Young athletes running in basketball practice.

Apr 26, 2018 / Sports Medicine

Nutrition Tips for Young Athletes in Stop-and-Go Sports

A stop-and-go sport, also known as a high-intensity interval exercise, includes baseball, softball, football, volleyball, basketball, ice hockey, soccer and tennis. These sports require coordination, agility and concentration. Quick reactions in these sports demand bursts of energy, speed and power.  

Alternating periods of intense power and speed, with short or long periods of rest, involve all of the major energy systems in the body. Therefore, meals and snacks throughout the day for these athletes should include appropriate mix of all foods and nutrients. 

The amount of food and nutrients needed vary between athlete. Some factors to consider include the following:
  • The athlete’s height, weight, age, sweat rate, stage of development, sport they play and position they play.
  • Although amounts will vary, carbohydrates should be the main component in a young athlete’s diet for sustained energy and optimal performance throughout events, especially tournaments and matches.
  • Protein should be present in each meal for muscle maintenance and to help with muscle recovery after events.
  • Fat is also important for satiety (feeling full) as well as brain development and function and potentially decreased inflammation. Learn more about healthy fats for the young athlete.
Burning Out Early 
Because of the intensity of some stop-and-go sports (like basketball, soccer, tennis and hockey) and because of the length of some games (like baseball or football) and tournaments (like basketball, soccer, tennis and volleyball), young athletes can use up their energy stores before the event is over. This especially becomes a problem if the athlete has not eaten a proper meal or snack earlier in the day or prior to the event and does not bring appropriate snacks for during the event.

End of the Season Injury
If this pattern of burnout continues, the constant fatigue during events can put the athlete at increased risk of injury due to decreased motor skills and performance. Poor nutrition or under-fueling can also lead to a lack of important nutrients like protein, fat, iron, calcium and vitamin D, which can also increase an athlete’s risk of injuries like stress fractures.

Dehydration is another contributor to fatigue, but also a cause of headaches and muscle cramps in the young athlete. Either of these can lead to decreased performance and injury. Of special concern are those young athletes playing in the heat or with extra gear like football, softball and hockey. Dehydration in these young athletes can lead to heat illness if it is not properly recognized and addressed.

Proper Fuel & Hydration Before and During Events
Eat a balanced meal at least three to four hours prior to the event and a small snack just before, if needed. Make sure to offer quality carbohydrates to keep energy levels up until the very end of games and tournaments. More popular suggestions are fruit slices, dried fruit, crackers, pretzels, fig bars or sports drinks. Make sure to bring plenty of water, encouraging sips during timeouts, breaks and halftime.  

Balanced Meals Throughout the Day
A young athlete’s plate should consist of:
  • Variety of Carbohydrates – Mix it up with sources like milk and yogurt, whole grains, fruits and starchy vegetables. Carbohydrates provide short and long-term energy to fuel for a practice, game or tournament.  
  • Lean protein - Protein is important to repair any torn muscles and build tissue.  
  • Healthy fats - Fat is important for the growing brain and has potential anti-inflammatory benefits. 
    • Healthy fats, such as mono- and polyunsaturated fats, are important for brain development and function, aid in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K and may have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Getting carbohydrates, protein and fat from a variety of sources ensures that the athlete is also getting proper amounts of other nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and iron, among many others. Eating enough calories from carbohydrates, protein, fats and these nutrients helps promote optimal recovery and prevents injuries.

Drink fluid consistently throughout the day. Most of the time, an athlete should choose water and milk. Make sure to bring plenty of water to events adding a sports drink (for electrolytes and carbohydrates), if needed. For heavy sweaters, salt can be added to drinks or salty snacks can be incorporated into breaks and halftimes. Check out the basics of hydration for young athletes. 

Learn more about injury prevention and pediatric sports medicine.

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