May 26, 2017
Food Talks
Leslie Bonci

The high school years are a critical time for athletes to pay attention to what they eat. Along with placing demands on their bodies for their sports, teenagers are still growing, so their energy needs are higher than those of adults. And they’re in the process of developing eating habits that they’ll carry with them through their college years and beyond.

So how do you teach high school athletes the importance of sports nutrition? I start by focusing on a few simple aspects: when to eat, what to eat, and how much to eat for optimal performance.

Although we know that fuel timing in relation to exercise is critical, a lot of high school athletes eat lunch at 10:30 a.m. and if practice is not until 3 p.m., they are hungry and inadequately fueled to get through practice without sacrificing strength, speed, and stamina. Therefore, it’s key to remind athletes that they need to eat throughout the day, come to practice fully fueled, and replenish depleted fuel stores afterward.

To fuel up before a game or practice, athletes should eat or drink something with carbohydrate one hour before practice — a sports drink, a granola bar, two handfuls of trail mix, or a handful of pretzels and a small banana. Also, remind athletes that eating something within 15 minutes after a practice or game will hasten recovery.

Next, to help athletes ensure they are eating enough calories to fuel their exercise, I encourage them to focus on their bodies’ hunger and fullness cues. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “absolutely starving” and 10 being “absolutely stuffed,” I recommend leaving the table at a 5 — they should be satisfied, but should also feel they could eat a little more. I also encourage them to pay attention to their energy levels throughout the day to be sure they are eating enough overall calories.

I also try to get them together as a group a few times a year to talk fueling. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Provide an eating checklist with before and after practice options. Make sure it contains tips on what, when, and how much to eat.
  • Discuss hydration. Remind athletes that it takes 60 minutes for one liter (20 oz.) of fluid to leave the gut, so ask them to drink something during the last period of the day. If necessary, offer to talk with teachers about allowing water bottles in class.
  • Talk about supplements. First and foremost, emphasize that supplements are not a replacement for nutritious food. Also remind athletes that since many dietary supplements undergo no FDA approval, there is no way to be sure what they contain or what they really will do — unlike healthy food and proper hydration, which we know will always boost performance.
  • Caution athletes against allowing peer pressure to dictate their food choices. A young female athlete may severely restrict her intake at lunch because her friends don’t eat much, even though they might not have a three-hour practice after school. A male athlete who sees his peers gaining muscle faster than he is may start looking for shakes and supplements to bulk him up. These teens need to be reminded that healthy choices are not always made by following the crowd.

Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, is owner of Active Eating Advice by Leslie, a nutrition consulting company based in Pittsburgh. She is the sports dietitian for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Kansas City Chiefs, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Toronto Blue Jays. She is also the author of Sports Nutrition for Coaches.

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