Nutrition for the Athlete

Proper nutrition plays an important role in health and overall growth and development, but is often overlooked by the athlete in training. In fact, teaching a young athlete about the importance of proper nutrition is just as important as teaching the skills of a sport. Failure to provide the much needed fluids, carbohydrates and protein in the young athlete, will result in inadequate tissue growth and repair, poor performance and an increased risk for injury and illness. Applying basic nutrition principles will help the athlete achieve peak athletic performance. The popular food pyramid shown in figure 1 is a helpful guide for recommendations on amounts and servings of the various food groups.

Fluids and adequate hydration play a vital role in optimal athletic performance by regulating body temperature and delivering nutrients to exercising muscles. An athlete who is just 1% dehydrated may show a decline in athletic performance, especially during endurance activities like running, swimming, cycling and all-day tournaments. The thirst mechanism kicks in when the body is 2-3% dehydrated, so thirst is NOT a reliable way to gauge hydration. For this reason, young athletes should drink on a schedule rather than relying on thirst. An athlete weighing 100 lbs or less should take in 3-6 oz of fluids 1-2 hours before exercise and maintain hydration during exercise by drinking 4 oz every 20-30 minutes. Athletes over 100 lbs should drink 6-12 oz before exercise and 5-7 oz every 20-30 minutes during exercise. For exercise sessions lasting one hour or less, water is the best fluid of choice. For longer workouts (over one hour), the athlete must replace electrolytes lost in sweat as well as replenish carbohydrates to the exercising muscles. Gatorade® or Powerade® are the preferred rehydration fluids for longer workouts.

Carbohydrates (sugars) are the main fuel source for exercising muscles and it is essential that young athletes consume plenty of complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) on a daily basis to supply the muscles with the fuel they need. If carbohydrate intake is inadequate, then the exercising muscles will need to find another fuel source, such as fat or protein, resulting in weight loss and muscle breakdown. Like fluid requirements, the carbohydrate requirements for young athletes are based on size and weight and can be divided into pre-exercise, during exercise and post-exercise requirements.

Pre-exercise

The pre-exercise meal should be consumed 3-4 hours before the workout begins and should contain 1.8-2.0 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. For example, a 100 lb athlete should eat a meal containing 180-200 grams of carbohydrates at lunch for an after school practice or contest. This can be achieved by eating 2 ½ cups pasta (85g), ½ cup pasta sauce (17g), 2 dinner rolls (30g), 1 apple (21g), and 1 pear (30g) and 8 oz of 1% milk (12g). An easily digested snack of 25-50g carbohydrate (2 oz pretzels, or a banana) can also be consumed 30 minutes before an activity. This snack may be most helpful if a full meal was not eaten 3-4 hours prior to the activity.

During exercise

About 12-16 oz of most sports drinks contain about 28-30g carbohydrate so this should be consumed every 20-30 minutes during activity. This will also replenish fluids and electrolytes.

Post-exercise

Replacing carbohydrates that were used by the muscles during exercise is vital to expediting recovery and refueling the muscles with the energy stores needed for the next day’s work out. This is best accomplished within one hour of the workout ending since the muscles have the best capacity to take in and store dietary carbohydrates during this hour. The post exercise meal should contain 1-1.5 g of carbohydrate (one bagel with 2T peanut butter for a 100 lb athlete). This same amount can be repeated 2 hours later to “top off” the muscle’s carbohydrate stores. The carbohydrate content of some common foods is shown in table 1.

TABLE 1

Food

Amount

Grams of Carbohydrate

Kidney beans

½ c

20

Rice

1c

50

Spaghetti

1c

34

Flour Tortilla

1

15

Waffle

2

17

Bagel

2oz

31

Whole Wheat Bread

2 slices

24

Fig Bar

1

10

Cheerios

½ c

8

Oatmeal

½ c

13

English Muffin

1

30

Graham crackers

2 squares

11

Popcorn

1c

6

Pretzels

1oz

21

Apple

1 medium

21

Banana

1 medium

27

Orange

1 medium

16

Peach

1 medium

10

Pear

1 medium

30

Raisins

½ c

57

Baked Potato

1 large

50

Corn

½ c

21

Carrot

1 medium

8

Orange Juice

½ c

12

Milk 1%

8 oz

24

Frozen yogurt

1c

34

Protein

Athletes will require more daily protein in the diet compared to the non-athlete due to the breakdown and repair cycle of exercising muscles. Like fluids and carbohydrates, daily protein recommendations are based on body size, but age and activity level also affect protein requirements. Protein requirements for select populations is shown in table 2.

TABLE 2

Population

Daily Protein Requirements

(grams/lb body weight)

Child aged 4-13 years

0.4

Adolescent aged 14-18

0.38

Adult

0.36

Endurance athlete

0.5-0.6

Weight trained athlete

0.5-0.8

Novice athlete

0.45-0.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A well-balanced diet that follows the guidelines of the food pyramid will provide adequate protein to satisfy the daily needs of most athletes. Vegetarians may need supplements or consult with a dietician to ensure they are getting enough protein and essential amino acids from non-meat sources. Athletes should be encouraged to get their protein from dietary sources rather than from over the counter powders, mixes, shakes, etc. (See Table 3). Over the counter supplements may not contain all of the essential amino acids needed to build muscle and they may contain potentially harmful impurities. One easy way to supplement a meal with a “healthy” protein supplement is to add ¼ cup of non-fat dry milk or an instant breakfast packet (11-12 g protein) to a variety of foods such as cereal, soup and pasta. Ingesting protein right before a workout does not offer any benefit to the exercising muscles. In fact, a large protein load right before exercise may cause stomach upset. Therefore, protein should be ingested throughout the day with meals and snacks to have the essential amino acids available for the recovering muscles is shown in table 3.

TABLE 3

Food

Amount

Grams of Protein

Lean beef

1 oz

8

Chicken

1 oz

8

Turkey Breast

1 oz

8

Fish

1 oz

7

Egg

1

6

Kidney Beans

½ c

9

Peanut Butter

1 T

4

Milk

1 c

8

American Cheese

1 oz

3

Mac and Cheese

½ c

6

Spaghetti

1 c

8

Bagel

2 oz

6

Raisin bran

⅔ c

3

Baked potato

1 large

4

Corn

½ c

2

Apple, banana, orange

1 medium

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tournament Nutrition

When competing in a tournament or weekend events, nutrition recommendations deserve special attention. If your first event is around 9 or 10 am, in order to be properly fueled and hydrated, you need to get up around 5:00 am to eat your high carbohydrate breakfast. However, often times these early morning competitions are at 7:00 am or 8:00 am and there is not be enough time for “the big meal” 3-4 hours prior to start time. Furthermore, competition times throughout the day are often unknown or may change. Therefore, the meal the night before is very important in replenishing your glycogen (sugar) and fluid stores for the next day’s competition. A high carbohydrate, high protein meal for dinner with plenty of fluids is essential including another 16 oz of water or Gatorade® before bed to “top off” your tank.

On competition day, planning the timing and content of your meals is very important. Remember, you always want to compete a little hungry. In other words, don’t “fill up” between events. Here are some guidelines to follow based on time between competitions.

One hour or less before

8-12 oz of orange, grape or vegetable (V-8) juice. Make sure the juice is one you know you like and have had before so it does not cause stomach upset.

Fresh fruit such as apples, grapes, oranges, watermelon. (Remember these raw fruits can stimulate bowel movement so make sure there is time for that).

Two to three hours before

Fresh fruit or fruit/vegetable juice

Bagel, muffin, bread. Limit butter or cream cheese as these fats take several hours to digest.

Three to four hours before

Fresh fruit or fruit/vegetable juice

Bagel, muffin, bread. Limit butter or cream cheese

Bowl of low sugar cereal with low fat milk

Four hours or more before

Sandwich with bread or bun and 3-4 oz lean meat

Fresh fruit and vegetables, Low fat milk

Things to avoid on competition day

Most sport venues will have pizza, greasy hamburgers, hotdogs, nachos, chips, and candy bars and soda available throughout the day. These are fine for spectators, but is very poor nutrition for the athlete and will surely hinder performance.

Avoid a candy bar right before competing

 This may provide a quick “sugar high” that is followed by a “sugar low” that caused fatigue, low energy levels and decreased concentration.

Avoid caffeine and carbonated sodas. Caffeine can limit fluid absorption and cause dehydration and carbonation can cause a bloated feeling and belching. Remember hot cocoa, tea and chocolate are high in caffeine and should be avoided during the season.