Fuelling teenage rowers


With Maadi Cup fast approaching, this month nutritionist Danielle Roberts offers advice for teenage rowers and ideas for coping with the demands of the sport.

Undernourishment of the young athlete body seems to be a growing problem. With both underweight and overweight teenagers involved in the sport of rowing, while their nutritional needs are different, they do share a common problem.

Both issues are to do with undernourishment; from not eating enough to fuel a growing body (let alone body maintenance) or using the correct fuel needed to train, to fuelling up with all the wrong foods.

The importance of nourishment with sport

In order for our body to perform at its best, we need nutrients like vitamins and minerals, which we get from nutrient-dense whole food sources.

Highly processed foods may be sources of protein, fats and carbohydrates, but without vitamins and minerals, will not achieve energy production. So the teenage rower, who is going through peak growing and hormonal periods, needs to fuel this growth, as well as be able to fuel their muscles for training and performance.

Another important reason for ensuring they consume nutrient-dense foods is for antioxidants. Metabolism and other systems in the body often use the process of oxidation. Oxidation results in by-products such as free radicals that need to be mopped up. This is the role of antioxidants.

When it comes to physical activity, metabolic processes increase in order to create energy. We also increase oxidation, thus free radical production in the body increases. If we do not restore the balance with antioxidants, then the free radicals can start damaging cells in different tissues in the body. This eventually leads to illness and disease.

The essentials of fuelling for performance

For any athlete, is it important to have a nourishing diet and proper refuelling after training. This helps to increase the overall ability to perform in competitions. So come race day, it is more like top-up fuelling rather than loading. Eating better around training also means fitness and strength will improve, which is better for performance and overall health.

Improper refuelling can cause issues like fatigue (emotional, irritated, poor concentration, and lethargy) and weakened power to muscle ratio (especially for a sport like rowing where this makes all the difference to performance).

The best time for refuelling is within 30 minutes after finishing activity. I suggest, however, if it is an intense training that you wait 15 minutes, so that your digestive system has kicked back into gear. This is because it slows down under physical activity because we don’t need to be digesting at this time; we need blood to go to our muscles.

Ideally this is how refuelling should go…..

Nutrient-Dense snacks

• Bananas – Having 1-2 yellow bananas after training, depending on intensity is better than filling yourself with non- nutrient dense bread. Bananas have more vitamins and minerals.
• Other fruits – stone fruits like plums, apricots and peaches. Red grapes are also packed with high amounts of antioxidants
• Dried fruit – dates
• Nuts – almonds
• Homemade protein bar – email me for the free recipe (danielle@fuelnutrition.co.nz)
•  1-2 boiled eggs (cooked the night before for a morning train)
• Chia seeds with yoghurt (natural unsweetened) and dark berries
• Coconut water – good for electrolyte balance, natural sugars, minerals vitamins. Better than Powerade.

Ideally you want a combination of protein and carbohydrates, so a good combination of snacks above is; the homemade protein bar, 1-2 bananas and 1 – 2 boiled eggs. Of course each individual needs different amounts of foods, so get some professional help or experiment until you find what works for you.
Then have a sustainable breakfast an hour or so afterwards, such as oats (or ancient grains below), blueberries, cinnamon and natural unsweetened yoghurt

NOTE: A small coolie bag with a cool pad is ideal for transportation and all snacks are easy to prepare the night before.

rowers2Ideal food changes to make in order to increase nutrients in the diet

Carbohydrates are important; please make sure you are consuming them. They refuel your muscles so you perform at your best and also keep you from tiring. Just make sure they are from whole-based food sources.
Wheat is consumed in large amounts today (bread, pasta, most packaged foods), and it is not the true wheat that was grown thousands of years ago. Today, the processed forms of wheat can cause digestive issues. It is also missing a lot of vitamins and minerals, so aim to make some food swaps from the examples below.

• Ancient grains (1-2 serves a day): buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth
• Other (1 serve a day): brown rice (cooked well)
• Fruits (4 -6 serves a day): pineapple, berries of all colours, grapefruit, apricots, peaches, bananas, apples etc
• Starchy-based vegetables (1-2 serves a day):  butternut pumpkin and golden kumara are two top picks of mine because both are orange. This orange colour is due to high amounts of beta carotene, which is a powerful antioxidant for cellular repair in the body.

I know there is a massive hype on how bad sugar is for you. Please do not put fruit in this category. It is filled with fibre, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and live enzymes.  Due to this nutrient density, fruit sugars do not have the same effect as normal sugar does in the body.
Not only are carbohydrates important for recovery but we also need them so that our brain functions properly. These are especially important for high school students to give them tip top concentration to absorb learning.

Remember to have:

• 10 servings a day of vegetables Vary the colours as this gives you a wide range of nutrients and antioxidants.
• Protein sources (4 serves a day): mix up meat-based protein sources with non-meat like eggs and legumes (lentils). Limit red meat to 1-2 times a week
• Fat sources (3-4 serves a day): choose healthy fats like avocado, almonds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, egg yolk etc.
NOTE: serves per day is a guide in terms of reaching for better nutrient levels in the body. Everyone is different.

Weight management

As mentioned above, both overweight and underweight conditions arise from undernourishment. Everyone is different, so stress and undernourishment that causes weight gain for one person may cause weight loss for another. This is why it is important to also look at what is occurring in lifestyle as well.
As lifestyle factors and the individual responses of the teenagers to their environments differ from person to person, I can only advise the course of action that needs to occur in both situations.

An overweight teenager needs to start making more nutrient-dense food choices (as mentioned previously in this article). This needs to be balanced with the fact that they are growing and need energy for learning as well as training.

You can either seek professional help to get the balance right or experiment with different foods and amounts and feel how the body reacts.

I also recommend that you address the issue holistically. I can guarantee nine times out of ten there will be an emotional/ stress issue involved that may not be noticeable on the surface.

This is most certainly the case for girls, as they are a lot more sensitive to mental and emotional stress than their male counterparts. A lot of feelings of inadequacy, academic pressure on themselves and general self acceptance tend to be strong issues that will need to be faced if weight loss is to occur.

An underweight teenager needs to be addressed in the same manner with regard to the holistic approach, because the same emotional issues can also cause weight loss.

In terms of the food aspect, it could be that many females are weight conscious, so are trying to stick to chicken salads with no carbohydrates. This is a recipe for disaster in all body systems and performance (due to low muscle density and power).

For underweight males it could be that they are just expending far more energy than they are eating. In both cases, nutrient-dense foods are again important but the amount of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in the diet need to be increased. For this group, the post training meal is going to be especially important in order to reload the muscles for performance.

rowers3Race day fuelling

• Morning of: Breakfast 2-3 hours beforehand ( the least ideal is 1.5 hours – some people are fine with this)
• Sustainable carbohydrates – like oats berries and banana with milk/ yoghurt.
• Protein source – like an omelette with spinach or boiled eggs with avocado (whatever is easiest)
• If events are close together or you have long wait times between breakfast and your race here are some ideas for different time gaps that will help nourish you while not putting stress on your digestive system.

Easy to digest refuelling after/between races
– small breaks (30 Minutes)

• Homemade protein bar
• Bananas – yellow (best thing ever) and red grapes
• Stone fruits – peach, apricots, plums – if in season (otherwise canned peaches are fine)
• Dried fruits – apricots / dates (better than lollies)
• The only processed item I would say is all right – Up and Go
• Coconut water – perfect for long hot days and when sweating a lot to replace electrolytes (or a burst of natural sugar, vitamins and minerals).

NOTE: after racing leave 10 – 15 minutes for your digestive system to kick in again. As mentioned above when stress is put on the body (this includes physical) the functioning of your “rest and digest” systems slows down, because at that time you do not need to be digesting food. So wait until your body has calmed down and moves back into a more rested state, then eat, to ensure proper digestion.

Do not rehydrate until after eating. Water has a pH of 7 (neutral). Our stomach is a pH of 1.2 (highly acidic).

Our stomach acid needs to be this high in order to break down food, so that it is in small enough particles for digestive enzymes to work to and nutrients to be absorbed more efficiently (remember the particle size also comes down to the amount of chewing we do initially).

Drinking water dilutes the acid, so bigger particles go into the small intestine. The digestive enzymes have to work harder to break down the particles, and often aren’t very efficient, therefore increasing the likelihood of malabsorption problems.

Larger breaks: (up to 3 hours)

Any of the above snacks or slower digesting snacks which include fats.
• Hummus or Ric’s Peanut Butter and rice cakes
• Nuts like almonds (14- 16 is a good serving)
and/or small sizes of the following:
• Roast pumpkin, roast beetroot, feta and spinach salad
• Bread and rice will weigh you down but a small wrap with chicken would be okay.

Note: These ideas are only to be had in more snack size portions if the breaks are long.

What we fuel our bodies with plays an extremely important role in body function and sport performance.
I hope this has given all you fitness junkies (like me) food for thought.


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