Many young athletes aspire to be great during their high school years in the hopes of playing at the next level. Young athletes train, run, condition, and sign up for additional specialized training. This type of motivation and hard work should translate into bigger, stronger, faster, along with greater success in the athlete’s respective sport.
However, hard work, good genetics, and athletic talent can only carry you so far. Most young athletes stay up late Snapchatting and watching Netflix, getting only 4-6 hours of sleep and then waking up exhausted the next day, rushed with minimal time to prepare for school or other obligations. There are a few basic factors that young athletes must understand for you to get “buy-in” for fueling properly. Why? Because most athletes do not think that skipped meals, poor snack choices, and a limited intake of quality protein and carbohydrates really matter. Spoiler alert—they do.
To keep things as simple as possible, we discuss four basic principles of fueling for performance at the High School Level:
- Eat early
- Eat well
- Eat often
- Build a performance-enhancing plate
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But, ask a room full of athletes what they ate for breakfast, and you’ll hear something along the following lines:
Athlete 1: Pop-Tarts and a Gatorade
Athlete 2: Fast food
Athlete 3: I didn’t eat and rarely do.
In cases one and two, we have a black-and-white teachable moment: make better choices.
As far athlete 3: Many athletes report not having an appetite in the morning or avoid eating before morning workouts because they fear they’ll get sick. Both are valid concerns. But we can train the digestive system to tolerate food just as we train the body to run faster and lift more.
Although this may sound silly, a non-breakfast-eater may need to start small. The first day’s breakfast might be a single cracker. Day two: add another cracker. Day three: add peanut butter. Eventually, they should tolerate a more substantial amount of food before training.
In most cases, athletes should pair carbohydrates with protein at all meals and snacks.
For morning training sessions, however, a bland, high-carbohydrate snack can give athletes the fuel they need without causing digestive distress. Dry cereal, toast, granola bars, or a PBJ are all great options.
“Eat well” is another seemingly obvious statement, but one that can prove overwhelming. Read five articles and you’ll get five different answers as to what constitutes a healthy diet. Further complicating matters, high school athletes are often at the mercy of their parents or their school to provide meals. Again, the environment is rarely optimal, but the goal is to make better choices within that environment.
First up on the agenda is discussing the role and best choices for each of the macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
With each of these three macronutrients, I share an eat this, not that chart below to help athletes manage their food choices.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. C should make up the bulk of the diet for athletes participating in high-intensity sports. Based on their chemical structure, carbs are classified as complex or simple.
Sources of complex carbohydrates are whole grains, sweet potatoes, rice, pasta, and bread. Simple carbohydrates are found naturally in foods such as fruit and are added commercially in the form of sugar. Athletes should primarily focus on consuming complex carbohydrates because these provide more sustained energy. Simple carbs are used as a quick burst of energy 30 minutes before training or as fuel during practices or games lasting longer than two hours.
The importance of protein is widely known, protein builds muscles, yet few athletes consistently consume enough of it. One issue is that athletes are often unaware of the best sources of protein. Lean proteins like white-meat chicken, fish, low-fat dairy, eggs, and egg whites are all great choices.
Athletes also may not be clear on when they should consume protein. They should eat protein with carbohydrates at each meal and snack, except immediately before exercise. Not only does this increase total protein consumption, but it also promotes stable blood sugar.
Low energy, the shakes, lack of focus during 2:00 pm classes, and being “hangry”are all states athletes can remedy by stabilizing blood sugar. It has a direct effect on energy levels, focus, mood, and performance.
While a performance-enhancing diet is low in fat by design, athletes must include healthy fats in their diet. Not only are fats important for cell membrane structure and hormone production, but certain types of fats (omega-3 fatty acids) also serve as powerful anti-inflammatories.
Since a gram of fat contains nine calories (versus four calories per gram of carbohydrate or protein), adding healthy fats can increase caloric density without increasing food volume. Caloric density is critical for an athlete attempting to gain weight. Nut butters, olive oil, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon are all sources of healthy fats.
EAT THIS NOT THAT
Whole Wheat Bread
Sweet Potato/ Baked Potato
Whole Grain Cereal
Cereal w/ Animal Mascot
Scrambled or Boiled Eggs
Reduced- Fat Dairy
Chicken Breast & Thigh (grilled/ baked)
Lean Beef (90%)
Fish (grilled/ baked)
Greek Yogurt (low-sugar)
Fried or Microwaved Eggs
Full Fat Dairy
Dark Meat Chicken Or Fried
Fatty Beef (85% or fattier)
Yogurt w/ lots of added sugar
Peanut/ Almond Butter
Nuts/ Trail Mix
Olive Oil/ Olive Oil Based Dressing
Full Fat Sour Cream
Creamy White Sauces
Processed Junk Food
Ultimately, we want an athlete’s diet to maximize the amount of energy available during workouts and for recovery between sessions. This means eating a sufficient amount of quality calories, keeping energy (blood sugar) levels stable throughout the day, and staying hydrated. Though eating 5-7 meals and snacks throughout the day is a great guideline, it’s helpful for athletes to understand what this looks like within the scope of their day.
Again, the high school setting is never optimal. Good news! Life rarely is—we have to learn to adapt and prepare accordingly.
After we’ve laid out the schedule, we discuss the three goals of recovery nutrition:
- Repair—take in protein to repair muscle damage accumulated during the training session
- Replenish—consume carbohydrates to replace glycogen used for energy during training
- Rehydrate—drink fluids to match loss during a training session
Meal timing around training is summarized as follows:
-A full meal 3-4 hours before a training session
-A high-carbohydrate snack ~30 minutes before training (skip protein pairing here—the goal is quick energy and ease of digestion)
-Ingesting simple carbohydrates when a training session is longer than 2 hours
-Consuming recovery nutrition 0-2 hours post-training session
THE PLATE METHOD: PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Sample Meal 1: Breakfast Burrito
- Corn tortillas (complex carb)
- Eggs, turkey sausage, a sprinkle of cheese (protein)
- Fruit (fruit)
Sample Meal 2: Lunch Sandwich
- Whole wheat bread, side of baked chips (complex carb)
- Turkey, Cheese (protein)
- Lettuce, Tomato, side of Fruit (veg/fruit)
Sample Meal 3: Spaghetti+ Red Sauce
- Pasta (complex carb)
- Lean ground beef (protein)
- Red sauce, side salad (veg)
What many people fail to understand is if you want to be great at something, you must prioritize the habits and behaviors that support that goal. If you want to be a healthier person, better athlete, and more studious student, power up with a high-quality breakfast. It is no secret what happens when breakfast and other meals are skipped or when a candy bar is eaten in place of a real meal.
A high school athlete needs to view their nutrition as their foundation for health and success. A weak foundation leads to weakening of the structure it’s supposed to support.