Nutrition for young athletes


Nutrition affects performance in sport. It affects an athlete’s ability to train and compete at their best, their ability to recover and adapt, their body composition, their energy levels and their long-term health. It is especially important for young athletes to fuel their body appropriately due to the demands of training and competition, as well as their requirements for growth and development.

However, in a world where there are new fad diets each week, new nutrition “experts” or new lists of “good” or “bad” foods, it is very difficult to know how to ensure your body receives the nutrition it needs. As a result, many young athletes are unaware of the importance of nutrition in sport, and the potential risks associated with nutrient depletion and deficiency.

kelly-pelham-2As a former aerobics competitor during my teenage years, I wasn’t fazed with nutrition and certainly didn’t consider it a priority. I look back now and cringe at my ‘pre-training meals’, my complete lack of ‘recovery regimes’ and my ongoing ‘competition strategy’ of lollies and red Powerade (always the red one)!

Many years later, and as a New Zealand registered dietitian, I want to share with you some of the key things I wish I knew back in my teenage years:

1. Establish healthy nutrition habits

Unfortunately, the “I train hard I can eat what I want” defence will not optimise athletic performance or general health.

Young athletes have specific nutritional requirements, but it is important to get the basics right and start with a healthy diet.

A diet based on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and healthy protein and fat sources serves as a useful baseline for all teenagers.

Your ability to train hard, recover, adapt, and avoid illness and injury is compromised if you don’t have the basics in place.

2. Meet energy requirements

kelly-pelhamIt is important that young athletes meet their energy needs, as extended periods of low energy availability can impact on health. Potential impacts include delayed puberty, menstrual irregularities, poor bone health, short stature, the development of disordered eating habits and an increased risk of injury.

How can I ensure I meet my energy requirements?

If you have a well-balanced diet, you’re off to a great start! However, it’s important to build onto your baseline diet by ensuring extra carbohydrate and protein is consumed to match training and growth demands.

This may mean a little more is eaten at meals or extra snacks are on hand. Avoiding certain food groups can put you at risk of nutritional deficiencies such as iron, calcium and Vitamin D so it is important to include a wide range of foods to be healthy and perform at your best.

3. Choose water

All athletes need to maintain adequate hydration before training and competition.

This is especially important for young athletes, as they are generally less effective than adults at regulating their body temperature in both hot and cold environments.

The fluid of choice for them should be water. The use of sports drink in place of water is unnecessary, as the loss of sodium in sweat is generally lower in young athletes compared with adults.  Excess consumption of sports drinks is costly and is bad for your teeth.

4. Individualise your nutrition

The demands of training and competition as well as growth and development mean that young athletes have unique and changing nutritional requirements.

Don’t stick to uninformed fuelling and recovery strategies like I did. Learn what specific nutrients your body requires, for both performance and long-term health.

Get your nutrition right now and give yourself the best chance to reach your potential.


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