Work hard on the farm, stay focused in the classroom, participate in multiple sports year-round while trying to attain quality sleep each night. This was my life as an adolescent, and I learned early on the influential role diet played in my energy levels. I kept a food journal at 10 years old and began researching “healthy foods” to enhance my energy to gain a competitive edge. By tracking my calorie consumption, I was able to see a connection between peak energy and good training days versus the bad.
That experience led to my passion and dedication for supporting our youth in their endeavors as people first and athletes second. The majority of adolescent athletes these days are training longer, participating in more leagues, and specializing early on. Check out this great article on supporting your child athlete early on.
We currently live in a world of self-proclaimed experts touting poor nutritional information, sugary “recovery foods,” detox drinks, protein-infused cereals, and other “health foods” that have become a fountain of misinformation leading several athletes and parents down the road to suboptimal choices. Suboptimal choices that can derail their growth, development, and overall athletic performance.If you don’t understand physiology and biochemistry, making sense of the nutrition information out there can be like trying to drink from a fire hose, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
As a registered dietitian who works with many adolescents and master athletes, I find they come to me confused, with a head full of information overload. If you don’t understand physiology and biochemistry, making sense of the nutrition information out there can be like trying to drink from a fire hose. It is overwhelming. I work vigilantly to navigate the science for my clients so they can make the most informed choice while shopping for whole foods and supplements and planning out pre- and post-event nutrition.
The goal of optimal performance can be reached by using nutrition as a tool to modify the stressors linked with the mechanisms of skeletal muscle, damage, and repair from intensive training, conditioning, and competition. Many athletes are starting to learn the critical role food and nutrition play in mitigating the risk of injury from high-intensity training and to support desired physiological adaptations to training. Post-training nutrition is vital for an athlete to replenish what was depleted during training.
Start with Hydration
Adequate hydration for the young athlete is important to support optimal sports performance and avoid health complications. Sweating is a normal and essential bodily function to cool the body via evaporation, but in turn it increases the risk of dehydration during exercise. Identifying optimal drink volume and composition for enough hydration would be nearly impossible without technology. So many factors influence sweat rate, such as genetics, biological maturation status, body composition, fitness level, training intensity, and environmental conditions. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, losing more than 2% of your body weight during exercise can result in dehydration. Therefore, young athletes who properly hydrate leading up to training—and rehydrate during, between, and following competition—are more likely to secure optimal sports performance.Young athletes who properly hydrate leading up to training—and rehydrate during, between, and following competition—are more likely to secure optimal sports performance, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
So, how does a young athlete ensure optimal sports performance? Optimal sports performance comes down to more than body fluid balance. Sports drinks and nutrition drinks are comprised of different ingredients. Ultimately, many coaches are quick to suggest using a sports drink, which, in my opinion as a sports dietitian, is vastly overrated and overhyped. Sports drinks can offer electrolyte replacement, sugar, and support fluid balance, but so can real food and nutrition drinks.
Furthermore, what about protein and quality carbohydrates? Protein is key for muscle repair and growth, so why not reach for something that offers fluid replacement and tissue repair? Let’s examine this topic closer. First and foremost, we should always be looking for the best strategy to fuel optimal performance. That means consuming enough nutrients and fluids to support training adaptations, overall sports performance, and health in young athletes. Each time you reach for a food or drink, it is an opportunity to fuel your body and to “get better.”
“Don’t miss opportunities that others are willing to capitalize on” is something I instruct my athletes. If you want to be your best and compete with the best, what are you going to do in your nutrition, training, sleep, and regimen to secure that? It’s not a colorful sports drink. Nutrition drinks offer carbohydrates, protein, and even some fat. Beverages like whole milk and low-fat chocolate milk are examples of quality drinks that contain protein, fat, minerals, and more nutrition than a sports drink. A sports drink will often be relatively concentrated and rich in sodium and sugar, but it doesn’t contain protein for tissue repair.
As shown in the Beverage Hydration Index, water and sports drinks are thought of as the ideal way to hydrate. But what about other drinks? How do they stack up? The volume and composition of ingested beverages have a significant influence on how quickly they will leave the stomach and be absorbed in the small intestine. The quicker a drink is emptied from the stomach and the faster it is absorbed, the more rapid the fluids will enter the body. Following are some of the top pre-, during, and/or post-workout optimal foods and drinks that will support fluid status, muscle growth, and overall recovery from exercise.
Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherries are loaded with antioxidant anthocyanins, which act to reduce inflammation and share similar properties to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. Research has found improvements in fatigue post exercise and attenuated muscle damage and soreness with just 8 ounces of tart cherry juice. Furthermore, tart cherries contain melatonin, a phytochemical that is key in sleep regulation. Research has supported consumption of tart cherry juice to increase melatonin levels, translating into improved sleep duration and quality. Sleep is paramount for adolescents and especially student-athletes looking to maximize their controllable factors.Research has supported consumption of tart cherry juice to increase melatonin levels, translating into improved sleep duration and quality, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Immune-boosting properties are another great feature of tart cherries. Training hard, competing, academic stress, and the overall environment all offer challenges that can depress immune function. Tart cherry juice can help reduce upper respiratory tract symptoms, keeping athletes in the game and away from illness, according to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Watermelon juice can serve as a drink and food to reduce muscle pain and provide relief post-training that facilitates recovery. How can this be true? Watermelon is rich in the amino acid L-citrulline. It is also high in water content and offers quick sugar to restore glycogen reserves that have been depleted in exercise.
Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid. Besides watermelon, there are limited food sources of citrulline (walnuts, liver, garbanzo beans, garlic), and the rind of the watermelon contains the highest amount. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry investigated consumption of unpasteurized watermelon juice pre intense cycling and found participants had reduced muscle soreness within 24 hours.
Chocolate milk is highly underrated among parents, coaches, and health practitioners who are concerned about “too much sugar.” However, chocolate milk offers electrolytes and 8 grams of high-quality protein per cup, and it replenishes glycogen stores and rehydrates just as well as Gatorade. Additionally, you’re getting nine essential nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D, which support bone health.Chocolate milk offers electrolytes and 8 grams of high-quality protein per cup, and it replenishes glycogen stores and rehydrates just as well as Gatorade, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
How does chocolate milk stack up to the commercial sports drinks for both male and female high school athletes? A field-based study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 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 drank 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%. This is a net difference of 6.7% for those who drank chocolate milk versus a commercial sports beverage.
Both groups showed improvement with squats, but chocolate milk drinkers showed more, lifting 15% more weight than before, while commercial sports beverage drinkers only lifted 8% more. That represents 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 strength edge due to the 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio.
So, the argument for milk versus sports drink? Gatorade has fluids and electrolytes but, as you have learned, so does milk. Let’s further examine a study evaluating cyclists who rode until they were absolutely depleted of energy, rested for four hours, and then cycled until reaching exhaustion. During their rest period, the cyclists consumed low-fat chocolate milk, Gatorade, and a flavored protein drink that contained carbs called Endurox R4. In the second round of cycling, the cyclists who consumed chocolate milk were able to cycle roughly 50% longer than those who consumed the Endurox drink and/or Gatorade. Chocolate milk lengthened time to exhaustion and improved perceived exertion, heart rate, and overall levels of lactate in the blood.Science continues to back up the notion that with greater nutrients you have a greater retention in fluids, which supports recovery from exercise performance, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
For further examination on the effects of sports drinks on metabolism and endurance performance, check out this article published in Nutrients. Another study evaluated restoration of body net fluid balance post exercise and thermal dehydration of milk versus a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution or water. Results indicated milk post-exercise restored whole-body net fluid balance better than a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution. It was a small study of seven active men around 26 years old, but the point is that fluid ingestion with greater nutrition enables you to better support recovery needs to be better equipped for the next training session or event. Science continues to back up the notion that with greater nutrients you have a greater retention in fluids, which supports recovery from exercise performance.
Food for Athletes: Nutrition Is a Tool to Optimize Performance
What about functional foods? According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, all foods are functional at some physiological level. That includes whole foods and fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed regularly. A functional food is characterized by its structure: conventional or whole, modified (i.e., fortified, enriched, enhanced), medical (enteral formulas), or in specialty use (gluten-free, soy-free, etc.). Functional foods are not the same as supplements. Functional foods have no such regulatory identity according to the Nutrition Board. Functional foods are often marketed to athletes, including those with and without supportive exercise performance-related research. Muscle-building, strength, endurance, and power supplements include beetroot juice, energy drinks, and fish oil/DHA/EPA.
Muscle soreness results from mechanical damage to the muscle and several biological changes within muscle tissue that are characterized by swelling, pain, inflammation, stiffness, and muscle injury markers such as creatine kinase (CK) and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), as cited in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism’s article on implications for muscle performance and recovery. Many athletes are looking at any type of advantage to enhance metabolic capacity, delay fatigue, improve recovery, and support muscle hypertrophy while maintaining immune function. However, due to intense training and frequent competition, respiratory infections and high physiologic stress on the body can increase blood flow and oxygen supply to the working skeletal muscle.
At rest, muscle receives roughly 20% of total blood flow. However, during exercise this can increase to greater than 80%. This can support the notion for utilizing anti-inflammatory foods that can play a role in ameliorating the performance declines associated with heavy training.
Omega-3 fatty acids, along with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are highly sought after as functional ingredients. Increased Omega-3 levels in the blood are linked with decreased levels of proinflammatory markers like interleukin [IL]6, IL-1ra, tumor necrosis factor [TNF] alpha, and C-reactive protein [CRP]. Athletes training at a high level understand the importance of decreasing inflammation, maintaining energy levels, and expediting the recovery process as quickly as possible.A goal of athletes is to increase oxygen-rich blood to tissues, and they can support that by keeping the lining of their arteries smooth and clear with a proper diet, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Exercise-induced inflammation produces free radicals, which can damage your body’s cells. This is a normal and desired response, to a degree, due to supporting desired physiological training adaptations. However, omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce joint pain, tenderness, and inflammation and can support maintenance of arterial integrity to allow for a maximal amount of oxygen-rich blood to reach working muscles. A goal of athletes is to increase oxygen-rich blood to tissues, and they can support that by keeping the lining of their arteries smooth and clear with a proper diet.
- Strive to consume at least 3 ounces of fish containing omega-3 two times per week following intensive training.
- Mix two tablespoons of ground flaxseed or chia seed in oatmeal and/or a smoothie or sprinkle over whole grain toast.
- Eat 1 ounce of walnuts in a salad, yogurt parfait, or smoothie.
- Take a fish oil supplement containing 600-1,000 mg of EPA or DHA.
What’s the Scoop on Creatine Supplementation?
I get this question quite frequently as a sports dietitian. I myself (a female who strength trains regularly) take creatine because it is one of the most widely studied ergogenic aids available. The research supporting the benefits of creatine supplementation are robust, especially for females desiring to increase lean mass and maintain strength. Women should absolutely take creatine. More research has been carried out on men, but I am confident more research will examine the health, exercise performance, and body composition changes with creatine supplementation in women.
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound compiled of arginine, glycine, and methionine, which are amino acids found primarily in the flesh of animals. The body naturally produces creatine in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas at a rate of roughly 1-2 grams per day. The uptake of creatine is an ongoing, active process in which roughly 95% of creatine is found in skeletal muscle. Creatine-rich foods include steak, salmon, chicken, wild game, pork, tuna, and cod.
The use of creatine as an ergogenic aid can be traced back to the 1990s, and since then, hundreds of publications have surfaced examining the impact of creatine supplementation on exercise performance. Creatine allows muscles to sustain energy by endorsing ATP replenishment (energy currency for muscle cells). In skeletal muscle, creatine combines with phosphate (Pi) molecules to create a compound called phosphocreatine (PCr). PCr in this form plays a key role in energy metabolism within the muscle cell, supporting high-intensity energy activities like sprinting and strength training. Creatine increases muscle growth, strength, endurance, overall performance, recovery, and tolerance to heavy training loads.
Furthermore, creatine helps prevent and decrease risk of injury and time to fatigue, and was recently found to have neuroprotective effects on the brain and spinal cord, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s position stand on creatine supplementation. In fact, there is also strong support highlighting cognitive benefits and use in clinical practice.
Creatine is used with adolescent athletes, but lacks the research, which creates topics of discussion surrounding the safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in young athletes under the age of 18. Jagim et al. published a review examining the limited studies in the adolescent population as a means to identify the use of creatine in young athletes. The review suggests that adolescent athletes using creatine tolerated supplementation well and had no reported adverse events or incidents. Ethically, we do not have sufficient research to recommend creatine monohydrate to young athletes, but many are using it despite direction from professionals.
My advice as a sports dietitian is to provide the literature and suggestions to support the best interests of my athletes. I encourage whole foods first, which contain creatine. However, many parents still seek out the use of supplements. I strongly advise supplements that are Informed Choice Certified, meaning they are free of any banned substances and ensure the product has been tested for any unsafe substances. Here is a comprehensive list of certified products updated in March 2020.
Choosing Real Food to Drive Performance
Performance nutrition is important, but the meals leading up to the competition are more important. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks in between in the days leading up to the event are what win games. If your athlete isn’t consuming breakfast, lunch, or snacks on game day, their pre-game meal won’t matter because the window for opportunity has been missed.Performance nutrition is important, but the meals leading up to the competition are more important, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
Again, we go back to the basics with quality nutrition. When thinking about optimal athletic performance and recovery, think the four R’s: refuel, rehydrate, repair, and replenish. The USOC has a recovery factsheet, along with other great resources. Recovery is an all-day process just like preparation for competition. Elite athletes need to view eating and fueling as opportunities to maximize health and performance.
In my practice I emphasize “eating” to support health, growth, and development, and “fueling” to support athletic performance. The point is that good nutrition is not just for athletic performance, but for proper growth, development, and maturation. Person first, athlete second, which I understood well upon reading the brilliant Brett Bartholomew’s famous book, Conscious Coaching.
Simply put, we need to get back to the basics with consistent habits of consuming breakfast, fluids, high-quality protein, and carbohydrates that contain fiber and vitamins. I would also argue that milk is a sports drink! The foods young and old athletes consume should support muscle growth and hormone regulation, strengthen bones, facilitate recovery, protect against illness and injury, and optimize overall athletic performance. A more comprehensive list of sports nutrition tips can be found here.
To truly support your young athlete, you must point out that proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep are not luxuries. They are paramount for success. Control your controllable factors. Nutrition is a controllable. It can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good.To truly support your young athlete, you must point out that proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep are not luxuries. They are paramount for success, says @Wendi_Irlbeck. Click To Tweet
My final statement to parents, coaches, and sports staff looking to support their young athletes is: “Nutrition is your secret weapon. At the next level, everyone is good. What are you able and willing to do to out-compete your competition? What are you willing to sacrifice and prioritize to stand out among the rest?”
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