Nutrition For Young Athletes

Nutrition For Young Athletes

  October 22, 2018


Nutritional Needs

A growing child will always need regular, balanced meals for a healthy lifestyle but children taking part in strenuous or endurance sports will need that little bit extra to maintain growth and even give them a competitive edge. All day activities and endurance sports such as cross country, athletics events or all day competitions inevitably increase the amount of refueling required – especially in comparison with activities that run for an hour or less. This is why nutrition for young athletes is so crucial.

A child athlete needs a variety of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, protein and carbohydrates. 

A Balanced Diet

Ensuring your child gets what they need from meal times is vital to maximum performance and enjoyment from their chosen sport. When exercising, we burn glucose as short-term energy boosts – stores that need replenishing during and before exercising. To refuel quickly and effectively, we turn to carbohydrates which digest much quicker than other foods and go directly into our bloodstream to keep energy levels up. Unfortunately, carbohydrates do not contain all the vitamins and minerals needed – which is why a balanced diet outside of exercise is crucial.

As outlined by Kids Health, nutrition for young athletes can be hard to get right – but a basic balanced diet should include:

Calcium: Essential for strong bones, but also beneficial for your heart, nerves and blood stream. Dairy products such as milk and cheese are ideal, but green vegetables also provide a calcium boost.

Iron: A vital mineral for your body. Iron is essential for the transport of oxygen through the body, and a deficiency can cause anemia and a general lack of energy. Look for lean meats, cereals and vegetables to increase iron levels in the body.

Protein: Protein is the building block of the body, repairing and building muscle and tissue. On top of this, protein is also essential for the development of enzymes, hormones, cartilage and skin. Protein is perfect for refueling the body post-exercise.

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates fuel the body, slowly releasing energy throughout the day. Although some people discourage carbohydrates, they are a vital source of fuel. You can find healthy carbohydrates in foods such as pasta, breads, grains, rice, potatoes and milk as well as certain vegetables.

Most professional sportspeople consume protein shakes and other supplements to aid their diet and body growth and repair, however these are not necessary for a child athlete as a child’s body is still naturally growing and developing so a simple balanced diet will suffice. When planning nutrition for young athletes, it can be tempting to buy supplements and other products to cheat the body into extra growth or quick repair, but at a young age this is just not necessary.


One of the basics of fueling any athlete is staying hydrated and consistently taking fluids on board. Dehydration can sap energy, cause lapses in concentration and affect coordination, as well as leading to heat related illness on particularly hot days. Even mild dehydration can affect athletic performance. Being thirsty is not the first sign of dehydration, so it is important for children to take fluids onboard regularly before and during exercise to maintain performance. Post exercise, it is just as important to continue to drink fluids in order to refuel and replace fluids lost during exercise through sweat.

There are a number of energy and isotonic drinks that can aid rehydration, however these must be supplemented with normal water-based drinks. Isotonic drinks contain electrolytes such as potassium to replace energy and rehydrate the consumer. Although water-based drinks are usually enough to rehydrate children, energy drinks can be useful for athletes participating in activities lasting more than an hour. Carbonated and sugary energy drinks should be avoided though as they can upset the stomach.

Game Day

Nutrition for young athletes is even more important on the day of training or games, as they need to be storing energy in their bodies that will be released as they day goes on. Some general guidelines for game day:

  • Food takes a minimum of 90 minutes to digest, so a meal around 3 hours before activity is ideal. As mentioned before, a good amount of carbohydrates is necessary for slow-releasing energy stores but be careful not to serve a meal high in fat – fat is much harder for the stomach to break down so could cause problems when exercising. Protein should be included as well, but only a small amount. You can increase the amount of protein post-exercise when refueling and repairing the body.
  • A meal less than 3 hours before exercise is fine, but should be lighter and full of easy to digest foods such as fruit, juice, crackers or bread – plenty of carbs, but light enough to digest.
  • Post-exercise, it is recommended that a snack of fruit and a sports drink and some light carbs within 30 minutes of activity should be consumed. Full refueling can take place a couple of hours later to replenish energy stores and rebuild muscles. A balanced meal of protein, carbs and fat is ideal.


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