feeding your little athlete (part one)

There is no question that athletes require additional nutrients to support their regular and rigorous activity. There is also no question that childhood and adolescence are a critical time for obtaining the right nutrients, as bodies, brains and immune systems develop by the day. So the young athlete has extra special requirements – we need to support their growth and development whilst providing them with the fuel to perform at the top of their game!

Inadequate energy intake is one of the most common problems in young athletes, and can not only seriously impact their sports performance, but also their growth, development and academic life.  Not only are children’s energy requirements high to provide for growth, but evidence shows that when they exercise, they burn proportionally more energy than adults. The main sources of energy in the little body are carbohydrate and fat. While carbohydrate is the traditional fuel for athletes (think sports drinks and sports gels – all crammed with carbohydrates), there is some evidence that young bodies are especially good at using fat for energy during exercise, so don’t be afraid to combine the two fuels in snacks and meals.


The easiest way to provide enough energy for all the requirements of activity and childhood is to break it down into five or or more) small-ish meals and snacks throughout the day. Make sure that all meals and snacks contain a slow-release carbohydrate source, such as sweet potato, low GI bread, wholegrain crackers, or legumes. Add some healthy fats to three or four meals a day to provide additional fuel and brain food – think nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocado, or olive oil (see sample meal plan).

Timing of meals and snacks around training can also be tricky. For early morning training, a high-carb fluid snack such as a sports drink or fruit juice 1 to 2 hours before training is ideal. Try avoid milky drinks at this time as this can cause diarrhoea. For activities during the day, a balanced meal or snack, containing protein, carbs and fats should precede practice by two to three hours, to allow it to be digested before exercise starts. A light snack can be added one hour before practice if it has been a long time since the last meal. During training, fluid is imperative, and if training is longer than 60 minutes then sports drink, jelly sweets or a sports bar can be added during exercise. After exercise, it is important to have a snack containing carbs and protein to refuel within the hour. Then meals can continue as normal.

A lot of teenage athletes will neglect to focus on adequate carbohydrate and fat intake, and instead drastically increase their protein intake with expensive protein powders and creative meals such as milk and raw eggs! Emphasise to your teenager that if they are not receiving adequate energy, all that expensive protein will simply be converted to carbohydrate for energy and not, unfortunately, into rippling muscles, with the added cost of leaching calcium from bones and added strain on their kidneys.

Protein is needed in all children for growing and immunity, and even more so in the young athlete undergoing intensive training. However, excess protein has its own hazards, including dehydration and calcium loss. Including a protein with three meals and one or two snacks a day will provide adequate protein, without a need for additional protein shakes or bars! Good protein sources include eggs, chicken, fish, meat, biltong, legumes or yoghurt (see sample meal plan).

Unfortunately, the age at which your child starts to take his or her sports seriously is also the age where takeaways, vending machines and tuck shops become a regular temptation. The young athlete typically has a day crammed with activity, and often little time or energy is spent focusing on nutrition. When you’re rushing off to early morning training, followed by a day of class and finishing off with a two hour team practice, tuck shop doughnuts can seem a whole lot more appealing than packing a chicken pita at 4 in the morning. This sort of rushed lifestyle where nutrition can get neglected puts these young athletes at risk of nutrient deficiencies, growth deficits, impaired athletic performance, or even becoming overweight.

Overcome this healthy-eating obstacle by making meals and snacks quick to pack and even quicker to eat. On-the-go snacks that provide carbs, protein and healthy fat could be:

  • dried fruit and almond mix
  • yoghurt fruit smoothie
  • wholegrain sandwich with nut butter
  • chocolate milk; biltong with a fruit
  • cereal bars
  • baby vegetables dipped into hummus

Prepare lunchboxes and snack packs the day before, and if possible, keep non-perishable snacks such as biltong and dried fruit in lockers and desks.

Sample meal plan for the young athlete:

04h30: ½ glass apple juice

05h00: Early morning training

06h30: Breakfast of cooked oats with low fat milk , nut butter and sliced banana stirred in

10h00: Plain yoghurt with honey

13h00: Cold wholewheat pasta salad with sliced chicken and avocado, cucumber and spinach leaves

15h00: Cold energy drink sipped during afternoon training

16h00: Post exercise snack of a handful of biltong, a naartjie

18h00: Dinner of fish, brown rice and steamed vegetables

21h00: Bedtime snack of hot chocolate made with low fat milk, cocoa and xylitol