Fueling the Athlete: Nutrition for the High School and Collegiate Athlete
The growing athlete, like a car, needs gas in the tank in order to perform optimally. A lot of varying opinions and fads are out there regarding proper sports nutrition and the best way to fuel an athlete. Sports nutrition for the young athlete should be simple…the most important aspect to fueling a young athlete is consuming enough calories for the daily demands they place on their body. A lack of calories results in a lack of performance. Consuming enough calories allows the athlete’s body to perform best.
Almost all our young athletes wish to gain weight. There are three main ways to gain weight. 1. Train hard. 2. Get quality sleep. 3. EAT! Our athletes have no problem training hard when they are here. They are constantly pushed to perform better both inside and outside of the gym. Although busy schedules can cause unusual sleep patterns, sleep is usually not a consistent problem. When the first two factors are in check, that leaves it up to consuming enough calories. Unfortunately, eating is a commonly misunderstood factor!
Supply and Demand
Athletes today are constantly involved in various activities. In order to meet the demand for energy the body has under these circumstances, they must consume enough calories! There are different ways to meet the caloric needs, but proper portions of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins will allow the athlete to perform to the best of their ability and ensure recovery. Fats contain 9 kcal/gram, while proteins and carbohydrates contain 4 kcal/gram. Missing any one of these three macronutrients and you are doing yourself a major disservice and decreasing your ability to perform. Carbohydrates are the main fuel source used by the body during high-intensity training and sporting events, making it the most important macronutrient regarding performance. Any athlete wishing to put on lean muscle mass needs adequate protein to grow and repair the muscle which is comprised of amino acids and H2O. The growing athlete wishing to put on lean muscle mass may need up to 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. It is no-brainer that an athlete should consume adequate fat in their diet not just for caloric content but for overall body health and function, yet some people are led to believe fat is “bad” for you. Fat aids in proper hormone levels and development of growing athletes. By having a diet that includes all three macronutrients, the athlete will meet their caloric needs and be best fueled for success.
There often seems to be a disconnect with athlete’s in knowing what to eat and getting enough of it in. For this reason, the total amount of calories a young athlete may think they are getting in one day is often overestimated. Countless times when asking an athlete at the gym if they ate a lot today we hear the response “YES!”. Diving a bit deeper into their diet from earlier that day and we see they have consumed less than 1,000 calories! You don’t put 10$ of gas in the tank before driving across the country so why would you eat a little and expect a lot in terms of performance. In order to get in enough calories, it is extremely important to never skip a meal. This can make it easier for an athlete to consume less food, more frequently which ultimately leads to more calories. Often times when an athlete skips breakfast, they never end up making up the lost calories which can be anywhere from 600-1,000 crucial calories! An athlete who is struggling to get in enough calories either due to activity level or unwillingness to eat can turn to different methods to help. Consuming calories in the liquid form seems to be easiest for these athletes. Whether it is gatorade, milk, juices, or making a shake (typically oatmeal, peanut butter, whey protein, and various fruits), the added calories and convenience factor will ensure more calories are added to their daily diet.
Is there a certain type of food the athlete should be eating? Yes and No. Trying to eat entirely “clean” food such as fruits and vegetables, and you will find yourself low on energy and falling way short of your caloric needs. If you were to eat only a piece of fruit for breakfast you would be setting yourself back in terms of calorie consumption. A piece of fruit typically contains around 90-100 calories. For this reason, foods such as fruit and vegetable should be added to a meal and not viewed as a meal themselves. Consuming entirely high caloric content food with little additional micronutrient or vitamin levels (i.e. candy bars or soda) and you will feel uncomfortable and unable to perform. Our body functions on a cellular level and vitamins and minerals are responsible for a lot of these processes in the body. Although foods such as candy bars and sports drinks may be high in calories, the lack of micronutrients makes it important to have balance in your diet. Athletes may need anywhere from 3,000-5,000 or more calories a day depending on activity level and age. It is a balance between the food that is viewed as “healthy” which is rich in micronutrients and higher caloric foods that will allow the athlete to meet there caloric needs while still giving the body proper micronutrient levels for adequate health.
Is there an optimal time to eat? Again, this depends on many factors such as activity level, type of athlete, and goal of the athlete. Calorie content always remains the most important factor. Whether you consume 3,000 calories over the course of three meals or six meals in one day, you consumed 3,000 calories that day. However, it is important to take into account training schedule, competition time, and even athlete preference. When working to gain weight and/or strength the athlete should always eat prior to training. Training in a fasted state will cause lack of energy and decrease performance and may enhance weight loss. As mentioned earlier, carbohydrates provide the most fuel for high-intensity training or competition, while fats also provide energy but are not the primary source. For this reason, pre-competition or training meals should contain primarily carbohydrates and fats. Protein should be viewed as recovery and muscle growth, because protein only becomes an energy source when the athlete is deprived of carbohydrates or fats. Pre and post-training meals are very important when trying to gain size, strength and improve performance and should always be implemented in the athlete’s daily diet.
Following each training session, our athletes are given a scoop of whey protein (roughly 25 grams of protein) and a huge spoonful of peanut butter (roughly 25 grams of protein, 45 grams of fat, and 20 grams of carbohydrates). This varies between 600-800 calories post-training to ensure the athlete is fueling themselves and giving their body the nutrients needed to repair, grow, and ultimately PERFORM! We also encourage our athletes to eat a lot throughout the remainder of the day and hydrate themselves properly. Almost every time we encourage an athlete to simply eat more, we see increased numbers in the gym, increased bodyweight, and ultimately improved performance. It comes down to this: When an athlete is working to perform at his or her highest level, food should be viewed as a way to increase performance….eat to perform!