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Student athletes need the right fuel for optimal performance

Getting a teenager to eat healthfully is a challenge. And when that teenager is spending hours at the field, gym or pool, on top of classroom time and hanging out with buddies, the challenge becomes even more keen.

What to feed the football player who goes from class to field in crushing heat and humidity? How about the swimmer who bookends the day with hours in the pool? Or the wrestler who needs to stick to his competition weight?

Nutrition is important for athletes of every age, but young jocks need special attention because their bodies and brains are still developing. They need calcium for strong bones and muscle development. Magnesium and potassium to facilitate muscle contractions and relaxation. Complex carbohydrates to maintain energy, and water to keep all systems in tip-top shape.

Nutritionally sound food and drink give young athletes what they need to perform to their best ability. But parental involvement, attention from coaches and even professional nutritional counseling may be needed to help them learn that what they put in their bodies shows up in their stats.

"The entire coaching staff harps on the boys about eating and drinking properly every day," says St. Petersburg High football coach Joe Fabrizio. "We encourage the boys to eat five meals per day during the football season so they have fuel to burn at practice. We pay special attention to staying hydrated by continually stressing for them to drink water, sports drinks and fruit juices all day and night."

In the two weeks leading up to the start of school this week, football training camp was 3 to 8 p.m. The players broke for an hour each day for food, drink and rest. They brought their own food, and the buffet ran the gamut from stews, spaghetti and ravioli (eaten at room temperature straight from the can), ramen noodles, cold chicken, sub sandwiches, PB&J, fruit, chips and granola bars, plus enough bottled water and sports drinks to float a flotilla.

Hopefully, the players ate a well-balanced lunch at noon and drank lots of water before they got to the field. If they were awake by noon. That's another challenge with feeding teenage athletes, especially in the summer.

And what's good for a football player may not necessarily be good for a gymnast.

"You can't be flying through the air on a full stomach," says Terry Wolford, whose daughter, Sarah, is a star gymnast with Tampa Bay Turners. When Sarah, a junior at Tampa's Freedom High, is in intense workouts, she doesn't feel much like eating, her mom says.

"I think the weekends are her refueling time," she says. That's when Sarah really hits the fridge hard.

Then there are kids like Dunedin High wrestler Tyler Smith. The 17-year-old junior competes in the 152-pound weight class and needs to make sure he hits that number. When the season begins in November, he focuses on eating low-fat protein, fruits and vegetables.

"You can't cut too much weight too fast or you will underperform," he says.

Supervision recommended

Parents who want their student athletes to eat well need to get involved, says Sheila Dean, a registered dietitian in Palm Harbor who has worked with athletes for years. She is the author of Nutrition and Endurance: Where Do I Begin? (Meyer and Meyer, 2005), a guide for triathletes.

"You can't expect your kids to eat fruits and veggies if there are none in the house," she says. "And they won't eat them if they don't see their parents eat them."

Fruits and vegetables have many of the vitamins and minerals needed to build strong bodies and minds. Getting enough protein is less of a problem for most young athletes; the American diet tends to be heavy on meat, poultry and dairy.

For all teens, Dean is a proponent of eating "real food." The processed foods that are so prevalent in the modern diet don't include the nutrition needed for top athletic performance, she says.

She encourages grocery shoppers to read labels, paying careful attention to ingredients. "If you can't pronounce it, you may not want to eat it." Disodium inosinate, anybody? Better nutrition will pay off not just in athletic endeavors but likely in the classroom, too.

"There is all sorts of data that says there's a strong gut-brain connection," Dean says. "When your diet is poor, there's a backlash against brain function. When you're better nourished, you can think better."

Sometimes after a big game or meet, a young athlete will come down with a cold. That's a sign he hasn't eaten properly or gotten enough sleep, says Nadine Pazder, a registered dietitian with Morton Plant Mease's outpatient nutritional counseling program.

"Teens are notoriously sleep deprived," she says. They tend to stay up late and have to get up early. Some Tampa Bay area high schools start as early as 7:05 a.m. "Lack of sleep can affect performance just as much as bad nutrition."

Pazder recommends that teens take a multivitamin, especially girls, runners and football and soccer players. Teenagers in those sports need more iron, she says.

Sports drinks, such as Powerade and Gatorade, are good after rigorous practices or competition, but they should be avoided as a beverage to accompany a meal. Milk is a good after-sports drink, Pazder says, because of its high water content and calcium.

For years tales of mile-high plates of pasta the night before a marathon or daylong competition have permeated sports regimen lore. Pazder says recent studies debunk the notion of "carbo loading" and that a steady diet of complex carbohydrates does just as much good.

One family's challenge

Joe Finke of Dunedin is the patriarch of a swimming family. Daughters Autumn, 14, and Summer, 12, along with their brother Bobby, 9, spend so much time in the pool they might sprout fins. During the summer, their day starts about 4:50 a.m. and ends when they collapse in bed about 9:30 p.m. Morning and afternoon practices total five hours of laps a day.

Dad makes a quick breakfast in the early a.m. and another, more substantial, morning meal of eggs, bacon, sausage and toast when practice is over. A light lunch of sandwiches and fruit is at 1 p.m. or so followed by another practice, then a meat-veggie-starch dinner at 7:30 p.m. and a sweet treat before bed.

"They all have different tastes and we try to balance what everyone will eat," Joe Finke says. Sodas are on the no-no list, as is candy at swim meets.

And yet, the Finke swimmers are like lots of healthy, athletic youths. Some days they eat exactly right; other days they want pizza, burgers and the other staples of the Modern American Kids' Diet.

"Kids can get away with quite a bit," says Sheila Dean, the nutrition expert. "Most of us are born with a healthy body. At 15 and 17, there's not so much chronic disease."

Times staff writer B Buckberry Joyce contributed to this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at or (727) 893-8586.

fast facts

Game plan for nutrition

Here are 10 ways that parents can help their teenage athletes eat better, from registered dietitians Sheila Dean and Nadine Pazder:

1Plan, plan, plan. Athletes don't go into a competition without a game plan, and they shouldn't approach their diet that way either. Take some time on the weekends to plan meals and snacks for the week.

2Involve the kids. There's no sense dictating food selections to teenagers. They are old enough to know what they will eat and won't. Respect that and work with them. Bring — or send — them to the store to help with the shopping. Guide them to better choices such as whole apples vs. Apple Jacks and cheese sticks over Cheetos.

3Focus on lean proteins. Nutrition experts agree that fast food or high-fat meals before games inhibit performance. Greasy foods can cause stomach discomfort.

4Take a class together. If you need more information, look for a nutrition class to take with your child. If you think other teammates could benefit from this, approach the coach to see if he or she can find a nutrition expert to counsel the group.

Morton Plant Hospital, (727) 462-7459, and Mease Countryside Hospital, (727) 725-6048, in north Pinellas offer personalized outpatient nutritional counseling for a fee. If you hire a nutritional expert yourself, make sure he or she is a licensed dietitian/nutritionist.

5Eat well yourself. Set a good example. Have fresh fruits and vegetables on hand. Cook at home as much as possible; avoid processed food. Caffeine may give you a jolt, but it is also a diuretic that may cause dehydration. Go easy on the energy drinks.

6Think about timing. Don't prepare a big meal right before a competition. Make sure your child has money to buy food at school or that a wholesome lunch is toted. Student athletes will need a meal by about 1 p.m. if practice is at 3.

7Encourage eating. Even with lots of exercise, some teenagers are leery of eating because of body size issues. This is especially true with girls. Make sure they understand that good food is good for them.

8Snacking is okay. Make this your mantra. Forget the three squares a day; think about five small meals. Your athlete needs to fuel consistently through the day.

9Hydration is No. 1. This doesn't just mean quaffing gallons during competition or right after. Encourage your teen to drink water throughout the day, not just when he or she is thirsty.

10Don't sweat it. They are teenagers after all: Some days they will eat better than other days. They will eat pizza. They will want chips. Cheeseburgers tempt them. Keep everything in perspective and allow them to enjoy all foods, but help them recognize which ones should be limited.

Student athletes need the right fuel for optimal performance 08/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 26, 2009 6:14pm]
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