Nutrition for young athletes


There’s no doubt that what young athletes eat affects their health as well as their performance in sport. If they eat a poor quality diet then they not only risk illness but they will not be able to train and compete to the best of their ability

Eating the right type of food and drinking enough fluid before, during and after each training session will help young athletes perform better, reduce fatigue and prevent them getting ill.

This article explains the key nutritional strategies that can be used to improve their training sessions. These centre around providing sufficient fuel for the muscles; maintaining hydration; and promoting post-exercise recovery. They can best be achieved by considering three distinct phases: before during and after training

Before training

(Intro)It’s important that young athletes begin each training session fully fuelled and properly hydrated. This will allow them to exercise harder and longer.. If they don’t consume enough carbohydrate, they risk early fatigue and poor performance. The athlete may struggle to keep up the pace, they may lag behind their teammates, they may feel weak, and they may have to stop training before the end of the session.

When should young athletes eat before training?

The optimal time for the pre-exercise meal is 2 – 4 hours before exercise. Carbohydrate in this meal will help top up muscle and liver glycogen levels and enhance performance during training or competition. If young athletes leave a longer gap than 4 hours, then they will almost certainly feel hungry during training, tired and light headed. On the other hand, if they eat too much too close to training, then they may feel uncomfortable, ‘heavy’ or nauseous, and unable to train hard as the blood supply diverts to the digestive organs instead of the muscles.

In practice, the exact timing of their pre-exercise meal will probably depend on constraints such as school hours, travel, homework and training session times. Try to plan meals as best you can around these commitments. If there isn’t time for a meal then they should have a healthy snack 30 minutes before training, as well as a drink. The food eaten should be easily digestible – high in carbohydrate, low in fat – such as toast, a cereal bar or a juice drink.

What should young athletes eat before training?

The pre-training meal should be based on foods with a high carbohydrate content such as bread, pasta, potatoes or rice. Opt for wholegrain varieties wherever possible – these will supply the athlete with energy for training as well as fibre, B vitamins and important minerals. Include some protein – chicken, fish, cheese, egg, beans, lentils or nuts – in the meal. This will help lower the overall glycaemic index (a measure of how rapidly the blood sugar levels rise) of the meal, provide sustained energy and improve performance. Porridge, cereal with milk, a jacket potato with beans, or a light pasta meal would be suitable pre-workout meals.

Pre-training meals

  • Jacket potato with cheese, tuna or baked beans plus salad
  • Pasta with tomato-based sauce or pesto, a little cheese, and some vegetables
  • Rice, pasta or noodles with chicken, fish or beans; and vegetables
  • A bowl of wholegrain breakfast cereal with milk and banana
  • Porridge with milk, honey and raisins
  • Lentil/vegetable or chicken soup with wholemeal bread
  • Wholemeal sandwich/roll/ wrap filled with tuna/ cheese/ chicken/ peanut butter, and salad

Pre-training snacks

  • One or two bananas (or other fresh fruit)
  • A handful of dried fruit and nuts
  • One or two oat-based cereal bars
  • A pot of fruit yoghurt and some fresh fruit

Is sugar good or bad for young athletes’ performance?

I frequently see young athletes eating sweets and chocolate bars and drinking sugary drinks before training sessions in the belief that sugar will aid their performance. In fact, the opposite has been shown to hold true – consuming sugar before exercise does NOT improve performance or stamina. Eating lots of sugar triggers high levels of insulin in the bloodstream, which transports sugar out of the blood stream rapidly, leaving the athlete with less available energy. This rebound effect can make athletes feel tired, weak and lightheaded. Instead, encourage them to eat a healthy meal based on potatoes, pasta or bread.

If they need a pre-training energy boost, it’s safer to choose foods, such as bananas, dried fruit, and cereal bars that won’t play havoc with blood sugar levels.

During training

Ensure they are well hydrated before training and encourage them to start drinking early during their training session – within the first 30 minutes – and to continue drinking at regular intervals. As a rule of thumb, they should aim to drink around 500 ml per hour – more in hot humid weather or when exercising very strenuously (see ‘Hydration For Young Athletes’).

What should young athletes drink during training?

Water is fine to hydrate with during activities lasting less than an hour. For training sessions lasting longer than an hour, a drink that provides carbohydrate (such as squash, diluted fruit juice or sports drinks) is a better option than plain water as it can increase endurance and improve performance (see article: ‘Hydration and sports performance’)

After training

The post-training meal should contain carbohydrate to replenish depleted fuel (glycogen) stores, as well as protein to repair and rebuild the muscles. Research suggests that consuming such as meal promotes faster recovery and speeds muscle repair. The meal or snack should contain about four times as much carbohydrate as protein, according to University of Texas studies.

What are the best foods to eat after training?

The recovery snack can be similar to the pre-training snack, perhaps with a little extra protein. Good choices include low fat milk; flavoured milk; fruit with yoghurt; a cereal bar with a yoghurt drink; or a homemade milkshake. Flavoured milk and yoghurt are particularly good options because they contain carbohydrate and protein in the ideal 4:1 ratio. Several studies have suggested that low fat milk is better than sports drinks or water for rehydrating athletes, and also promotes speedier muscle recovery.

Encourage young athletes to get into the habit of taking a recovery snack with them to their training session. That way, they can begin refueling immediately. Delaying refueling longer than 30 minutes may delay muscle recovery.

Refueling Snacks and drinks

Each of the following provides 50- 60g carbohydrate and 10 – 20 g protein

Consume within 2 hours of exercise

  • 500 ml flavoured milk
  • One banana plus 500ml of milk
  • 2 pots (2 x 150g) of fruit yoghurt
  • One cereal bar plus 500 ml semi skimmed milk
  • A smoothie – whizz 150g yoghurt, 1 banana and 150ml fruit juice in a blender
  • A cheese sandwich (2 slices bread; 40g cheese)
  • 60g raisins fruit and 50g nuts
  • 4 rice cakes with 20g peanut butter plus 200ml orange juice

 Refuelling Meals

  • Pasta with tomato pasta sauce with grated cheese and vegetables
  • Jacket potato, chicken breast, broccoli and carrots
  • Bean and vegetable hot pot with wholegrain rice
  • Rice with grilled fish and steamed vegetables
  • Lasagne or vegetable lasagne with salad
  • Fish pie with vegetables
  • Chilli or vegetarian chilli with rice and vegetables
  • Dahl (lentils) with rice and vegetables
  • Chicken curry with rice and vegetables
  • Mashed or baked potato with grilled salmon and salad

How much carbohydrate should young athletes eat each day?

Young athletes training between 1 and 2 hours a day would need around 5 – 7 g carbohydrate for each 1kg body weight; those training more than 2 hours would need 7 – 10g/ kg body weight/ day. For example, a 60kg athlete training 1 – 2 hours each day would need 360 – 420g carbohydrate daily.

As a rule of thumb, young athletes should be able to meet their carbohydrate requirements by eating

  • 4 – 6 portions of grains/ potatoes,
  • 5 portions of fruit/ vegetables and
  • 2 – 4 portions of dairy products

One portion of grains/ potatoes is equivalent to two slices of bread or 150g potatoes; a portion of fruit is equivalent to a banana, and a portion of dairy is equivalent to a glass (200ml) of milk.

How much protein do young athletes need?

There are no published values for young athletes – only for adult athletes – but it is estimated that they need more than non- athletic children, around 1.2 to 1.4 g per 1 kg body weight (vs. 0.85 – 1 g per 1 kg body weight for non-athletic children) – that’s 72 – 84g for someone weighing 60kg.

Including 2 – 3 portions of protein-rich foods (e.g. lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, lentils, tofu, quorn) daily makes it relatively easy for young athletes to meet their daily requirement.

How much fat should young athletes eat?

The International Olympic Committee and International Association of Athletic Federations both recommend athletes focus their efforts on getting enough carbohydrate and protein. The balance of their calorie intake should come from fats – ideally ‘good’ (unsaturated) rather than ‘bad’ (saturated and Trans) fats. You should not be over-concerned about a young athlete’s fat intake. Remember that they have higher energy needs – and therefore fat requirements – than most adults as they are growing and developing as well as training.

Do young athletes need extra vitamins and minerals?

There’s little scientific evidence to support the use of vitamin supplements. According to a 2009 review of evidence, supplements are not needed if athletes are eating a varied diet that matches their energy needs.

The best way for young athletes to get their vitamins and minerals is by eating a nutrient-rich diet, rather than taking supplements. Make sure they include lots of fruit and vegetables – at least five daily portions – and wholegrain cereals (rather than white versions); and keep low-nutrient foods such as sugary snacks, fried foods, fast foods and soft drinks to a minimum.

Sample menu

The following menu contains approximately 2800 calories and 400g carbohydrate, enough to fuel around 2 hours daily exercise for a young athlete weighing 60kg:

  • Breakfast – 2 slices of toast with margarine and honey; 2 bananas
  • Lunch – 1 large baked potato (200g) with margarine, half a tin (200g) of baked beans, and 2 tablespoons (40g) grated cheese; salad; 1 fruit yoghurt
  • Dinner – Large bowl of pasta (125g dried weight); chicken (125g) or cheese (40g); vegetables
  • Snacks – 200g fresh fruit; 400 ml fruit juice; 2 cereal bars; 1 fruit yoghurt


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