On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I’m watching my daughter play soccer and notice that her energy dwindling by the minute. The night before she stayed at a friend’s house, ate a bunch of “slumber party” food and didn’t have a great breakfast. As a nutritionist, I immediately see the connection between her recent food choices, lack of proper hydration and her waning energy. It’s not the first time I’ve made this mistake, but I know that as she gets more competitive I have to teach her that if she wants optimal performance, she need optimal nutrition.
So, what should our young athletes be eating before a game?
Athletes love to talk about protein, but there is so much more to sports nutrition. Sure, protein is important, but the aerobic energy system needs carboydrates and fats! It’s not desirable to use protein as an energy source because the body needs to use it later to rebuild and repair.
To perform optimally, the body needs macronutrients (protein, carboydrates and fat) as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Macronutrients are important for energy and growth. Micronutrients enhance our mental and physical functioning…which is key to competition! Micronutrients do lots of other amazing jobs like support the nervous system, help with the energy process, repair DNA and reduce oxidative stress.
So, enough science, what should I feed my young athlete?
- Fruits and vegetables are always a good idea! They will provide complex carbohydrates (the good carbs), lots of micronutrients, phytochemicals and antioxidants. They also provide an extra source of water…a win win!
- Nuts and seeds are a nutritional wonder! Full of healthy fats, protein, micronutrients and antioxidants, they can be a perfect little packable fuel…and they won’t melt in the car. Sweet!
- Beans and legumes are inexpensive and full of protein, fiber and other amazing plant power.
It’s simple, eat a variety of real food. Think about fueling them with good nutrients, not filling them with processed food that could slow them down.
Before the game:
A good meal about 2 hours before is ideal. This gives the body time to process the food. Keep in mind, while the body is digesting, it uses a significant amount of blood. Therefore, less blood is available to go to the limbs and muscles. You really don’t want to be digesting a big meal when you are sprinting toward the ball!
Hydrate! Hydrate! Hydrate! I know you all bring water for your child to drink during the game, but what about before? It’s important to hydrate before the game so that the water is available to transport nutrients to muscles. Water also helps regulate the body’s temperature. It can help keep your body warm during a frigid Spring soccer game or keep your body cool during a hot July baseball game.
Refrain from processed or sugary snack and drinks. Processed food can make the body slugglish and it’s usually so dry that you need to drink another glass of water to digest it. Keep it simple, eat real food!
During the event: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Did you catch that?! The most important thing you can put in the body during an event is water. If the competition is 60 minutes or less, your young athlete really does’t need snacks or sports drinks to make it through. They just need enough water to replace what was lost in sweat. If they are involved in intense physical activity for over 60 minutes, they might need some carbohydrates for energy. I’m not talking about pasta here…a serving of fruit will better accomplish the task.
*if you child has an illness such as diabetes, these guidelines may not apply (seek your doctor’s advice)
After the event: Chilled fruit is a great snack to restore the body’s carbohydrate supply and it’s refreshing! I also love nuts for a quick dose of fat and protein. A replenishing meal is ideal…you know, that real food we talked about earlier? It’s best to refuel with a good meal after the game, but if it’s a couple hours until dinner time, pack a healthy snack for the ride home.
Everyday nutrition also has an effect on sports performance. A good overall diet can help muscles to repair themselves, can reduce the oxidative stress from high intensity exercise and can prevent illness. Who wants to miss practice because they are stuck on the couch recovering from an illness?
As the lovely Dr David Phillips says, “Optimal performance is driven by optimal health!” I full heartedly agree!