Nutrition is a weapon.
Most young athletes don’t realize this. They put in the hard work—they lift, they run, they practice. But the reality is everyone does these things. Sure, some do them better or more frequently than others, but pretty much any kid with hopes of playing at the next level is going to be lifting, running and practicing. But eating well? Not so much.
The reality is that many young athletes skip breakfast, do not hydrate, drink soda, eat a ton of fast food, operate in a consistent calorie deficit, and don’t properly fuel or re-fuel around training, practice and competition. Their nutrition is actively holding them back. So if a young athlete is able to make their nutrition an ally instead of an enemy, that’s a way to pull away from the pack.
One of the most damaging habits teen athletes fall into is skipping breakfast. A survey from Kellogg’s found that just 50 percent of middle schoolers and 36 percent of high school students eat breakfast each morning. They typically don’t eat anything until lunch, which means they’ve likely gone 13-16 hours without eating. If you’re an athlete looking to gain muscle and build a D1 body, this habit will make that goal nearly impossible to achieve.
In his talk Sports Nutrition for the High School Athlete at the 2015 NSCA National Conference, Sports Dietitian Tavis Piattoly shared this slide that shows the typical eating patterns for teen athletes:
They wake up in a fasted state where they could be burning muscle for energy, then they’re caught playing catch-up the rest of the day. Usually, the massive majority of those calories are coming at night. There’s evidence that this “backloading” of calories may result in poorer body composition for teen athletes than spreading them out more evenly throughout the day, but regardless of that fact, the reality is that when you’re forced to “catch up” on all your calories at night, it’s more likely going to come in the form of junk food.
In the aforementioned talk, Piattoly emphasized how getting a young athlete to eat four times before school lets out can be enough to make a huge difference. “My goal is always to try to get them to eat four times before they get out of class. So before you go to practice in the evening, you should have had at least four meals or snacks before you start that evening workout,” Piattoly says.
An even simpler goal that will result in nutritional improvement for most teens? Eating twice before lunch. That means breakfast and a mid-morning snack. Now, it obviously shouldn’t be Pop-Tarts and Zebra Cakes. Obviously those choices are super convenient, and we don’t expect teen athletes to sacrifice 30 minutes of sleep to cook themselves a huge spread. But there are plenty of quick, healthy options athletes can eat on their way out the door in the morning:
If you have a morning workout and don’t want much in your stomach, even a piece of toast with peanut butter or a banana is far better than nothing.
When it comes to that mid-morning snack, you’re likely going to have to pick something that doesn’t require refrigeration. Sandwiches, fruit, trail mix, jerky, snack bars (prioritize ones high in protein and fiber but low in added sugar), protein shakes, nuts—these can all be great options. Teachers may not allow eating in class, but you can scarf something down between periods. If you go from not eating anything before lunch to eating both a healthy breakfast and a powerful mid-morning snack, you’ll notice a big positive difference in many aspects of life.
Once you’re able to do that, you’re just a mid-afternoon snack away from hitting the goal of eating four times before school lets out (provided you eat lunch, of course, but that shouldn’t be hard). Maybe also down 8-12 ounces of water every time you eat to keep your hydration at championship levels. If that can become a habit, you’re doing more than probably 99% of your competition. You’ll feel better, perform better, and change your body for the better more quickly. You’ll also likely do better in school.
While we often glorify the grind of extra time in the weight room, on the field or on the track, the truth is putting a little more effort into your nutrition can make a bigger difference than a few extra reps for young athletes. Nutrition is a weapon, and it’s either making you better, or making you worse.
Photo Credit: ChristopherBernard/iStock, Steve Debenport/iStock