Nutrition for the Young Athlete

David L. Marshall, MD



Proper nutrition plays an important role in health and overall growth and development but is often overlooked by the athlete in training.   In fact, teaching a young athlete about the importance of proper nutrition is just as important as teaching them skills of a game.  Failure to provide the fluids, carbohydrates and protein the young athlete needs will result in inadequate tissue growth and repair, poor performance and an increased risk for injury and illness.  Applying some basic nutrition principles will help the athlete achieve peak athletic performance.  The popular food pyramid shown in figure 1 is a helpful guide for recommendations on amounts and serving of the various food groups.



Fluids and adequate hydration play a vital role in optimal athletic performance by regulating body temperature and delivering nutrients to exercising muscles.  An athlete who is just 1% dehydrated may show a decline in athletic performance, especially during endurance activities like running, swimming, cycling and all-day tournaments.  The thirst mechanisms kick in when the body is 2-3% dehydrated, so thirst is NOT a reliable way to gage hydration.  For this reason, young athletes should drink on a schedule rather than relying on thirst.  An athlete weighing 100 lbs or less should take in 3-6 oz of fluids 1-2 hours before exercise and maintain hydration during exercise by drinking 4 oz every 20-30 minutes.  Athletes over 100 lbs should drink 6-12 oz before exercise and 5-7 oz every 20-30 minutes during exercise.  For exercise sessions lasting one hour or
less, water is the best fluid of choice.  For longer workouts (over one hour), the athlete must replace electrolytes lost in sweat as well as replenish carbohydrates to the exercising muscles.  Gatorade or Powerade is the preferred rehydration fluid for longer workouts.



Carbohydrates (sugars) are the main fuel source for exercising muscles and it is essential that young athletes consume plenty of complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) on a daily basis to supply the muscles with the fuel they need.  If carbohydrate intake is inadequate, then the exercising muscles will need to find another fuel source, such as fat or protein, resulting in weight loss and muscle breakdown.  Like fluid requirements, the carbohydrate requirements for young athletes are based on size and weight and can be divided into divided into pre-exercise, during exercise and post-exercise requirements.


The pre-training or pre-exercise meal should be consumed 3-4 hours before the workout begins and should contain 1.8-2.0 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight.   For example, a 100 lb athlete should eat a meal containing 180-200 grams of carbohydrate at lunch for an after school practice or contest.  This can be achieved by eating 2 ½ cups pasta (85g), ½ cup pasta sauce (17g), 2 dinner rolls (30g), 1 apple (21g), and 1 pear (30g) and 8 oz of 1% milk (12g).  An easily digested snack of 25-50g carbohydrate (2 oz pretzels, or a banana)) can also be consumed 30 minutes before activity.  This snack maybe most helpful is a full meal was not eaten 3-4 hours prior to the activity.


During exercise

About 12-16 oz of most sports drinks contain about 28-30g carbohydrate so this should be consumed every 20-30 minutes during activity.  This will also replenish fluids and electrolytes.



Replacing carbohydrates that were used by the muscles during exercise is vital to expediting recovery and refueling the muscles with the energy stores needed for the next days workout.  This is best accomplished within one hour of the workout ending since the muscles have the best capacity to take in and store dietary carbohydrates during this hour.  The post exercise meal should contain 1-1.5 g of carbohydrate (one bagel with 2T peanut butter for a 100 lb athlete).  This same amount can be repeated 2 hours later to “top off” the muscles carbohydrate stores.


The carbohydrate content of some common foods is shown in Table 1.


Food                                       Amount                     Grams of Carbohydrate

Kidney beans                         ½ c                                               20

Rice                                         1c                                            50

Spaghetti                                1c                                            34

Flour tortilla                          1                                              15

Waffle                                     2                                              17

Bagel                                       2 oz                                         31

Whole wheat bread              2 slices                                    24

Fig bar                                                1                                              10

Cheerios                                 ½ c                                          8

Oatmeal                                  ½ c                                          13

Shredded wheat                    1 biscuit                                  18

English muffin                       1                                              30

Graham crackers                   2 squares                               11

Popcorn                                 1 c                                           6

Pretzels                                  1 oz                                         21

Apple                                      1 medium                               21

Banana                                   1 medium                               27

Orange                                    1 medium                               16

Peach                                      1 medium                               10

Pear                                        1 medium                               30

Raisins                                    ½ c                                          57

Baked potato                         large                                       50

Corn                                        ½ c                                          21

Carrot                                     1 medium                               8

Orange juice                           ½ c                                          12

Milk 1%                                  8 oz                                         21

Frozen yogurt                       1 c                                           34



Athletes will require more daily protein in the diet compared to the non-athlete due to the breakdown and repair cycle of exercising muscles. Like fluid and carbohydrates, daily protein recommendations are base on body size, but age and activity level also affect protein requirements.  Table 2 shows protein requirements for select populations.


Population                                    Daily Protein Requirements grams/lb body weight


Child aged 4-13 years                                   0.4

Adolescent aged 14-18                                 0.38

Adult                                                               0.36

Endurance athlete                                         0.5-0.6

Weight trained athlete                                  0.5-0.8

Novice athlete                                                0.45-0.7


A well-balanced diet that follows the guidelines of the food pyramid will provide adequate protein to satisfy the daily needs of most athletes.  Vegetarians may need supplements or consult with a dietician to ensure they are getting enough protein and essential amino acids from on-meat sources.  Athletes should be encouraged to get their protein from dietary sources rather than from over the counter powders, mixes, shakes, etc. (See Table 3).  The over the counter supplements may not contain all of the essential amino acids needed to build protein and they can contain potentially harmful impurities.  One easy way to supplement a meal with “healthy” protein supplement is to add ¼ cup of  non-fat dry milk or an instant breakfast packet (11-12 g protein) to a variety of foods such as cereal, soup and pasta.  Ingesting protein right before a workout does not offer any benefit to the exercising muscles. In fact, a large protein load right before exercise may cause stomach upset.  Therefore, protein should be ingested throughout the day with meals and snacks to have the essential amino acids available with the recovering muscles need it.


Table 3


Food                                       Amount                                  Grams of Protein

Lean beef                               1 oz                                                     8

Chicken                                   1 oz                                                     8

Turkey breast                        1 oz                                                     8

Fish                                         1 oz                                                     7

Egg                                          1                                                          6

Kidney beans                         ½ c                                                      9

Peanut butter                                    1 T                                                      4

Milk                                         1 c                                                       8

American cheese                   1 oz                                                     3

Mac and cheese                     ½ c                                                      6

Spaghetti                                1 c                                                       8

Bagel                                       2 oz                                                     6

Raisin bran                            2/3 c                                                   3

Baked potato                         1 large                                                            4

Corn                                        ½ c                                                      2

Apple, banana, orange          1 med                                                 1