May 18, 2016
Fueling Misfires
Susan Kundrat

Regardless of whether it’s a quarterback looking to lead his team or a runner chasing her personal best, performance can suffer when high school athletes don’t get the calories they need. These two case studies show how proper intake can spark a turnaround.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Increasing daily calories can be a tricky sell with high school athletes. On the one hand, some will welcome it-seeing it as the solution to their struggles with building lean mass. Others will view it negatively, believing more calories will lead to unwanted weight gain.

But whether athletes are for or against upping their calorie count, there’s no denying the impact running on empty can have on performance. Few high school athletes know how many calories are required to fuel their activity, and when they don’t get enough, it leaves them sluggish for training.

In the following case studies, we present two such high school athletes. Once their calorie counts were increased to an appropriate level-and any nutrient or hydration needs were addressed in the process-their performance woes were solved.


Calvin was not unlike many high school football players-he wanted desperately to get bigger and stronger. By the time I started working with him at the beginning of his junior year, he had been trying to gain weight for six months, spurred into action by college coaches who encouraged him to put on 15 to 20 pounds. Despite lifting three mornings a week, diligently consuming protein before and after workouts, and eating as much as possible, his weight would not budge from a slender 160 pounds. At 6 feet tall, his lean mass was 147 pounds, fat mass was 13 pounds, and body composition was eight percent body fat.

There was more to Calvin’s situation than wanting to gain weight, however. When his parents first contacted me, they were concerned about his frequent muscle cramping and dehydration during summer workouts. Once the school year started, Calvin reported feeling like he ran out of energy quickly at practice. During hot weather, he was dropping between six and eight pounds at each session and struggling with cramps. The problem was keeping him on the sidelines instead of leading his team.

To get a clearer idea of what was causing these problems, I had Calvin write down what he ate. A typical day’s intake included:

Breakfast/Pre-lift: 40-gram protein shake (200 calories)

Post-lift: 40-gram protein shake and a granola bar (380 calories)

Lunch: 12-inch sub, bag of chips, and a 20-ounce sports drink (1,000 calories)

Pre-practice snack: 20-gram protein bar and water (200 calories)

During practice: Water

Post-practice snack: 16 ounces of chocolate milk (300 calories)

Dinner: Two grilled chicken breasts, roasted potatoes, a salad, and two eight-ounce glasses of skim milk (1,000 calories)

Snack: A bowl of ice cream with a couple of cookies and water (500 calories).

Upon reading Calvin’s eating log, I could immediately see some problems with his total calorie and macronutrient intake. For starters, he was consuming roughly 3,600 calories a day, with most of them coming at lunch and dinner. Based on his body type, level of training, and desire to build lean mass, he needed between 4,500 and 5,000 calories per day to gain weight at a healthy rate of one to two pounds per week.

On the flip side, by eating roughly 250 grams of protein per day, Calvin was consuming well above his recommended intake of 160 grams (based on one gram per pound of bodyweight per day). Although he was doing a great job getting protein during the day as well as before and after workouts, focusing too much on this macronutrient meant he was neglecting needed carbohydrate calories.

I estimated Calvin should be consuming at least four grams of carbohydrate per pound per day, or 640 grams. However, based on his daily eating log, he was coming in at approximately 425 grams of carbohydrate per day-well short of his recommended intake. Without enough carbs, it would be difficult for Calvin’s body to utilize protein for muscle gains.

Another issue I noticed in Calvin’s sample meals was the lack of sodium in his diet, which accounted for his dehydration issues. Because his parents were very in tune with eating healthy, they had cut back on sodium at home. While this is certainly a healthy way to eat, it caused Calvin to miss out on the sodium he needed to maintain optimal fluid balance and prevent cramping during practices and workouts.

To better address all of his dietary needs, Calvin and I came up with a new food plan. It prioritized fueling evenly throughout the day and refueling after workouts, both of which put Calvin in the best possible position to optimize muscle energy and gain lean mass. To further balance out his energy levels, I boosted his high-carb options at breakfast and before and after workouts. In addition, I included a high-protein snack before bed.

Regarding Calvin’s cramping and dehydration issues, I instructed him to bring two salt packets to practice and mix them in with two 20-ounce bottles of sports drink. By taking this step, Calvin found his cramping lessened, and he only lost three to four pounds each practice-an amount of fluid he could easily replenish with snacks and meals.

Here’s what a sample day looked like under Calvin’s new performance plan:

Breakfast/Pre-lift: Bowl of cereal with milk, 16 ounces of orange juice, and half a protein shake (600 calories)

Post-lift: Peanut butter sandwich, 16 ounces of grape juice, and half a protein shake (700 calories)

Lunch: Six-inch turkey sub with cheese, bag of pretzels, two bananas, and two 20-ounce bottles of sports drink (1,000 calories)

Pre-practice snack: Trail mix bar and 16 ounces of apple juice (400 calories)

During practice: Two 20-ounce bottles of sports drink with two salt packets (260 calories)

Post-practice: 20 ounces of chocolate milk (400 calories)

Dinner: Six ounces of lean sirloin or pork loin, side of potatoes, side salad with half an avocado, one bowl of fruit salad, and 16 ounces of orange juice (1,000 calories)

Snack: Smoothie with Greek yogurt and frozen fruit and a couple of cookies (500 calories).

In total, this new menu had Calvin eating about 4,800 to 5,000 calories per day. His protein intake was 200 grams, and he was consuming about 700 grams of carbs daily.

After sticking with the plan for a few weeks, Calvin started to see results. He felt more energetic and performed better at practice. Being more aware of his fluid and sodium needs helped him maintain an optimal hydration status, as well. And to top it all off, he was finally able to achieve his goal of gaining weight. Within eight weeks, he had put on 10 pounds and continues to add more.


Robin was a dedicated 15-year-old high school distance runner who came to see me after two weeks of poor performances during training. Her weekly mileage had increased from 30 to 40 miles, and she was feeling drained during practices. Concerned that she was no longer meeting her time goals, Robin’s coaches encouraged her to look more closely at her diet. They assumed she wasn’t eating enough to fuel her activity.

At our first consultation, Robin measured 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Her lean mass was 109 pounds, fat mass was 21 pounds, and body composition was 16 percent body fat. I learned she followed a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, meaning she ate milk products and eggs, and that she had agility and strength workouts three mornings a week in addition to daily after-school practices.

To get a better sense for what could be causing Robin’s low energy during training, I asked her to compile a sample daily menu. A typical day’s intake for Robin included:

Breakfast: Two slices of whole wheat toast with peanut butter and eight ounces of orange juice (400 calories)

Post-workout (on morning workout days): 10 ounces of lowfat chocolate milk (150 calories)

Lunch: Hummus sandwich on a pita with veggies, an orange, an apple, and baked chips with water (500 calories)

Pre-practice snack: Granola bar (100 calories)

During practice: Water

Post-practice dinner: Pasta with pesto, broccoli, yogurt with strawberries, and water (600 calories)

Snack: A bowl of whole grain cereal with milk (300 calories).

My first thought upon looking at Robin’s rundown was that her calorie intake of about 2,050 per day was way too low. Based on her bodyweight, training plan, history of fatigue, and difficulty getting through workouts, she required between 3,000 and 3,200 calories per day.

Robin’s protein and carbohydrate intakes were low, as well. Although she ate high-quality sources of protein like dairy products, eggs, and soy, she was only consuming about 80 grams daily. At Robin’s training level, her protein needs were at least 0.7 to 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight per day, or around 90 to 105 grams.

For carbohydrates, Robin was consuming a little more than half of what she needed to fuel performance-about 300 grams per day. An ideal range would be as much as four to five grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight per day, or 520 to 650 grams.

Besides the eating log, I recommended some lab work, which found Robin had low ferritin levels. The combination of low iron stores and low energy intake can spell trouble for distance runners. Because iron stores help the body utilize oxygen, and thus aid in enhancing endurance training and performance, optimizing them is critical.

Once I knew what was causing Robin’s performance issues, I could revamp her fueling plan accordingly. I wanted to increase her energy intake throughout the day, add protein to breakfast and before bed to optimize utilization, and spread carbohydrate fueling more evenly.

However, Robin wasn’t keen on some of these ideas at first. While she knew she needed to consume more calories, she was hesitant to eat more. Like many athletes in sports where a lower bodyweight can be beneficial to performance, Robin wanted to stay lean.

To address these concerns, I highlighted the benefits of fueling her body more fully, which would include increased energy, a boost in training, and enhanced performance. I also focused on making minor tweaks to Robin’s existing meal plan.

For example, she could increase 220 grams of carbohydrate (880 calories) per day simply by switching to 100 percent juice with meals instead of water, eating more fruits, and drinking smoothies. Because she was drinking a lot of water anyway, switching to higher-calorie fluids did not make her feel overly full. Adding more eggs, cheese, yogurt, and milk were also good options for upping her calories and protein.

Here’s what Robin’s new performance plan looked like:

Breakfast: Two scrambled eggs with cheese, two slices of whole wheat toast, and a smoothie with eight ounces of orange juice, one banana, and half a cup of Greek yogurt on non-workout days (600 calories) and two slices of whole grain toast with peanut butter and eight ounces of orange juice on workout days

Post-workout (on morning workout days): Nut and seed bar and 20 ounces of lowfat chocolate milk (400 calories)

Lunch: Hummus sandwich on a pita with veggies, an orange, an apple, baked chips, and 16 ounces of 100 percent cranberry juice (750 calories)

Pre-practice snack: Homemade trail mix and eight ounces of apple juice (300 calories)

During practice: 20-ounce sports drink and water (100 calories)

Post-practice dinner: Pasta with pesto, broccoli, yogurt with strawberries, and 16 ounces of orange juice (700 calories)

Snack: One cup of Greek vanilla yogurt with one-third of a cup of granola and one sliced banana (400 calories).

To increase Robin’s iron intake, she began taking iron supplements (65 milligrams of iron as ferrous sulfate) with 500 milligrams of vitamin C daily to enhance absorption. She also focused on eating more eggs, greens, legumes, and other iron-fortified foods. Altogether, Robin’s new meal plan had her consuming approximately 3,250 calories, 110 grams of protein, and 520 grams of carbohydrate per day.

For Robin, adding more calories to her diet took some getting used to. However, by making small, gradual changes and connecting them to her improved performance, she became more comfortable with the plan over the course of a month. She found she had more energy, got through workouts better, and recovered faster-all of which helped get her race times back on track.

Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a Clinical Associate Professor of Kinesiology and the Nutritional Sciences Program Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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