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Sports Training: Nutrition Tips for Young Athletes

Sports training is physically intense, especially for growing kids. Learn how to boost athletic performance and improve recovery from exercise using these 9 nutrition tips.

Many young athletes come together in the late summer for an intensive week of sports training camp.

I know. I’ve been through this with my own kids for 8 years in a row.

Training camp is physically exhausting, mentally draining, and stressful.

As a pediatric nutritionist and the author of a sports nutrition book for kids and teens, I’m keenly aware of the physical demands of the teen athlete.

I understand the research and the practical aspects of raising young athletes.

In this article, I’m focusing on the practicalities of what you can do to support your child through the intensive phase of sports training camp.

sports training nutrition tips

What is Sports Training?

Sports training, especially during pre-season, is an intensive phase of sports training over a short period of time, generally a week or more.

The purpose of pre-season training is to jump start athletes into physical fitness.

In other words, pre-season training allows athletes to get in shape, fast.

Coaches inherently understand that young athletes tend to relax a bit over the summer. They aren’t working out with the vigor that they do when they are in-season.

To ready athletes for competition, pre-season training is a commonly used strategy.

Why is Pre Season Training Camp Important?

My daughters were swimmers. For them, pre-season training started with double swim practices and ended with a biathlon (swim + run). Winners received high regard from their coaches and team mates.

The rest were happy they survived without yacking up their breakfast.

For my volleyball playing daughter, it was morning and afternoon practices all week and try-outs for the Varsity team at the end. The starting line-up meant a lot to every player, so they showed up 100% and did their best.

My son, a rower, endured weight training, rowing on machines and on the water, running, and other workouts, all squeezed into double practices each day for 2 weeks.

Getting a good, competitive boat was the goal. Again, rowers showed up fully at each practice.

Not only does sports training camp expedite fitness levels, it also helps coaches plan their starting line-ups and anticipate their season outcomes. 

Nutrition for Pre-Season Training Camp

It is likely your athlete is burning more calories, breaking down more muscle, possibly flirting with dehydration, and battling fatigue during this time.

As a result, injury risk is higher.

To help your athlete perform his best (and avoid getting benched), you can use nutrition as an advantage.

Food contains elements that uniquely help your child perform well:

  • Carbohydrates fuel the muscles for exercise
  • Protein builds muscle, and repairs it after exercise
  • Fluids keeps cells, organs and tissues hydrated; and prevents dehydration
  • Vitamins and minerals assist in metabolism (the body’s engine) so that it functions effectively
Pre-Season Training Camp: 9 Nutrition Tips for Young Athletes

9 Nutrition Tips for Pre-Season Sports Training

Paying attention to food, drink and recovery during the weeks of intensive sports training can help your athlete feel energized and play his best. Here are 9 tips to keep in mind:

1. Stock Your Kitchen with Whole Foods

Get to the grocery store and stock up. It will make life easier for you, and remove the worry about food for your athlete.

Plan breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for the week. Try to stick to the menu as much as possible. It doesn’t hurt to review it with your athlete as well.

If you’re making homemade snacks, such as Gorp or Game Day Granola, do this over the weekends so it’s ready and available.

2. Have Hydrating Beverages on Hand

Water is always a winner. Consider a re-fillable water bottle your athlete can take back and forth to practices. I like this one.

Do Athletes Need a Sports Drink?

I get asked about whether sports drinks are a good idea for young athletes.

My bet is that yes, a sports drinks will be a good idea, especially if your athlete is practicing outside in hot, humid weather.

If you don’t want to deal with all the plastic sports drink bottles, you can purchase sports drink powders, like Gatorade, or have Nuun electrolyte tablets on hand. You add either of these to water.

If your young athlete is begging you for Prime Drinks, read my article.

3. Offer a Protein- and Carb-Packed Breakfast

Athletes do best when they eat a morning breakfast, in my opinion. Why? The food your athlete eats at the start of the day sets the appetite cycle in motion and may influence how well the morning training session will go.

I’m a fan of a protein and carbohydrate combination for breakfast, such as my Oat, Flax & Raisin Breakfast Cookies. Protein satisfies the appetite for a few hours, and the carbs give the muscles the energy to go.

For some winning combinations, check out my E-book Fast & Nutritious Breakfasts for Athletes. You’ll find a bunch of breakfast ideas and recipes that fit the bill.

4. Use Smart Snacks for Training

Athletes may be very hungry when it’s time for snacks. Sometimes they make poor food choices because they’re too hungry to wait.

I encourage you to think ahead about foods that will keep your athlete fueled while covering his hunger.

Foods that contain protein, fiber and/or fat such as granola bars, yogurt cups, or combination snacks like peanut butter crackers are filling, fueling snacks.

Check out these awesome snack ideas for the young athlete and my article about easy snacks for growing teens.

5. Have Emergency Snacks in the Bag

I’ve always encourage my kids to have emergency snacks; foods they can keep in their gym bag just in case they are needed due to extended practices or schedule changes.

A small jar of nut butter (or nut-free butter), turkey jerky and crackers, or granola are great options.

6. Eat Food Between Training Sessions

When athletes have double training sessions (morning and afternoon), the meals and snacks between training sessions are important for recovery nutrition.

Some athletes are fine with a big lunch, others do better with smaller, frequent meals. Figure out which eating style works for your athlete.

What is Recovery Nutrition?

After intensive exercise, the muscles are better able to absorb nutrients like protein and carbohydrate.

Eating a protein and carbohydrate containing meal or snack within 30-45 minutes after exercise facilitates the repair and replacement of energy stores in muscles.

7. Provide a Nutritious Dinner

At the end of the day, a nutritious dinner sets your athlete up for a good night’s sleep, and growth and repair of their body.

Offer all the food groups if you can, including lean proteins, dairy (or non-dairy substitutes), fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats.

If you need more information on building a balanced plate, read: A Healthy Meal Plan Any Parent Can Make

I understand dinner can be a scramble, especially if you have an athlete. You may find my E-book of go-to recipes and dinner ideas useful.

8. Go to Bed Early

Growth hormone is secreted at night, making a good night’s sleep incredibly important. Not only do kids and teens grow while sleeping, the body repairs and rejuvenates itself.

Encourage your athlete to get at least 7 hours of sleep (or more) at night.

9. Water Everywhere

One of the struggles young athletes face is staying hydrated.

Studies show that back-to-back training sessions can progressively encourage dehydration. Meaning, athletes don’t necessarily rehydrate adequately after training, leading to a greater risk of being dehydrated as they enter the next sports training session.

For example, an athlete can start the day hydrated, but can be 1% dehydrated by the end of the first training session. If he doesn’t replenish with fluids completely, he enters the second training session a bit dehydrated.

As a result, dehydrated athletes experience sub-optimal performance.

Encourage your athlete to keep water in the gym bag, the locker, and at the bedside table. Remind and encourage your athlete to drink.

Which of these tips are helpful? How do you make sure your athlete is ready for pre-season training?

Need More Nutrition Help for Sports Training?

Check out my other resources for young athletes!

Eat Like a Champion — The Book

Eat Like a Champion — The Class

My podcast

Get the big picture and read The Young Athlete: Ultimate Guide to Nutrition.

Two boys drinking hydration or energy drinks

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