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Fuel your young athlete for peak performance

Parents may love the attention to fitness that stems from their children playing sports, but they are often uncertain about the best way to provide fuel and fluid for their young athletes. How should that be done?
/ Source: Special to

Parents typically love the attention to fitness that stems from their children playing sports, but they're often uncertain about the best way to provide fuel and fluid for their young athletes.

Special care is probably not needed to fuel preschoolers for sports events. In preschool “sports” events, children typically run around as much as they would in their unorganized play.

After a few years, though, youths may need more attention. Too much food in the stomach during sports activity is uncomfortable, but some food is needed to fuel muscles for peak performance and to prevent fatigue and light-headedness from low blood sugar. Meeting fluid needs, especially during hot weather, is a concern for athletes of all ages.

Sports nutrition experts recommend eating from two to three hours before competition. For Saturday morning sports, that means getting up early enough to eat two hours ahead of the activity. For events in the early to mid-afternoon, breakfast and lunch are important. And for late-afternoon sports, add a light afternoon snack as well. Fuel for evening sports means all of these meals plus an early light supper.

Choose foods that can be easily digested, such as complex carbohydrates. (Oily, greasy foods can take more than two to three hours to digest.) Good choices include bread, pasta, cereal, bagels and pancakes. You might also include juice or a fruit such as applesauce or a banana. Provide a modest amount of low-fat protein in pre-game meals, too. Good choices include fat free or low-fat milk or yogurt, one egg or chicken (plain or in a sandwich with little mayonnaise or added fat, as opposed to high-fat chicken nuggets).

Stay hydrated
An equally important part of before-sports nutrition is drinking enough fluid. Dehydration is uncomfortable, hurts performance and, at extremes, can be dangerous. Pre-game meals should include one or two cups of water. From 20 to 30 minutes before the activity, youths should drink one to two cups of a cool drink to arrive fully hydrated. Outside of sports time, the preferred beverage to relieve and prevent thirst is water. Avoid soda, juice and fruit drinks right before the event; their sugar content can cause stomach cramps and nausea during strenuous exercise.

During sports time, recommended beverages for adults and children may differ. Research suggests that part of the increased problem with overweight in adults and children is our consumption of calorie-containing drinks. During sports for adults, water is usually the recommended beverage, except for events lasting longer than an hour or intense “start and stop” sports such as hockey or basketball.

But some sports nutritionists point to studies showing that children drink more when given flavored, lightly sweetened “sports drinks” than when given water. Because of concerns that youths can develop dehydration and high body temperature more quickly than adults, the nutritionists suggest youths drink sports drinks during and just before sports. These drinks contain about 6 percent sugar (about 14 grams) in 8 ounces; soft drinks and juices contain more than 10 percent sugar (about 25 grams) per eight ounces. Avoid “energy drinks,” which are loaded with sugar and caffeine (a diuretic).

Some parents find it helpful to mark lines on kids’ drink bottles as a guide to help them drink enough throughout the game or practice. About 5 to 9 ounces (depending on age and size) every 15 to 20 minutes is recommended. Studies show that our bodies are not good at sensing how much fluid we need and we can easily “voluntarily dehydrate” by not drinking enough even when more fluid is available.

Some professionals recommend you could try weighing your child before and after a sports event. Weight lost in such a short time is fluid loss, and your child can rehydrate by drinking one cup of fluid for every half-pound lost. Weighing also helps you learn how much fluid is needed for your youth to stay hydrated.