4 Nutrition Tips for Young Athletes

Load up on healthy foods, drink fluids and more

A young softball player prepares to hit a yellow softball during a game.

Load up on healthy foods, drink fluids and more

Eating right is critical for the growth and athletic performance of young athletes. 

“Proper nutrition is an important part of success for young athletes,” says Shaun Berger, MD, a pediatrician and board-certified sports medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho San Diego.

“Eating right helps young athletes grow, perform their best and recover after a game, practice or workout. It can also instill good habits for life.”

If your child is active in youth sports programs, he or she is already reaping the health benefits of regular exercise.

Help your young athlete fuel up for athletic success with the following tips:

1. Eat breakfast

Starting the day with breakfast provides crucial nutrients and helps maintain energy levels throughout the day. Just make sure your child starts his or her day with good nutritional choices for breakfast.

If your child is rushing out the door to school, a banana or toast with peanut or almond butter and low-fat milk are good choices. 

“Skipping breakfast means kids may lose out on important nutrients and may also mean they don’t have energy for practice later in the day,” says Dr. Berger. 

2. Focus on carbs

Glycogen from carbohydrate sources is essential for the body during exercise. If it is not available for use as fuel during physical activity, the body will tell your muscles to slow down while it turns to fat storage for energy. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that athletes have a carbohydrate-rich meal three to four hours before exercise and a high-carbohydrate snack about one hour before a workout. If the workout is longer than an hour, eating carbohydrates during exercise is recommended.

Within 20 minutes of working out, athletes should have a carbohydrate snack to replenish the energy in the muscles. Chocolate milk, a banana or trail mix are good recovery snacks. Athletes battling obesity should discuss their carbohydrate intake with their physician and may benefit from a consultation with a nutritionist. 

Good sources of carbohydrates are rice, potatoes, fruits, beans and whole grains. If your child has trouble digesting high fiber, stick to low-fiber breads, such as sourdough, a banana or sweet potatoes on competition day.

3. Spread out protein foods

Protein is essential for the young athlete as it builds, maintains and repairs muscles and other body tissues. For mild exercise and exercise of short duration, proteins do not act as a primary source of energy, but as the amount of time increases, proteins help to maintain blood glucose.


“Spread protein throughout the day, especially in the day or two after an intense workout, to help with recovery and keep your muscles strong,” says Dr. Berger. 

Good sources of protein include chicken, fish, tofu, beans eggs, lean meats and yogurt.

4. Keep hydrated

Fluids, particularly water, are crucial for athletes. Start each workout hydrated and drink during workouts, especially if the workouts are longer than 45 to 60 minutes. Most teen athletes should drink about 8 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes during an intense workout, according to pediatricians.

After an hour of activity, your athlete can switch from water to sports drinks in moderation. During practice and on game day, coaches and parents can help by making sure water and the appropriate fluids are available and encourage hydration breaks.

“Fluids help to regulate body temperature and replace sweat loss during physical activity,” says Dr. Berger. “If athletes are dehydrated, their performance can suffer, and they may be at risk for heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Remember that hotter temperatures and higher humidity make a person sweat more, and more fluid is needed to maintain hydration.”

Whether playing soccer, volleyball or tennis, the young athlete who eats right will be able to have the energy to enjoy the game, perform optimally and recover. 

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