How To Fuel Young Athletes Before, During, And After Sport

Fueling Young Athletes: Part 2

How To Fuel Young Athletes Before, During, And After Sport

The nutritional needs of young competitive athletes are different from kids who do not participate in competitive sport. It's still important that these young athletes eat balanced, nutrient-rich diets most of the time to help with normal growth, development, and general health, but on long training or competition days, the priority shifts from nourishing to fueling. As mentioned in part one of this series on fueling young athletes, carbohydrates are their most important fuel source, and fluids are crucial to ensuring proper hydration. 

Prior to training or competition: 

Pre-exercise foods and fluids should provide sustainable energy for the upcoming training session or competition while preventing hunger and dehydration. As discussed in Part One of this series, carbohydrates are the most important fuel source for your young athlete and should take up about 45-65% of their overall diet. Water or in some cases sport drinks containing 6-8% carbohydrate and electrolytes such as sodium and potassium (i.e., Gatorade) are the best fluids before, during and after sport to stay hydrated. Recreational athletes or kids who do not participate in competitive sport should not consume sports drinks as they will contribute to excess calories and sugar, which could lead to unhealthy weight gain and dental carries. Energy drinks and other caffeinated beverages are not recommended for kids who participate in any sport (or any child for that matter).  

Three to four hours before:

Every child is different in terms of what and how much food she can handle before training or competition, so it's important to experiment with various amounts and types of food during the training season so that your child is ready to go on competition days. Typically, three to four hours prior to training, your child will be able to handle a balanced meal or larger snack containing primarily carbohydrates, but also a bit of fibre, protein and fat for sustained energy. A few options are:

  • a sandwich on multigrain bread with lean meat, a bit of cheese and fruit on the side
  • leftover spaghetti with vegetables
  • barbequed chicken, rice, and steamed vegetables 
  • oatmeal with fruit, yogurt or milk and nuts and seeds
  • a peanut butter and banana sandwich and a yogurt/fruit smoothie. My favourite smoothie contains 1/2 cup plain greek yogurt, 1/2 cup frozen berries, 1/2 banana, handful of spinach or kale and enough milk to blend smoothly in a blender.

A smoothie is also a great way to hydrate before a big game or training session, otherwise, plenty of water to hydrate is important. Even three to four hours out, it's important that carbohydrates reign in your young athletes meal. Consuming too much fat and/or protein may lead to stomach upset during training or sport because these nutrients take longer to digest, and it may to lead to fewer available calories from carbohydrates, which means less energy for the activity. 

One to two hours before:

What can be handled one to two hours before a training session will differ from one athlete to another depending on how quickly she digests food and what her stomach can handle. For instance, I can't eat much one to two hours before a run, but I have friends who can eat a full meal an hour before and be fine. Kids are the same way, so it's important that your child experiment with different foods and volumes of food during the training season so that she knows exactly what she can handle on competition day. Snacks containing mostly carbohydrates (low fibre) with a bit of protein and fat are typically more appropriate one to two hours prior to a exercise, rather than full meals. The goal at this point is to fuel and hydrate the body for the exercise ahead, not to squeeze another balanced nutrition-packed meal in. Fluids are also of top priority here. Water and/or commercial sports drinks with 6-8% carbohydrate are the best options. Here are some examples:

  • Granola bar containing dried fruit, nuts seeds and cereal with water 
  • Banana dipped in almond butter and sprinkled with low fibre cereal and water 
  • Crackers with cheese, a piece of fruit and water  
  • A small smoothie (containing fruit, yogurt, water and a couple of teaspoons of peanut butter would work)
  • Peanut butter on toast with a piece of fruit and water 

Right Before:

Here's where your child could sneak in a small boost of carbohydrate fuel as well as fluids for hydration in before her sport. A few bites of banana and some water, a few low-fibre crackers and some sips of sport drink or a low fibre low fat granola bar with some water would also work, depending again on what she can handle. It is important that whatever your child consumes is easy to digest. Some young athletes won't be able to handle any solid food at this point, so drinking diluted juice or a sport drink might be the way to go instead. Protein, fibre, and fat should be avoided this close to training or competing. 

During training or competition:

Staying hydrated is the first priority during competition. If exercise lasts less than an hour, water is likely sufficient to stay hydrated. If it is hot and humid and your child is sweating a lot, a sport drink may be more appropriate to replace fluid and electrolyte losses. If exercise lasts longer than an hour, if your child is sweating a lot, and the activity is intense, a sport drink should be consumed instead of, or as well as water. If it is a competition day and your child has consecutive games back to back, small carbohydrate-rich and easily digested snacks in between games (such as fruit, crackers, granola bars, homemade cookies, fruit leathers, applesauce, a pita, a bagel, pretzels, trail mix, etc.) as well as plenty of fluids are recommended. 

After training or competition:

Within an hour after exercise, the priority is to replace your child's muscle carbohydrate stores (glycogen) so that she is fueled for her next workout. Your child's muscles are like sponges right after exercise, soaking up any carbohydrate that is consumed. Protein is also important to help build and repair muscle tissue post-exercise. Within an hour of an intense training session or competition, it's important to have a snack that contains carbohydrates as well as protein. Here are some ideas:

  • graham crackers with cheese as well as some fruit and milk
  • fruit and yogurt smoothie
  • granola bar, cheese strings, an apple and water 
  • homemade trail mix containing dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and cereal (such as Shreddies) as well as water or milk
  • homemade oatmeal raisin cookies as well as a glass of milk 

Within two hours of training or competing, your child should have a meal containing a nice balance of fruits, veggies, meats and alternatives, dairy products and whole grains as well as fluids. This is where you can really maximize nutrition! If you need some recipe inspiration, here are my current top ten Dietitian-approved recipes.

I've decided to add a "Part Three" to this series to focus on all-day competitions and well as travel. Stay tuned!

These delicious and kid-friendly flourless peanut butter and banana muffins make a great post-workout snack, paired with some milk and fruit! And if you want your kids to eat healthier, get them involved in preparing meals! Here are 7 easy ways to include your kids in the kitchen!


How To Properly Fuel Your Young Athlete: Part One

How to ensure that your young star is getting the nutrition and hydration that he needs

How To Properly Fuel Your Young Athlete: Part One

Feeding children can be tricky at the best of times, but when you have a child who participates in competitive sport—whether it is swimming, hockey, dance, or soccerit can be even trickier to make sure that he is eating and drinking enough to meet his fuel and hydration requirements for normal growth and development, as well as his increased energy needs. Throw in school, other extracurricular activities, some travel, and perhaps a touch of picky eating, and you've got yourself a hefty challenge. 

First and foremost, you want to make sure that you're offering your child a balanced, healthy diet made up of mostly whole foodsfruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein options (meat, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, dairy, nuts/seeds, etc.)to ensure that he gets his recommended macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat), as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron, and vitamin D).

Your little athlete has higher energy requirements than the average child (anywhere from 500-1500 additional calories per day), so it is important that meals and snacks are being offered frequently (at least every three to four hours), and that they arefor the most partenergy AND nutrient dense. Three balanced meals and three to four snacks should be offered daily. Meals may need to be divided into two smaller meals depending on training schedules (this is often the case with early morning swimmers or early evening gymnasts). You also want to make sure that, whether they are training or not, they are drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. 

As a parent, it is important to follow Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility Of Eating, which means that you are responsible for the what, when, and where of eating, while your child is responsible for whether he eats and how much he eats. Regardless of your child's energy requirements, it's important that you help to nurture a positive relationship with food, so that he learns to eat mindfully for life. Reminding your child that he has higher energy requirements than some of his friends because of his sport is fine; however, constantly pressuring or coaxing him to eat more or choose certain foods over others may create bigger eating problems down the road. Encourage your child to get involved in preparing and cooking foods. If they have a hand in making it, there's a higher chance that they'll eat it! 

When it comes to training days, your child will eat a bit differently than a rest (or light training) day, because he will need to strategically fuel and hydrate for before, during, and after his sport, depending on the type of sport he is in, as well as how his digestive tract handles food before activity. This becomes even more challenging on competition days or when travelling. I will talk more about timing of meals and snacks pre- and post-sport as well as travel days in "part two" of this series. In this post, I'm going to outline the basics of sport nutrition for young athletes: 

The #1 Most Important Fuel Source For Young Athletes: Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, despite the bad rap that they have gotten over the past few years, are your child's number one most important fuel source and should take up about 45-65% of your child's diet. Your child will not be able to perform his sport, or any activity for that matter, without them. Carbohydrate-rich foods, such as fruits, certain vegetables, milk and yogurt, whole grains and starches, as well as the carbohydrates in beverages such as sports drinks, will fuel your child's brain and muscles before, during, and after activity. 

Sugar is sugar. All forms of carbohydrates, whether they are coming from a healthy food or unhealthy food, turn into "sugar" (glucose, or fructose in the case of fruit) after they are digested. This sugar is then used as a fuel source that your child will use during activity. Many parents worry about their child's sugar consumption, which is a valid concern considering the rising rate of obesity and chronic disease in young people. When your child is a competitive athlete, though, he  requires more fuel (carbohydrates) than most kids because of his increased energy requirements. Fueling with carbohydrate-rich foods and beverages should be of top priority before, during, and after training or competing in his sport.  

The Body's Building Blocks: Protein

Proteincoming from meat, poultry, fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and soyis the building block for muscles and other body tissues, and it's important that your child consume enough to support these tissues, as well as normal growth and development. Protein can be used as an alternate fuel source for athletes who have depleted their carbohydrate stores; however, it is not the ideal or preferred source of fuel for athletescarbohydrates are. Protein has been put on a pedestal at the same time as carbs have been demonized in the media, and although crucial to a young athletes diet, protein should not be over-eaten at the expense of carbohydrate-rich foods. A young athlete's diet should consist of only about 10-20% protein (certainly no more than 30%). Young athletes shouldn't eat too much protein before an event or training session, because it is digested slowly and may cause stomach upset. After training or competition is when your child will reap the benefits of protein the most.

The Multi-Tasking Macro-Nutrient: Dietary Fat

Dietary fat plays many important roles in the body. Fat helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), it protects organs, and it provides insulation. Fat also provides the feeling of fullness after a meal (protein does this too). It is a calorie-dense source of energy, but is more difficult to use as energy. Total dietary fat should comprise about 25% to 35% of total energy intake. Good sources of fat include lean meat and poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, dairy products, and oils. Fat from chips, candy, fried foods, and processed baked goods should be minimized. Fat is another nutrient that should be minimized in the hours leading up to activity, as it is also digested slowly and may cause stomach upset. 

As noted above, these three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) are digested at different rates. Carbohydrates are digested the quickest, followed by protein and then by fat. Because of this, your child will want to minimize protein and fat (as well as fibre) consumption right before training or competing to avoid digestive upset. I will talk about this more in Part 2 of this series. 


Fluids, particularly water, are extremely important for young athletes—their health and performance depend on it. Fluids help to regulate body temperature and replace sweat losses during exercise. They also help your child stay hydrated when temperature and humidity are a factor, perhaps during the summer months or when travelling to warmer climates. When a child becomes dehydrated, their health is at risk, their risk of heat-related illnesses is higher and their performance suffers. To stay hydrated, it's important that fluids are consumed before, during, and after a training session or competition. The amount consumed depends on body size, age, and climate, but generally speaking, young athletes should consume about two to three cups (250 mL each) of water two to three hours prior to an event and 150-300 mL every 15-20 minutes during their activity, as well as plenty of fluids afterwards to replace any sweat losses (about 1.5 L of fluid for every kg of body weight lost).

For activities lasting less than one hour long, water is usually sufficient for hydration, however, for activities lasting longer than 60 minutes, or for activities taking place in hot, humid conditions, sports drinks containing 6-8% carbohydrate (such as Gatorade) as well as electrolytes are recommended to replace energy, fluid, and electrolyte losses. So instead of drinking water during exercise, sports drinks may be the way to go. Child athletes often don't drink enough before, during, and after sport, and as a result, become dehydrated. This is another reason why sports drinks may helpthey are tasty and more appealing to kids, making it more likely that they will drink enough to stay hydrated. Although these products can come in handy for young competitive athletes, they are not meant for non-athletes or even recreational athletes. The excess calories and sugar in these products can increase the risk of unhealthy weight gain, as well as dental caries, therefore, they should be avoided.  

I was lucky enough to tour the Gatorade Sports Science Institute at the IMG Sports Academy in Florida recently, to see first-hand how much research goes into the making of these Gatorade sports drinks and other sport fueling products. The academy, where hundreds of talented young athletes (as well as professional athletes) train year-round for their sport, and attend school, was incredible. Each young athlete who attends the academy is put through rigorous yearly metabolic testing at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute to figure out what their exact and personal energy and fuel requirements are for their specific sport. The results are then compiled and used for research purposes and to continually improve upon the quality of Gatorade products. I was very pleased to find out that highly educated Kinesiologists and Registered Dietitians (among other Scientists, most with PhDs behind their names) were doing the testing and research, as well as guiding the athletes in their training, nutrition, and hydration requirements. 

In Part Two of this blog series, I will cover what your child's nutrition and hydration requirements are before, during, and after training and competition, as well as travel days.  
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Finally, Dr. Oz Is Called Out For His "Diet Scams"

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

Finally, Dr. Oz Is Called Out For His "Diet Scams"

Celebrity Doctor and star of "The Doctor Oz Show" Mehmet Oz very recently attended a follow-up hearing for the Federal Trade Commission’s fight against bogus diet products. Although he attended more as a victim of fraudulent internet marketing, he was in for a big surprise. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who chairs a senate sub-committee on consumer protection, was captured on video, scolding Dr. Oz for promoting several diet and weight loss products on his show. 

As quoted in this article on the NBC News website, Senator McCaskill says “So why, when you have this amazing megaphone…why would you cheapen your show by saying things like that?”  She is also quoted in the article saying “When you feature a product on your show it creates what has become known as the ‘Dr. Oz Effect’ — dramatically boosting sales and driving scam artists to pop up overnight using false and deceptive ads to sell questionable products.’" 

Someone has called Dr. Oz out for his nutrition and health advice based largely on quackery and pseudo-science. Finally!!!

After watching a few episodes of Dr. Oz when the show first started, I quickly became skeptical and stopped watching. I also cautioned friends and family to stop watching and following his advice, because I started to notice that he was making sketchy claims about certain dietary supplements and "superfoods" as they related to health and weight loss. I caught myself rolling my eyes throughout his shows and slowly started losing respect for him as a big-name medical professional.

Most of all, I felt angry that he was abusing his huge platform to mislead innocent viewers and fans who struggle with medical problems and weight issues, by giving them false hope that one or more foods or dietary supplements would be their "miracle cure." 

At the same time, I'm tempted to give Dr. Oz the benefit of the doubt and call him a "medical optimist," after all, he claims in the video that the purpose for his show is so that he can be a "cheerleader for the audience" (I'm assuming what he means is to encourage his viewers to not give up hope when it comes to losing weight and becoming healthier), however, as a Physician, it's important that what he promotes is science-based. As a scientist, he most certainly knows better, and although he claims that he gives his family the same miracle products as he promotes on the show (such as raspberry ketones, green coffee bean extract and garcenia cambogia) and that he "studies them passionately" himself, he admits that he uses "flowery" and "passionate" language when talking about these products. He also admits that these products and claims often lack "scientific muster," something that he has likely not admitted openly on his show. 

As a counseling Registered Dietitian, I understand all too well the strong desire to want to give people hope, especially when it comes to weight loss. But I also understand that giving people false hope—making a claim that any one food or product, or the elimination of a food group for that matter, will magically induce sustainable weight loss—is wrong.

Why so many people fail to lose weight and keep it off is because there is absolutely no quick-fix solution and that's just what most people want — a quick fix. In order to lose weight and keep it off for good, it requires a fairly major lifestyle change — one that involves dietary modifications that can be realistically followed without feeling deprived, a more mindful approach to eating and enjoyable physical activity. Sustainable weight loss also does not happen overnight. Slow and steady—no more than one to two pounds a week—is the only way to go. 

I hope that Doctor Oz being "outted" for his misleading claims on his show will encourage more people to be skeptical of what they hear in the media when it comes to diet and weight loss products, and to become their own health advocates. Furthermore, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

If this interests you, you may want to read about why most people who follow a gluten-free diet probably shouldn't be, as well as why these 10 "health Foods" aren't really healthy at all

I post free nutrition tips and resources daily for parents and kids over on my Facebook page, so please feel free to check it out. 

photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons, David Berkowitz