From an early age, we are told to eat healthy and engage in physical activity. The two have always gone hand in hand, but both are very broad categories. The type of regular physical activity that one gets will determine the type of nutrition that they need.
For an occasional pickup game, you can get away with less than the best nutritional habits. But once a sport becomes a routine, going beyond the fundamentals of healthy eating may be necessary.
What Role Does Nutrition Play in Sports?
In this article, you will learn the role that nutrition plays for various sports at various ages. The hope is that the information you learn will alert the parent, teacher, or coach that nutrition is an important consideration for anyone who takes part in a competitive sport. Not just for winning the game, but for their health and wellbeing.
The Field of Sports Nutrition
A new field emerged as athletes began recognizing the benefit of eating more of specific types of calories and micronutrients. Now, Sports Nutrition is a title that many people hold that gives them credibility before advising someone who wants to improve their athletic performance.
Like an athletic trainer, the sports nutrition coach is an important part of the coaching team that surrounds an athlete. Their work may not get the same public recognition as a strength coach, athletic trainer, or physical therapist, but it is just as important for the athletes’ performance.
The Role of Nutrition For Youth Sports
Kids have a natural source of energy that leaves many parents both envious and exhausted at the same time. It appears that their natural energy levels are more than enough for the needs of a young athlete. However, what we see on the surface may not be an accurate representation of the child’s health. There are two key reasons younger athletes should follow a proper nutrition plan for their activity level.
Creating Sound Nutritional Habits
As we continue through this article, you will see how the importance of proper nutrition through adequate macronutrient and micronutrient levels is a crucial part of athletic performance. But with adherence being the most challenging part of the sports nutritionist’s job, it makes life a lot easier if the athlete already has the fundamentals in place.
A young athlete should follow the nutrition basics, such as:
- Carbohydrate intake: Eating enough carbohydrates to support the energy calories they burn.
- Protein Intake: Consume enough protein to help their muscles recover and slowly develop muscle mass as they mature.
- Fat Intake: Eat enough healthy fat to support their brain function, joint mobility, and hormone production
Nourishment for Now and Later
We may assume that because a child has enough energy to run a marathon, that they are getting enough quality nutrition to support their growth. Unfortunately, this is less true than we commonly think.
Although a young athlete may get enough calories in their diet, they could very well be undernourished. It is challenging enough to get the average kid to eat foods that support regular activity, but the child who competes in youth sports requires even more effort.
Sports burn macronutrients and micronutrients. The youth athlete is losing important nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and water when they exercise. Contrary to what marketing tells us, a sports drink is not enough to replace the vital nutrients excreted during exercise.
Not having enough of these important nutrients can cause:
- More emotional highs and lows for the child.
- Inability to concentrate on or off the field.
- Increased pain and soreness following a practice or game.
- Physical, mental, and emotional developmental issues down the road.
Having a young athlete follow a nutrition plan that teaches them about healthy foods isn’t being an obsessive parent or coach. Instilling in them the benefits of creating a plan is setting them up for success later in life.
The Role of Nutrition For High School Sports
The bar gets raised when a youth athlete enters high school. There is more on the line as the recognition of high school sports can affect the student athlete more than the playfulness of youth sports.
The Stressors of High School
Now, the still forming student has a desire to make the team and perform well for social, academic, and competitive reasons. Whether it is because they want to play professionally, get a free ride to college, or climb the social hierarchy of high school, the student athlete feels increased pressure to perform.
But it isn’t just increased demands for the sport that have an impact, it is also the increased demands in the classroom. They often welcome students to high school with more textbooks and large amounts of homework. The pressure inside of getting good grades and winning games is a lot for someone who has not fully matured physically, cognitively, and emotionally.
Nutritional Needs for Student Athletes
With development, athletic, and cognitive needs so high, the student athlete needs more calories. Hence why many of them can ravage a box of cereal, eat the entire pot of pasta, and devour an entire pizza. Consuming enough calories is not the problem for most as their choices are often high caloric carbohydrate and fat based foods.
The Impact of Poor Nutrition
Poor nutrition can cost the high school athlete. Sure, they may have enough muscle glycogen stores (muscle energy) from all of those carbs, but the energy is inconsistent and creates more problems than it solves. These poor food choices can affect the performance and body composition of the student. Academically, the student will not have the raw materials critical to optimal thinking and memory retention.
Another problem is when a high school athlete makes healthier choices. It’s hard to eat 4000-5000 calories from healthy foods. Following a typical bodybuilder meal of chicken, rice, and broccoli would require the student to eat 10-meals per day, which isn’t realistic. So how do we get our children to eat enough calories from healthier food choices?
The first step is to actually “think” through this process. Learning about what foods we can pair together to create a macronutrient and micronutrient dense meal. For many parents, this is too much to handle on their own, and requires the help of a sports nutrition specialist.
Nutrition Counseling for Student Athletes
Often these sports nutritionists are former athletes themselves. By choosing a relatable sports nutritionist you may be helping them more than nutritionally, it may encourage them to make positive lifestyle decisions that will affect their academic and sport performance.
The Role of Nutrition in Collegiate Sports
Entering college can either be a reality check or an appropriate next step for the student athlete. If they have already implemented their own exercise and nutrition program, they will find the college environment helpful as they will gain a lot of resources to build upon their foundation. If they relied on their talent and did not take exercise and nutrition seriously, they may be shocked to find out what they require for collegiate sports.
At this point, it is out of the parents’ hands and they must hope that they have instilled the right behavioral nutrition habits to keep their young adult on track. The freedom of college can cause many athletes to perform poorly because of the partying and social opportunities available to them.
Nutrition When Traveling
College athletes experience significantly more travel time than high school students. While in high school, you can still make it home for dinner after a game, but in college meals do not come so easily. It may be days before you return to your dorm or apartment and cook a fresh meal.
It is important that the student athlete learns how to prepare meals for traveling and order meals that fit their nutritional needs. Depending on the menu items found at local restaurants is a recipe for disaster for the college athlete. Going back to behavioral nutrition, this athlete must have the willpower to order foods that will enhance their performance, not diminish it.
The Role of Nutrition in Professional Sports
While as a parent, teacher, or coach, this section may not seem relevant, understanding what role nutrition plays in professional sports can help you with a younger athlete. They are called professionals for a reason. While there are outliers who live a less than healthy lifestyle, most athletes take their nutrition as seriously as they do their performance.
For many, their macronutrient intake is an exact science. Their meals are often prepared for them with specific protein, carbohydrate, and healthy fats set for specific times of the day. They may also change from day to day based upon the energy an athlete exerts.
Their sports nutritionist, athletic trainer, and chef work synergistically, creating a meal plan that delivers performance improvements and helps them recover faster.
Reaching the professional level offers opportunities that the youth athlete does not have access to. This does not mean that we cannot learn and apply some of what the pros use to perform their best. We can show younger athletes the nutrition plan that one of their role models follows.
Finding articles or interviews where professionals speak about their nutrition shows the youth athlete that being a professional is less glamorous than it seems. It requires even more hard work, dedication, and repetition.
Meeting the Athlete Where They Are
While we can categorize athletes based upon their age, it is important that we meet the athlete where they are. A personalized approach to nutrition is crucial for the success of an athlete. If you want an athlete to be successful at following a program, ensure it meets their needs and is simple enough for a habit to be formed.