“Johnny can’t gain weight. Susie is a picky eater and simply doesn’t like to eat meat or many proteins. My all-conference athlete eats everything in sight but can’t see to gain muscle and has frequent headaches. Tommy bonks out halfway through his match but is always eats a large steak the night before his meet. Lydia is concerned about carbs leading to weight gain, so she completely avoids them and is exhausted going into her soccer games. Brad was told he’d have more energy if he would supplement with the special protein powders and keto drinks from a local woman who sells them in his neighborhood. Brad is frequently injured and has little energy entering fall camp.” Some of these examples may seem extreme, or they may sound all too familiar? Truth be told they are all real situations.
I work with several adolescent athletes, parents of young athletes and high-school strength coaches. All of who I have had these very conversations with. Names are changed of course, out of respect to the athletes. Before you read any further, please check out my previous blog on Practical Nutrition Strategies for Youth Athletes if you haven’t already. It provides some great information to share with your young athletes.
The objective of this article is to provide a framework for conversations, tips, and practical tools to support the health and overall athletic performance of the athletes you may work with. Additionally, to build confidence in talking about nutrition with your young athletes. Along with aspiring strength coaches, we need you, and the more versatile you are with knowledge and tools for your toolbox the greater success you will have in getting hired.
Proper nutrition is paramount for supporting growth, development, and maturation first. Which is something I emphasize and encourage coaches to emphasize when working with young athletes. We eat for health first and fuel for performance second. Why? Because it is essential to develop healthy habits to sustain for life into adulthood as a non-athlete. What do I classify as the difference between eating and fueling? Simply put, we eat for optimal growth, development, and maturation of our bones, tissues, and brain. Young children need to learn what foods provide nourishment. Not just energy, which is measured in the form of kilocalories. One calorie is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1g of water by 1℃. It takes one kilocalorie of heat to raise one kilogram of water by 1℃. Food calories are kilocalories. If you’re interested in the history of the calorie in nutrition check out the explanation here, published in the American Society for Nutrition. So, what does that mean to me, as a coach? Well, let’s acknowledge nutrition is complicated right?
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For clarity, you can consume candy that contains calories and vilified pop-tarts. However, you don’t get the same high nutrient composition from those “high-calorie, high-energy” foods as you would fruits, starch vegetables, whole-grain products, or even whole-fat dairy.
The point I am driving home here is teaching young adults about the valuable role those nutrients play in supporting their growth, development, and maturation. Vitamin D, calcium, and protein are found in the Greek whole-fat yogurt which is not the same in relation to the pop-tart. I’m not anti-pop tarts but I am making a stance that each time we sit down to reach for food it is an opportunity to nourish our bodies, to eat for health. Now, fueling is the next priority. Fueling means applying additional calories, micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) along with macronutrients (fats, carbs, and protein) and fluids to optimize athletic performance, enhance recovery, and motor skills, decrease the risk of sports-related injury, increase muscle mass, gain a competitive edge and the list goes on. So again, we eat first and fuel second.
Most athletes won’t go on to play at the next level and if they do, that won’t last forever. We must teach the fundamentals of proper nutrition and facilitate a healthy relationship with food that can be carried into adulthood. I have partnered with some excellent strength coaches who understand the value of good nutritional habits early on. There are many unique challenges that surface when working with a young age group in comparison to collegiate and adult athletes. So, what are these unique challenges coaches face?
Young athletes require more calories, fluids, and nutrients.
Based on age alone, their body’s calorie needs are through the roof! I reference carbohydrate and protein needs for young athletes in a previous blog found here. For simplicity of coaches who have limited time with their athletes during workouts, you may just want to hand them resources out the door, refer them to a registered dietitian who specializes in sports, or post nutrition info-graphs on the walls in the weight room to help them. One key strategy is to ask them about the basics. The basics are what win games and support health on and off the field. So, what does it mean to return to the basics? We must show our athletes how to build a proper plate with a balance of all food groups including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, high-quality protein, and a source of dairy a minimum of three times per day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and potentially another meal before practice (second chance for lunch) should all be built according to the plate.
A more aesthetically pleasing plate geared towards athletes is available to download. I reference this plate in every single nutrition presentation I deliver. The portions of the food groups on the plate will increase or decrease depending upon performance, training intensity, energy needs, and body composition goals. Teen athletes have high energy needs, but throwing in being an athlete creates a larger demand for nutrients, fluids, and calories to support training adaptations. One of the largest mistakes young athletes make is not eating enough, not eating breakfast, not eating at the proper time, failing to have calories spread out throughout the day, inadequate consumption of fluids and simply failing to consume enough fruits and vegetables. If you’ll like to dive into the nuts and bolts of the Tanner Stages of Maturing and its Relationship to Sports published in the Journal of Translational Pediatrics please use the aforementioned links for your knowledge and understanding. What is important to note is you can support your athletes by doing the following:
- While your athletes are doing their workout, ask them some of the following questions.
- What “fuel” did you consume today?
- You’re looking strong today! What great things did you eat before you walked in here today?
- What did you have for breakfast?
- What did you have for lunch?
- What colorful fruits did you try today?
- What veggies have you had today?
- How many bottles of water have you had?
- What great things are you doing at home in your meals?
- Are you getting in a pre-lift snack?
- What do you plan on eating once you get out of here?
Many athletes may give you the “glazed over deer in the headlights look”. Timmy may say, “Coach, I am here to lift. Who cares what I ate for breakfast?” You can respond with “What you ate before you walked into this weight room has everything to do with your lift. Remember that day you were exhausted and had a bad workout? You didn’t each much at all that day.” Athletes need you to hold them accountable and remind them their performance gains are supported with the activities spent outside the weight room. Hydration practices, food source, quality, and quantities by which they are being consumed (breakfast, lunch, pre-post, and at dinner) is what support recovery, strength, speed, and overall desired performance adaptations. Experts promote breakfast as the most important meal and there is existing literature to support the cognitive, behavioral, nutritional status, academic and overall benefits associated with a quality breakfast. However, I argue all meals matter. There is no magic meal that will win games. It’s about consistently consuming quality meals and fluids in the days and hours leading up to the event.
Drawing attention to nutrition among high school athletes and coaches
Greater awareness of the valuable role nutrition plays is being brought to lifts, strength coach conferences, and several other gatherings. I must take a moment to give a special shoutout to NSCA Coach Doug Glee at Traverse City Central High School and the NHSSCA N. Michigan Director for inviting me to present on Nutrition and Fueling Optimal Performance at the 2020 NHSSCA Michigan State Clinic that was held on January 25th at Novi Catholic Central High School.
By empowering coaches to feel comfortable asking the right questions and providing basic encouragement to their athletes to eat and fuel we are pushing the needle forward and serving our athletes. If you’d like a copy of the presentation which covers the performance plate fundamentals, eating for weight gain, injury prevention, and optimizing performance please send me an email directly. If you’re a coach I encourage you to email me or contact me on a social platform and connect with me. I would love to meet you, learn about your work, and offer any support I can to you and your athletes.
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Unique challenges for high school athletes:
In a study published in 2015 investigating the sports nutrition knowledge of high school athletes it was reported that 55.7% of participants reported eating breakfast daily, 36.6% reported eating one hour before training and games and 79.4% reported eating within one hour following training/games. Supplements, protein shakes, or meal replacement beverages were used by 30.1% of the participants. Keep in mind the environment, socioeconomic status, and affluence of the participants in this study. Most of the athletes I have worked with across the world face financial limitations, constraints, and overall access to food to some capacity. This can create challenges for coaches in providing guidance.
Eggs, yogurt, milk, whole-grain rice, bread, bananas, chocolate milk, apples, frozen veggies, and even poultry can be quite cheap and budget-friendly for many. Many athletes often skip breakfast, skimp at lunch, fail to consume a snack, and feel fiery hot Cheetos or chips with a few bites of a sandwich and soda are enough lunch. We know this is not optimal or healthy. It fails to support eating and fueling goals, right? So, how do we encourage both eating and fueling for success?
I encourage you to go eat with your athletes at lunch, most strength coaches work at the school and teach. Set an example for your athletes. By eating what they are eating you are demonstrating you to believe the meals are healthy. In fact, make sure you choose healthy snacks in front of them. Your student-athletes will follow suit in your choices. I have been in many schools and have seen what is served, it is so much better than when I was an adolescent.
Simply put, many athletes don’t eat enough. Athletes who are consistently in a calorie deficit experience several signs and symptoms which is something coaches should keep on their radar.
Key signs and symptoms of inadequate energy intake include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Decline in performance
- Absent or irregular menstrual cycles
- Stress fractures or repeated bone injuries
- Decreased muscle strength
- Always being injured
- Training hard but not improving performance
- Undesired weight loss
- Recurring infections and illness
- Depression, disordered eating, and expressed concerns about specific foods
- Inability to gain or build muscle or strength
For more information on low energy availability in athletes check out the Collegiate Professional Sports Dietetics Association (CPSDA) for some great fact sheets and credible information compiled by the Sports Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) a dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For those interested in reading a more detailed review summarizing low energy availability check out a review article published in Sports Medicine.
Key tips to share with your athletes desiring to weight gain in the off-season or weight maintenance during the season
- Increase protein & leucine (nutrient trigger for muscle anabolism) rich foods – (meat, fish, poultry, dairy & legumes) are spread evenly throughout the day, at meals AND snacks, not all at one time, to aid in the growth of new tissue. (30-40 g/protein/meal).
- Eat frequently: Every 2-3 hours to help increase calorie intake.
- Consistency is key – as with training, practice consistency with these tips Monday – Sunday. Much like recovery, it’s a full-time job.
- Focus on food – aim to increase calories first with food and supplements as a secondary option.
- Planning– outline meals and snacks for the week. Shop 1x/week
- Eat a bedtime snack – include a source of protein (cereal + milk, smoothie, cheese + crackers). Consume dairy products like cottage cheese which are rich in casein and leucine before bed for optimal muscle growth and repair according to a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
Below I have listed some high-quality nutrient snack ideas to support weight gain:
- 1 medium apple + 3 Tbsp. PB (400 kcal)
- 5 c. Pistachios, almonds, walnuts, seeds (400 kcal)
- 2 Tbsp. PB + whole wheat bagel + honey = (500 kcal)
- 5 c. granola + 5 oz. low-fat Greek yogurt = (350 kcal)
- Cooked veggies in olive oil + ¼ c. avocado= ( 400 kcal)
- 8 oz. whole milk + 0.5 c. oatmeal = (325 kcal)
- 5 avocado = (150 kcal)
- 4 Tbsp. hummus + 10 baby carrots = (220 kcal)
- Plain whole grain bagel with 2 Tbsp. cream cheese= (400 kcal)
- Grilled pita bread with ¼ c. hummus, sliced avocado, and tomatoes = (550 kcal)
- Trail mix or fruit mix per ¼ cup= 100 kcal
Chew Nibble Sip (download here)Nutrient timing, exploring optimal meals pre-and post-workout
I advocate for meal timing of 4-2-1. Which I explain in the following. Eating a proper meal (3-4 hours) before an event according to the plate fuels the muscle, body, prevents hunger and supports hydration levels to help decrease the risk of injury. The meal should be balanced, with more of a focus on protein, carbohydrate, and limited fat due to the length of time it takes to digest the food source.
Examples of meals to consume (4 hours) prior to an event include:
- A glass of skim cow’s milk, 4 oz. of grilled chicken, grapes, whole grain wrap with spinach and tomato. Roughly 500 kcal
- A glass of skim cow’s milk, 4 oz. of turkey, brown rice, roasted vegetables, and a banana. Roughly 500 kcal
- A glass of fat-free chocolate milk, egg omelet, and whole-grain toast spread with 1 tbsp. avocado, a cup of fruit. Roughly 550 kcal
To maintain energy stores and support enough fuel for competition or practice consume a small meal containing minimal protein and some carbohydrate.
Examples of meals to consume (2 hours) prior to an event include:
- 4 oz. of Greek yogurt and berries. Roughly 200 kcal
- Hard-boiled egg and pear. Roughly 150 kcal
- String cheese and strawberries. Roughly 150 kcal
Lastly, about one hour out from practice or event you should sip on fluids, provide a minimal about of carbohydrates if still hungry and limit protein and completely avoid fat. The goal is that you are already properly fueled. If breakfast, lunch, and proper snacks have been consumed this 1-hour out protocol should really be fluids. If the athlete is still hungry 45-60 min prior to the event the window for opportunity to fuel has been missed.
Example of what to consume (1 hour) prior to the event.
- Possibly sports drink
- Water, flavored waters
- Watermelon slices, banana, or grapes (quick sugar that can be used as fuel with minimal digestion)
A combination of carbohydrates and protein is highly encouraged for pre-workout meals.
Recovery nutrition 101
Proper refueling and rehydrating are key after training, practice, or an event. Recovery nutrition can depend on the type of training, training volume, training intensity, the timing of next training session, body weight, and overall energy intake. Given most high school athletes struggle to consume enough calories any nutrition post-exercise will be beneficial. Specifically, consuming (15-25 gm of protein) and (30-60 gm) of carbohydrates within 30-60 minutes can support recovery and training adaptations due to:
- Enhancing heart rate, blood pressure allowing greater nutrient delivery to muscles.
- Quicker glycogen (storage form of carbohydrate) replenishment and ultimate tissue repair.
- The body initiates muscle anabolism which supports muscle growth and repair.
- 1.5 cup cottage cheese and 1 cup of berries
- 1 cup Greek yogurt with berries
- 8 oz. of low-fat chocolate milk paired with a banana
Chocolate milk is highly underrated among parents, coaches and health practitioners who are concerned about “too much sugar”. However, chocolate milk offers electrolytes, 8-g of high-quality protein but it replenishes glycogen stores and rehydrates just as well as Gatorade. Additionally, you’re getting 9-essential nutrients which include calcium and vitamin D that support bone health. How does chocolate milk stack up to the commercial sports drink for both male and female high school athletes? A field based study published in the JISSN study showed that in high school football players, chocolate milk has a greater impact on performance than regular sports beverages when high school athletes drink it for recovery. The athletes who consumed chocolate milk bench-pressed an average of 3.5% more than they could before – whereas those who drank the commercial sports beverage decreased in bench-press strength by about 3.2%. Net difference of 6.7 percent for those who drank CM vs commercial sports beverage. Both groups showed improvement with squats, but chocolate milk drinkers showed more, lifting 15% more weight than before – whereas commercial sports beverage drinkers only lifted 8% more. nearly double the increase in strength for chocolate milk drinkers. Chocolate milk is an accessible, affordable, and delicious recovery option for adolescent athletes—and it may give them a strong edge due to the 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio.
If you’re a coach check out your local dairy council to explore options available for stocking your team’s fridge with chocolate milk. This is a grant program offered to you by your local dairy farmers regardless of what state you are in. Check out the National Dairy Council’s resources for more information about your state or regions grant’s available. A great resource to check out recovery nutrition and a long list of snack ideas is found here compliments of the USOC Sports Nutrition Team.
Encouraging a healthy relationship with food
When talking about nutrition we must practice inclusion vs. exclusion. For example, telling your student-athletes that bread is bad because it isn’t paleo isn’t optimal. Now, you may be smirking, but this is quite common. It is important to promote healthy behaviors and that certain foods may be more optimal than others we don’t demonize foods. When talking to your athletes ask about their food preferences. Acknowledge how they talk about food, body image, overall relationship with food. Support your athletes who desire to use food and nutrition to enhance, sleep, healing, recovery, and protection from injury and illness.
Forward-thinking is adding sports dietitian services in the high school. I hypothesize in the next 5 to 10 years a sports dietitian will be added to the roster of high schools. I work with many young athletes and several of their parents see the benefit of nutritional services. I myself, have met with many athletic directors in the state of Michigan and run into challenges of funding and resources. However, I predict that more and more will learn the valuable role of having a sports dietitian on staff is. Not only to help support the health and well-being of the student but the long-term effects on health in creating healthy and sustainable habits. By having a sports dietitian to consult with students and student-athletes to support eating and fueling needs. It’s a great opportunity to review daily nutrition, listen to the guidance, and gain advice from a food and nutrition expert to prevent deficiencies and foster a healthy relationship with food. Sports dietitians can deliver team talks by meeting with teams to discuss fueling strategies to enhance their goals (pre-season, in-season, and off-season). Furthermore, a dietitian that specializes in sports nutrition can help support the four pillars of performance nutrition: Hydration, energy intake, nutrient timing, and recovery. Lastly, sports dietitians provide great resources on meal planning for coaches, administration, parents, and students.
“Nutrition is your athlete’s secret weapon to outcompete their competition. Nutrition can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good.”
– Wendi Irlbeck, MS, RDN, CISSN
Wendi Irlbeck, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and fitness coach. Wendi utilizes evidence-based science to tailor nutrition programs for athletes to optimize performance, minimize health risks, and enhance recovery from training while focusing on injury prevention. Wendi partners with parents, sports performance staff, special needs and recreational athletes to offer nutritional guidance and optimal athletic performance & lifestyle plans. Wendi is based in Nashville, TN. Wendi is active on Twitter and other social media platforms as Nutrition_with_Wendi.