Any sports parent knows that the right food can make or break their player’s performance! A hungry athlete is an energy-less athlete and it’s impossible for them to play their best if their body doesn’t have the fuel it needs in order to perform! But just because you fed your child on the way to the game (we’ve all done the drive-thru run) that doesn’t mean they are actually in tip-top shape. Being full isn’t the same thing as being 100% ready to play!
Here are three pre-game nutrition tips for youth athletes:
Choose complex carbs with fiber.
When you eat candy (which is full a sugar, a simple carbohydrate), those fructose molecules head directly to your small intestine. From there, they are quickly converted into glucose and absorb into your bloodstream through intestinal walls. Glucose is what fuels your body, and what causes that “sugar high” when young kids eat a lot of candy. It’s like pouring rocket fuel into the engine of a car! But when those simple carbohydrates are burned through your athlete is more likely to suffer from a sugar crash and be even more sluggish than before.
Complex carbohydrate molecules, on the other hand, are more complex simply because theyrequire more work to be converted into glucose. When we chew, our saliva surrounds complex starch molecules and begins breaking them down into maltose. The enzymes in your small intestine break it down further into the smaller glucose molecules that entire the bloodstream through your intestine. Since it takes more work for our bodies to break down complex carbohydrates they provide fuel for longer periods of time and athletes are less likely to “crash”.
Whole grain foods are made of complex carbohydrates, which is why many cross-country teams have big pasta dinners the night before a big race. The pre-game meal that really matters is the night before, because it can take 24-48 hours to really stock your muscles with glycogen so athletes walk onto the field totally fueled.
Eat lean proteins.
Protein is important, especially post-game because protein is what helps rebuild muscles, but eating a heavy steak a few hours before the game might be more than a youth athlete can handle or even needs. Have steak the night before so their body has time to pull all the necessary nutrients out and digest the rest, and save lean proteins like turkey for the morning of the game. You really want to eat 2-3 hours BEFORE the game so your player’s body has time to turn that food into valuable nutrients. If you eat too much protein right before a game your youth athlete won’t have time to digest everything before they have to play. And you know how sluggish you can feel on a full stomach! This also helps prevent cramping, which is certainly not going to help them on the field!
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
It doesn’t matter how well fed your youth athlete is if they step on the field dehydrated. Your child’s athletic performance can be affected even by mild dehydration so make sure your athlete has 1-2 cups of water before they even get to the game/practice (more if it’s a hot day!), and that they are constantly drinking throughout the game. Most players need at least ½ – 1 cups of water for every 15-20 minutes during exercise. Plain water is usually all you need to keep kids adequately hydrated. Sports drinks are designed to provide energy and replace electrolytes (sodium and potassium) that athletes lose as they sweat, so if your child is going to be active for more than one hour (soccer, lacrosse, cross country, tennis), sports drinks like Gatorade may be a good option.