that they should list foods they enjoy and will eat rather than listing foods that someone else thinks they should eat.  

Hydration

Preventing dehydration is important for any individual, especially young athletes since their bodies are not fully adapted to handling the increases in core temperature efficiently. School schedules can be hectic and some schools ban the use of water bottles in classes, thus making it difficult for young athletes to stay hydrated throughout the day. Focus on teaching them how to hydrate their bodies with not only water but also high water content foods such as fruits and vegetables. Encourage them to begin drinking fluids when they first wake up in the morning since they will wake up in a  dehydrated state. Throughout the day, encourage them to consume enough fluid or fluid rich foods that enable them to urinate every 2 - 3 hours. Using a urine color chart as a basic teaching tool can be effective and fun. Teach them that pale, yellow lemonade color reflects a more hydrated state while darker, apple juice color indicates a less hydrated state. Combine both the frequency of urinating with use of the urine color chart together for a more accurate assessment of their hydration status.

Nutrient Timing

It is important for young athletes to be well-fueled and hydrated before, during and after training. The emphasis before training is on fluids, carbohydrate, a little protein and fat (depending on the workout) and sodium. A small meal with water or a snack will do the trick. If the training session is a glycogen depleting workout (longer than 3 hours or very high intensity-threshold or VO2max sessions), it is important to consume fluid, carbohydrate and sodium during a workout. While this type of duration is rare for young athletes, it does happen on occasion.

For youth, general recommendations include drinking 3 - 8 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes, eating 20 - 40 grams (80-160 calories) of carbohydrate per hour and consuming 300 - 500 milligrams of sodium per hour. This can easily be sustained by eating pretzels, bananas, water, fruit, fig newtons, dates, raisins, or a peanut butter and honey sandwich. 

When first teaching a young athlete about nutrient timing, I typically do not include nutrition supplements such as energy bars and sports drinks because I encourage them to learn how to fuel themselves with whole food before choosing nutrition supplements. Once the young athlete is comfortable with whole foods, it is okay to slowly introduce sports nutrition supplements as long as you educate them about the specific purposes these types of products have. 

After a difficult training session, encourage them to drink 16 - 20 ounces of fluid for every pound of body weight lost during the workout, roughly 20-40 grams of carbohydrate, about 10-20 grams of protein and at least 300-500 milligrams of sodium.  A quick and easy post-workout nutrition option for young athletes is a fruit smoothie made with protein enriched nut milk or cow’s milk. Simple is sustainable.

Young athletes are great to work with as they are typically sponges for information but keep in mind that they do require slightly different methods of nutrition education and implementation than adults. 

Take the time, set good examples and have fun in teaching our young athletes the nutrition skills that they can take with them throughout their life and sport career!

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, METS II, is a renown Sport Dietitian, USAT Level III Certified Coach, the owner of eNRG Performance, co-owner of Birota Foods (www.birotafoods.com) and the head coach of the eNRG Performance Junior Triathlon Team in Colorado. He has written the only book on Sports Nutrition for Young Triathletes, which you can find at the eNRG Performance website (www.enrgperformance.com). Contact him at bob@enrgperformance.com. 


The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.