Fuelling young athletes

Being the parent of a young athlete can be a challenge in terms of ensuring you feed them enough and, that they get enough of the ‘right’ kinds of things.

If you are a regular reader of my site, you may have seen my recent article about why sports clubs for children and adolescents matter. Whilst many parents spend their week backwards and forwards transporting their children too and from such clubs, there are also many parents who do this at another level because their children are part of a competitive or elite squad.

This means that not only do you have the time and the cost implications as a parents but you also have to carefully address the nutritional needs of your child because of the thousands of calories they are burning every week.

I have always taken the nutrition of my children very seriously. The way I see it, is that I have a relatively short time to make an impact before they can choose what they cook for themselves. My hope has always been that I can both educate them about food, and teach them to cook for themselves, so they can make good choices as adults.

Now, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have treats. The only thing that I don’t allow them to have are things like energy drinks, and heavily carbonated or caffeinated drinks. I feel that if you put lots of things on the ‘can’t have’ list, you end up in a situation where children crave those things and will be more likely to have more of them when they are older and making their own choices.

Where as many parents go by the rule of “no snacks in-between meals” you just can’t have that rule with an athlete. Young athletes need to eat between meals. They must eat when hungry, which often means snacking between meals. If young athletes don’t get enough food to convert to fuel, their performance suffers.

Some things to consider

Sufficient protein is needed in their diet to repair and grow muscles. Whilst meat, fish and eggs are great sources, adding things like Gold Bee honey to porridge or homemade cookies or cake can also help as it is brimming with protein. They should have at least 5-a-day, plus any required supplements and lots of water to ensure they are adequately hydrated.

Before any race, sugar is a useful way to get a boost of energy. For example, a cube of jelly, or a few sweets.

Iron is vital for energy and helps avoid fatigue. If your child is vegetarian or vegan and you are concerned about iron levels, a good supplement to try is Spatone, just add it to a glass of water or juice every day and you can relax a bit knowing iron levels are being addressed.

Carbohydrates are a really good source of energy. They are stored in the body for longer. Things like pasta and bread can be useful here but brown is best.

With young athletes, it is most important to make sure that all the food groups are represented. Training on an empty stomach is not advised, this can cause light-headedness or even fainting, but equally eating just before training is not ideal either. So fuelling needs to be well-timed.

Sodium and chloride are lost during sweating, so getting those back into the body are vital. Meat and watery vegetables can help with this.

It’s so important that young athletes don’t skip meals and that they always have a water bottle handy. If you are in a rush, protein bars after training are a great grab-and-go for muscle repair, but equally if you have time something like homemade flapjacks or granola with some chia seeds thrown in are great. I try to make a big batch to last the week.

They may feel more hungry when they are going through a growth spurt or training for a particular goal so you may need to address this buy increasing the calories they are getting.

One of the things to remember is that young athletes should not be restricted. They can absolutely still eat the McDonalds and the cake and they should be doing this! Obviously you don’t want to feed them take away pizza every night from a nutritional point of view but they should have those treats – their way of eating should not be strict.

Try to avoid fatty foods before a race or competition. They can be saved for afterwards as they slow down digestion.

Stay away from caffeine – they could try a chocolate pancake or a few jelly babies for energy instead

Sugary drinks shouldn’t be consumed, not only are they not good for their teeth, they will fill them up so much they won’t be able to eat properly and these young athletes NEED to eat!

Are you the parent of a young athlete? Do feel free to share your tips below.

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