By Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD

Imagine this scenario. Your young athlete did the work all summer long. Practice, hitting the gym, followed by more practice. They feel great going into try-outs, but they are too nervous and rushed to eat breakfast that morning. Afterwards, when you ask how try-outs went, they explain that they lacked energy and felt lightheaded during the try-out. The worse case scenario is that they don’t make the cut, but how could that happen after a summer of preparation? Well, there may be a missing link in their performance—fueling.

How The Body Gets Energy

Although practice and training are vital components of an athlete’s life, the energy to perform isn’t based on athletic ability alone. Energy comes from eating calories, specifically carbohydrates. When we eat carbs, our body stores them as something called glycogen. During exercise, glycogen is the first source of quick fuel providing energy for about 15-20 minutes. Once the glycogen is used up, the body begins to burn any dietary carbs that are floating around in the blood stream.

What Happens If You Don’t Eat?

Your body needs fuel for basic functions, like keeping the brain working and the heart pumping. If you don’t eat enough and the body is lacking fuel, it will still make fuel by breaking down its own muscle and fat. For children who are constantly working to grow and get stronger, this breakdown of muscle can be detrimental. And, the process of making fuel from muscle is very inefficient and requires a ton of energy that will make them feel drained during a workout. Without food before a try-out, practice or game, a young athlete will feel tired, sluggish, lightheaded or nauseous.

The Right Type of Fuel

Choosing the right type of fuel is essential to performance. As mentioned earlier, carbohydrates provide the best source of energy for workouts. But, it’s important to choose the right type of carbohydrate. I always suggest carbs that contain plenty of nutrients, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. But, the type of carb you eat depends on WHEN you eat. These simple tips on meal timing and composition will help any young athlete feel energized on their big day.

30-60 minutes before a workout:

Eat “simple carbs”. These types of carbs are digested quickly and will not cause an upset stomach. Examples of simple carbs are fruit, juice, white bread, low-fiber cereals, white crackers and pretzels. Although we often think of some of these foods as “bad”, they are necessary for athletes that need quick fuel. Try to keep these portions small (like the size of your fist) to avoid stomach distress and unneeded extra calories.

2-4 hours before a workout:

Eat “complex carbs”. These types of carbs take longer to digest and will provide extended energy for a long period of time. Mix the complex carbs with some protein and a little fat for a well-balanced meal. Examples of complex carbs are whole grains, vegetables, beans and legumes.

These are some well-balanced pre-exercise meal options that include a complex carb, some protein and a little bit of fat.

  • ½ Whole Wheat Bagel with Peanut Butter and Jelly
  • Rice Cake with Turkey & Avocado
  • Tuna Salad Sandwich on Whole Wheat Bread
  • Turkey in a Whole Wheat Wrap with Lettuce and Tomato
  • Vegetables & Hummus
  • Whole Grain Cereal with Milk
  • Whole Wheat Crackers & a Cheese stick
What About Hydration?

The one other thing that can really affect fueling and try-out performance is hydration. Children get hotter faster than adults because they have a greater body surface area for their body weight. That means they gain heat faster from the environment than adults. They need to drink very frequently during exercise and cold water is the perfect refresher. A good rule of thumb is that children need about 4 ounces (or ½ cup) of water for every 20 minutes of play.  Unfortunately, the thirst mechanism that lets the brain know it’s time to drink is usually inaccurate. Therefore, young athletes need to be taught about the importance of hydration, or they might just forget to drink all together. Fresh fruit is also high in water, and orange slice breaks before or during practice should be encouraged!

With all of the hard work your young athlete put in all summer long, don’t let them have a bad day because they missed out on good fuel. Follow these simple tips to make sure they secure a spot on the team!