Fueling for Youth Sports

August 2023

by tiffany ricci

This is one of my favorite times of the year - the leaves will change soon, school supplies are taking over store aisles, and we’re heading back to the fields of Amend for another season of youth soccer.  

As a parent of school-aged children, I value the myriad of skills learned by participating in youth sports, and I’m not alone. According to the National Council of Youth Sports - some 60 million kids are registered in sports. As a sports dietitian, I see another side to this number - an increased need for nutrition education for our youth as they balance academic and athletic challenges during the school year.  

Let’s talk about some ways to support the efforts of our young athletes. Even if they are not registered for a sport, these tips can help your enthusiastic biker, runner, skier, skateboarder, scooter-rider, and playground warrior. While nutritional considerations differ for males and females, prepubescent and post-puberty, along with the type of sport, these guidelines can help any family support their energizer bunny on the field, court, balance beam, or jungle gym.  

Focus on ADDING for performance.  

Unfortunately, many kids fall short of meeting nutritional recommendations, but exceed intakes of sugar, fat, and highly-processed foods. In making strides to change this, the emphasis is often on eliminating “junk food” - focusing on what kids should not have. Instead, emphasize what they should have and why.  

Athletes have higher needs because they have higher expenditures. Rather than meeting those needs with nutrient-void options such as sugary drinks and treats, we should meet those needs by increasing intakes of:  

  • Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, sweet potatoes, and beans. These choices provide energy, B vitamins, fiber, and minerals.  
  • Fruits and vegetables are great snack options as they pack a punch with vitamins that support immunity, growth, and development.  
  • Healthy fats from plant sources such as nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils provide energy for activity and nourishment for hormone and brain development.  
  • Plain water for hydration. Dehydration can decrease athletic and academic performance. Set them up for success by providing water throughout the day.

When improving intake, ask, “What can we add to this meal or snack to provide energy and nutrients to support our activity and brains?” This question can spark a conversation that moves nutrition into a positive light and is seen as a way to keep them healthy and athletic.  

Nutrient TIMING: Fueling UP and RE-Fueling  

Timing their food is just as important as what they eat, but practice times often conflict with dinnertime for many parents. Ideally, they should eat an easily digestible meal or snack 1-2 hours before their practice or event. Here are some easy ideas to keep this meal healthy and beneficial for them to make gains in their training:  

  • Turkey and cheese sandwich with pretzels and orange slices  
  • Rotisserie chicken wrap (mix with some BBQ sauce for more flavor) with carrot slices and hummus.  
  • Yogurt parfait with granola and fruit  
  • Smoothie with frozen bananas, peanut butter, and some milk  
  • Pack granola bars, PB&Js, or trail mix in their school bag or car to make sure they are fueled before after-school practice  

Refueling after practice or a game will replenish nutrients lost during the event or training. Depending on the time, choose a meal or snack that contains carbohydrates (fruit, crackers, cereal, bread) and protein (yogurt, cheese stick, peanut butter, meat, nuts).  

Fueling THROUGH Events  

This is a more “competition sport” recommendation because athletes do not rest at their whim during athletic training and competition as in regular play. Because of this, athletes need simple sugar and electrolytes to fuel through endurance-based training and competition.  

Now, I know I said that kids’ diets are too high in sugar, just a few paragraphs up. Hear me out. During long training sessions or at events, glycogen (stored glucose) is used to fuel a child’s brain, nervous system, and muscles. Only so much can be stored, so they need exogenous sources of glucose to fuel through training and events lasting longer than 60-75 minutes. Glucose is also a co-transporter for electrolytes like sodium, so they absorb faster. This is why sports drinks contain a sweetener and electrolytes - it works better for the athlete. However, a sports drink would be considered added sugar in the diet unless it is utilized to fuel through intense or extensive exercise.  

Here are a few tips to help you with seemingly opposing recommendations:  

  • Not every training session or event needs a sports drink. Consider the duration and intensity of the exercise.  
  • Running a mile at their fastest pace or performing at their dance recital is intense but not enduring. In these situations, fueling up beforehand and refueling afterward will meet nutritional needs.  
  • For longer training sessions or endurance events like soccer or basketball games, avoid providing zero-sugar sports drinks. Athletes need the glucose to fuel through.  
  • Sports drinks are convenient, but other simple sugars like orange slices, raisins, or jelly beans will work.  

The specific recommendations for youth sports nutrition vary widely based on several factors. The good news is that you can make a positive impact with your young athletes by embracing a positive nutrition mindset and helping them fuel their activity. Here’s to fueling this fall!  

Originally printed in the August 2023 issue of Simply Local Magazine

Never miss an issue, check out SLM's digital editions here!  

related articles: 

Get local updates, events and special offers!

Local Events