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Fueling Your Student Athlete

To perform at their best, young athletes need to be educated on how to fuel their bodies.

Day after day my mother picked me up early from school to head to the gym. On the way we stopped at McDonalds so I could down two cheeseburgers, small fries and a coke. I think back to those days when gymnastics was my life. My coaches didn’t hesitate to direct workouts that had me pleading for mercy. Yet no coach in the history of my athletic career ever mentioned, or even asked, what I was putting into my body.

Unfortunately, some things haven’t changed in 30 years.

Many of our student athletes have the best shoes, gear, coaches and training. Coaches are invested in their seasons and will do almost anything to groom champions from a young age. I’ve witnessed football practices that resemble special forces training. State championships and college scholarships are highly sought after.

I’m baffled that with all of this focus on athletic achievement, why isn’t anyone concerned with the gas that’s going in the tanks of these young athletes? Ask any professional athlete and they’ll tell you that good nutrition is vital to their performance. Muscles need fuel for speed, endurance, power, and stamina.

Just because your child is thin or physically fit doesn’t mean they are primed for peak performance.

It’s time we shift from the pizza parlor to the spaghetti emporium or Japanese restaurant before the soccer tournament. It’s time we prioritize funds for sports drinks rather than water on the sidelines of football practice in the heat of the summer. It’s time we educate young athletes of how to fuel before and during a game, race, or match.

Good nutrition is a 24/7 commitment that begins in our homes. Broccoli and carbohydrate gels won’t guarantee your child a touchdown pass or a win on the track, but it can prime their bodies to optimize training, improve recovery, and ward off injury.

To get your student athletes headed in the right direction, here are a few recommendations tested by myself, other athletes, as well as my own 3 children.

The Day & Night Before Their Event

Keep in mind two things the 24 hours before an event. Hydration and salt.

Remind your student that to be well hydrated for the competition, they need to drink plenty the day before. Special permission should be granted to athletes allowing them to carry around a water bottle to class. No need to guzzle or drink to the point of bloating, just consistently throughout the day along with a water-rich diet of fruits and vegetables. No junk food!

Salt can be dangerous for sedentary adults. But if your student athlete is healthy, a little extra salt on their food the day before is a good thing. It helps retain fluids and keep their electrolytes in balance. (In the scorching heat of summer, I recommend salt tabs for serious athletes.)

A low fiber, high carbohydrate meal the night before is advisable. Avoid greasy food. Protein is fine but avoid heavy meats that don’t digest as easily. Experiment with lighter noodles, like rice, shiritaki or udon noodles, especially for girls, who might prefer something less heavy than traditional pasta. Aim for less rich dishes like spaghetti marinara in place of fettucine alfredo or lasagne that is extremely high in fat and loaded with cheese. Try quinoa or brown rice instead of pasta.

Check out these ideas and add in your protein of choice (click on title or photo for recipe):

Asian Noodle Bowls 

Asian Skinny Noodles with Garlic Vegetable Medley

A Healthier Pot Pie

Want to go out? I recommend Blue Koi. Water rich with plenty of sodium and complex carbs.

(More quick recipes coming weekly like Ravin’ Red Lentil Pasta and Powerhouse Pasta. Subscribe below.)

The Morning Of Their Event

A good breakfast is important but some kids aren’t hungry when they first wake up. It’s ok to wait awhile before eating even if it means packing a breakfast to go. Here are some suggestions:

Oatmeal with choice of soy or almond milk, walnuts and Bear Naked High Protein granola sprinkled on top.

Bagel with almond butter and sliced banana

Clif bar and a banana

Greek yogurt and fruit smoothie

2 frozen waffles with peanut butter

English muffin sandwich with 2 cage free egg whites and 1 complete egg scrambled with 1 piece of soy, tempeh or turkey bacon

Leftover pasta

The Day Of Their Event

Sports drinks like Gatorade are designed for hydrating athletes, not kids in general. They have no place in a home that isn’t very active. Powerade is a glorified Cool-Aid that costs more. The reason sports drinks are advantageous for athletes is because they contain salt and electrolytes. They also contain sugars, quite a lot in fact, so if your student’s stomach gets upset (as mine frequently does), these drinks may be giving them too much sugar. Especially those kids who don’t consume a lot of excess sugar regularly.

Here are my personal favorite sports drinks:


Mix Gu Brew with water. Carbo-Pro is tasteless and can be mixed with water or sports drink. I recommend carbo-pro only for athletes doing intense or very long work-outs or endurance athletes. Click on image to purchase on-line.

Minutes Prior To Their Event

I recommend either a carbohydrate gel pack, gummy chews, or a handful of trail mix that contains raisins or dried fruit and nuts about 20-30 minutes prior. Gels enter the bloodstream quickly. Some have the consistency of pudding, some are pasty, and some are like Hershey’s syrup. Just because they don’t like one brand doesn’t mean they won’t like any. Experiment. I’ve tried them all and I must admit, I still hold my nose and down them in one or two gulps. I can testify that they give you a boost.

Caffeine has been consistently proven to boost performance. High school athletes should take advantage of these findings and enjoy a Starbucks on game day. Some gels and gummies contain caffeine. If your child is ever going to indulge in a Red Bull or a 5 Hour Energy, and I’m not advocating that they do, at least before a big game, race or match, the choice may have some merit.

Here are my favorite, quick energy fuels:


Click on image to purchase on-line.

After Their Event

Within 30 minutes to an hour tops, make sure your athlete replenishes. A complete meal is not always readily available. I highly recommend a sports drink specifically formulated for recovery. There are many brands but my hands-down favorite is First Endurance Ultragen. I drink it every morning after my workout, 1 or 2 scoops in a shake, depending on the duration and intensity of effort.

Cappuccino Flavor

Blend 1 or 2 scoops with 1 cup dark chocolate almond milk, water and ice.

Orange Creamsicle Flavor

Mix 1 or 2 scoops with water and shake immediately after your event.

Click here to read full review of First Endurance Ultragen. Click here to purchase.

Going out for junk food with friends after a game is fun but ill advised. A healthy, high protein meal following their event will help them recover faster, keep inflammation at bay, and be ready for their next workout. Stay tuned for recipes weekly in my we eat posts.

The sports nutrition market is booming and there are endless choices worthy of exploring with your athletes. Encourage good all-around eating habits year round. If we educate our kids about sports nutrition and how it can help them be stronger and faster, maybe they will create a demand for more healthy options in school. Imagine the day cafeterias run out of  vegetables instead of chicken nuggets!

The gas in the tank doesn’t replace their engine but it can keep it running smoothly and at its maximum potential.

"Life is like a ten-speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use. " Charles Schulz


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Other posts that might be of interest:

13 Steps To A Healthy Home

Let Your Kids Quit

*If you’d like to learn more about sports nutrition, I highly recommend Bob Seebohar’s books.

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