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October 18, 2016

Fueling Your Adolescent Athlete

By Licensed Dietitian, Elizabeth Elam MS, RD, LDN


Is your teen’s calendar packed with practices and big games this fall?  Perhaps weekends are spent on the road for baseball tournaments and afternoons are spent powering through soccer practices.  Now that it’s later in the fall sporting season, the competition is becoming fierce.  A focus on fuel – or nutrition –supports strenuous training and boosts game day performance.

The Basics in Sports Nutrition


Sufficient calories are critical for normal growth, performance and recovery.  The average teen needs between 2,000 and 3,000 calories depending on gender and stage of development.1 A more active teen could require an additional 1,500 to 2,000 calories.2 However, focusing only on the number of calories is not sufficient.  Busy teens tend to rely on quick and easy options such as vending machine snacks, fast food, and other highly processed foods to satisfy their ravenous appetite, and these won’t make the cut for performance enhancing nutrition – or basic nutrition!  The majority of calories should come from fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, and heart-healthy fats.


Carbohydrates are an athlete’s most important and most efficient source of fuel.  Carbohydrates are stored in muscle tissue as glycogen – a quick source of energy during short bursts of activity and after long bouts of intense activity lasting over 90 minutes.  If there is not enough glycogen stored in the muscles, or if glycogen has been depleted, fatigue sets in and the body relies on protein as an alternate source of fuel – a far less efficient source.  For young athletes, it’s recommended that 55% of total daily calories come from carbohydrate sources.  The chart below gives grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight depending on the intensity of training performed.2

Daily Carbohydrate Needs of Teens Based on Weight and Intensity of Activity (1 kg = 2.2 lb)

Intensity of Activity

Carbohydrate per kilogram (g/kg)

None/light training

3-5 g/kg

Moderate/heavy training

5-8 g/kg

Pre-event (24-48 hours)

8-9 g/kg

Post-event (within 2-3 hours)

1.7 g/kg


Purchase items such as whole grain bread, hearty cereals, potatoes, beans and peas, corn, whole-wheat pasta, fruits and vegetables, granola bars (with less than 10g of sugar), and whole wheat crackers when shopping for the family.  Keep a well-stocked pantry and fridge to make for easy meal prep and quick snack options to throw in backpacks and lunchboxes.


Protein repairs and rebuilds damaged muscle tissue after strenuous activity.  A common misconception is that protein alone (or in excess) will build muscle.  However, muscle building requires adequate calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, micronutrients, and strength training.  If calorie intake exceeds calorie needs, then any nutrient – protein, fat or carbohydrate – will be stored as fat.

Protein needs for young athletes are about 1.0-1.5 gram per kilogram per day (g/kg/d).  Studies have reported that the average American teen eats about 1.3 g/kg/d, so your teen athlete might already fall within range.  There is no need for expensive supplementation as protein supplements have not been proven to enhance strength, muscle development, or performance.2 In fact, excess proteins in the diet could cause dehydration, weight gain, and increased calcium loss.3 Including protein at each meal and at most snacks will help achieve daily recommended needs.  Lean meats, eggs, beans and legumes and low-fat dairy are all great sources.


Fat is the main source of energy used for light to moderate intensity types of exercise and for endurance exercise.  Fat is also needed to absorb vitamins and minerals.  For young athletes, it is recommended that 20-30% of total daily calories come from fat. Choose fat sources coming mostly from plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and plant oils (such as canola and olive oil), which are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.


Water is just as important as food in preparing for, performing, and recovering from a sporting event.  Poor hydration can severely impact performance and is often the main reason for overheating and fatigue during exercise.  Signs of dehydration include dark urine, small urine volume, muscle cramps, reduced sweating, increased heart rate, headaches, and nausea.  Thirst does not always trigger kids and teens to drink, so reminders throughout the day may be helpful.

Game Day Nutrition

On game day, timing of meals, snacks, and hydration is just as important as the quantity and quality of food.  The body needs two or three hours to digest a regular meal like breakfast or lunch.  Small, light snacks can be eaten within one hour or even as close as 30 minutes prior to an event.4 Nutrition and hydration for recovery and refueling is especially important during tournaments where strenuous, back-to-back events) are common.


Breakfast is crucial for performance in that it replenishes any glycogen that was broken down for energy during sleep.  Skipping breakfast may lead to premature fatigue during the event or overeating too soon before the event, which could cause cramping and abdominal pain.  Encourage your teen to eat a good breakfast consisting of carbohydrates, protein and some healthy fats, such as:

  • Two whole-wheat waffles with peanut butter and sliced banana and a glass of low-fat milk
  • Two packets of low-sugar instant oatmeal made with low-fat milk and topped with dried fruit and chopped nuts
  • Two eggs and a slice of low-fat cheese on two slices of whole wheat toast and 2 teaspoons tub margarine with a glass of low-fat milk
  • A smoothie made with low-fat Greek yogurt, fruit, and peanut butter


Perhaps the last major source of fuel before the big game is lunch.  Your teen’s lunch should be hearty and balanced, representing all or most of the major food groups (whole grains, lean protein, healthy fat, fruit and veggies, and low-fat dairy).  Hot meals from the cafeteria are a great option.  The new USDA guidelines for school lunches encourage schools to limit saturated fat and use more whole grains meaning items such as beans, low fat cheese, turkey burgers, whole grains, oven-baked chicken tenders, and fries are all commonplace.

Review the cafeteria menu with your teen and talk together about what choices make for a good lunch.  A bean and beef burrito topped with salsa, or a grilled chicken sandwich and coleslaw are great options.5 Although tempting, encourage your teen to avoid the fast food line.  Fast food has an excessive amount of fat, which will slow digestion and leave your teen feeling sluggish rather than energized.

Pre-Game Snacks

Pre-event snacks, ranging from 2 hours to 30 minutes prior to a big game or practice, will serve as the last small dose of energy.  Pre-event snacks should consist mainly of easily digested carbohydrate and a small amount of protein.  Snacks can be larger when consumed far in advance.  Consider a turkey sandwich and fruit, a low-fat granola bar and cheese stick, low-fat yogurt and granola, or half a bagel and a smear of low-fat cream cheese or peanut butter if your teen has 1 to 2 hours to kill.  If crunched for time, make snacks smaller for easy digestion.  Consider pretzels, crackers, grapes, or half a turkey sandwich with water.  Keeping pre-event snacks low in fiber and fat will ease the digestive process and allow for the energy to be stored quickly.


Encourage hydration with water every day, not just game day.   One to two glasses with each meal can be very beneficial.  One to two hours before the game, encourage about 10-14 ounces of water.  Then, 10 to 15 minutes’ prior encourage sipping on 10-12 ounces.

During the Game

Hydration sources during the game will vary based on the intensity and duration.  If your teen is intensely and consistently active for more than 60 minutes (such as a soccer or field hockey game) a sports drink is a great beverage to replenish lost water, electrolytes, and carbohydrates.  Water will suffice for any activity lasting less than 60 minutes.  Because sweat and electrolyte loss is highly individual, The American College of Sports Medicine does not have a specific guideline for hydration amounts during exercise.  As a general rule of thumb, encourage your athlete to drink about 4 ounces of water (1/2 cup) every 15 minutes during an event.2 Beware of over hydrating which can cause hyponatremia – a condition where sodium levels are diluted in the blood.  The symptoms of hyponatremia are very similar to dehydration. 


Nutrition and hydration after exhaustive exercise is just as important as what is consumed leading up to the event.  Research, concludes that the two to three-hour time window after exercise is optimal for replenishing nutrients.  During this time the body is most efficient at converting carbohydrates to store glycogen in the muscles.  It’s recommended that immediately after activity (within 30 minutes) a high carbohydrate, low protein (no greater than 10-20 grams) snack or beverage be consumed.2 Appetites are often suppressed after strenuous exercise; therefore, something cool and refreshing such as a smoothie or low-fat chocolate milk may be better tolerated.

Make sure your teen athlete eats a well-balanced, higher carbohydrate meal within two to three hours after exercise.  Whole grain pasta with meat sauce, whole-grain bread, and a side salad with Italian dressing and low-fat milk would be a great option.   Steak fajitas with sautéed vegetables, whole-grain tortillas and black beans and rice would be another great post-event meal.  Rather than congregating at a fast food restaurant after games, organize a team potluck where home cooked food is served.  This will ensure that balanced choices and quality ingredients are available at such an important time in recovery.

It is important for young athletes to understand the role of nutrition for their developing bodies and for the demands of his or her sport.  Improvements in day-to-day nutrition with minor tweaks for sports nutrition can significantly improve game day performance and build a foundation for good habits throughout adulthood, which is the ultimate “win”.  For individualized calorie and nutrient recommendations and other information on sports nutrition topics please see an Avance Care Registered Dietitian, who help tailor a specific meal plan to your teen’s individual energy needs, schedule and food preferences.



1.)    Stang, Jamie; Story, Mary. Guidelines for Adolescent Nutrition Services. Center of Leadership, Education and Training in Maternal and Child Nutrition, 2005. Accessed October 13, 2016.

2.)    Pamela M. Nisevish, MS, RD, LD. Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes: Vial to Victory. Today’s Dietitian Website. Published March 2008.  Accessed October 13, 2016.

3.)    Jill Castle, MS, RDN. 8 Gameday Nutrition Tips for Young Athletes. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Eat Right Website.  Published June 3, 2015.  Accessed October 13, 2016.

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