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The Teenage Sportsperson - Frequently asked questions

As a teenage athlete, your active lifestyle and growing body means you have special nutritional needs. You need to start with the basics of a healthy and varied diet. There are no quick fixes – supplements, in particular, are not recommended for teenagers.

1. Why is it important for sports people to eat well?

If you’re playing sport regularly for school or club, what you eat and drink is important, to help you perform at your best and protect you from fatigue and injury.

Good nutrition can:

  • Delay fatigue
  • Improve skill and concentration
  • Prevent injury and illness in the short and long term.
  • Achieve fitness and training targets

A poor diet will prevent you from achieving your potential by:

  • Increasing your likelihood of injury
  • Decreasing your concentration and skill
  • Causing you to fatigue sooner
  • Not allowing you to achieve consistent training targets

2.Do I follow this advice at all times or just before a competition?

You should follow this advice at all times to get the best possible results from your training,  to maintain good health and avoid illness, decrease your risk of injury, and ensure the best possible preparation for a competition.

3. I don’t want to make big changes to my diet –what are the most important changes I should make?

Choose one or two things to change in your diet at any one time as smaller changes are easier to maintain. This could be eating breakfast every morning, or improving your snack options, or ensuring your fluid intake is adequate. Once you’ve got some small changes right, move onto something else. These incremental steps over time, can help create a healthy and varied diet

4. What foods should I eat in order to build muscle?

This is a question we get asked a lot.  The most effective way to build muscle is to make sure you go into training well fuelled so that you can train hard – this means making sure you have eaten before your session, particularly with carbohydrate foods that will give you the energy you need.  Protein is an important nutrient and is essential for muscle growth and repair and supporting strong immunity.  Not much protein is stored in the body so it is important to eat it regularly (at every mealtime) to have sufficient raw material for these functions.  Top low fat protein sources include lean red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs and dairy products.

Protein supplements do not offer any advantage over protein in food.  A common mistake made by athletes to take only protein after exercise; what you need is both carbohydrate and protein and this should come from ordinary foods that gives you lots of other nutrients too.

And of course you need to have a properly structured training programme, suitable for your age, to get the best results.

5. What snacks should I eat before and after exercise?

Before exercise:

To ensure your energy levels are at their best when you exercise, eat a meal or snack that is high in carbohydrates 2 – 3 hours before you exercise.

Some ideas for pre-exercise snacks include the following – you can find more ideas on page 13 of the leaflet (see link at the end of this article).

  • Toast (Add banana, nut butter or baked beans as a topping)
  • Chicken with rice and salad
  • Jacket potato with beans, , tuna or chicken and salsa

After exercise:

To restore your energy levels after exercise and to maintain muscle mass, eat a snack that is high in carbohydrates  and protein – this could be a mixed fruit salad with Greek yoghurt topped with mixed nuts and seeds. Even drinking   semi-skimmed or skimmed milk is a good alternative if you find it hard to eat after exercise.  Timing can also be important. Aim to have a snack after exercise within the first 30-60 minutes and then a meal a couple of hours after this.

6. Do I need extra protein after sport?

You need to provide the raw materials to recover from exercise – carbohydrate to refuel and protein to support muscle conditioning.  So it is important to include protein in the recovery mix, but taking huge amounts is not necessary and in fact may result in you not taking enough carbohydrate to refuel properly.  Stick with foods and fluids for recovery rather than supplements.  Flavoured milk has been shown to contain all the necessary ingredients to support recovery (protein, carbohydrate, sodium) and is a much cheaper option.

7. How much fluid should I be taking on? How do I know if I’m getting enough?

Don’t wait until you feel thirsty because that’s a sign your body has needed fluids for a while.  During tough training sessions or a competition lasting longer than 60 minutes, consider having an isotonic sports drink to replace fluids. For any training that lasts up to 60 minutes, water is fine.

 

Are you getting enough fluids?

Checking your urine colour is a quick and simple way for you to see if you are drinking enough fluids; it should be a pale yellow colour.  Refer to the “pee chart” on page 11 of the booklet to help with this.

8. I don’t cook my own meals – how can I get my parent to cook suitable meals for me?

The diet of a sportsperson is essentially a well-balanced diet which can benefit the whole family. Pick some of your favourite balanced meals, help out with the preparation and suggest that the whole family can try and enjoy this healthy lifestyle. 

9.What’s the big deal with supplements?

The big deal with sports supplements is that they’re big business.  These products come in many forms - drinks, powders, pills, ready-made shakes, bars, liquid meal replacements, and lots more.

The worry is that the manufacturing process, labelling and marketing of sport supplement products is not well controlled and so what you see if not always what you get.  Added to that, another concern is that the effect of supplement use has not been tested on teenagers or children, so it is this lack of research that puts a question on the long term safety of supplement use on a growing body.  It is a well-accepted recommendation that people under 18 years of age should not use sports supplements. 

DO YOU NEED THEM?

No you don’t.  No supplement will replace talent, hard work, structured training, good nutrition and adequate sleep and recovery.  They won’t make you faster, stronger, or more skilful. As a young person playing sport, your focus should be on developing a good nutritional foundation through eating a diet with lots of food variety and timing your nutrition to fuel up before exercise and recovery adequately afterwards.

10. How do I Improve my performance through nutrition?:

  • Eat enough to meet your growth and energy needs.
  • Drink enough fluids to stay hydrated and replace any lost fluids.
  • Plan your training and recovery properly
  • Improve your own technique, talent and skills through training.
  • Make sure your input and output are matched.

Case Study:

A 19 year old Rugby player was selected for a provincial academy squad. His position involved quite a bit of running and his gym- based training had increased significantly. On top of this he had started a course at University and was living away from home. His weight was 72kg and the coaching team felt that he needed to be at least 80kg in the medium to long- term.

He was given an eating plan in terms of meals and snacks he was to eat to help with this and also given supplements including protein and creatine to help with this weight gain. Over the next three months he was weighed on a weekly basis and his weight would increase by a 1-2kg and then drop back to his original weight gain. After 6 weeks he was reviewed and he said that he was doing everything that he had been asked to do.

In the following weeks there was still no change in weight. After about 3 months it came to light that the player was not really following the eating plan that he had been given and was just taking the supplements. He thought that they would do the job and he didn’t really need to worry about a regular eating pattern. Once he got this and ate more regularly and the quantities that he needed his weight increased to what had been anticipated.

Supplements often cause athletes to take their eye off the eating plan that they should be following. Often the desire to get physically bigger is the reason young athletes choose to take supplements, which may seem like the quick-fix answer for accelerated growth.  However there is no evidence that this is the case – young athletes will make most gains in size and strength from well-planned training and recovery, supported by adequate eating and drinking.

11. I find it difficult to eat like this as part of my daily routine  – what should I do?

Organise your food in advance.  If you don’t have time for proper meals, take a supply of healthy snacks with you. This way you can keep your energy levels up, refuel after training and ensure you are getting a good intake of nutrients. Plan to eat a small snack every 2-3 hours, examples:

  • Sandwiches/rolls/pitta/bagels with cottage cheese, banana, salad, tuna, turkey, ham or chicken.
  • Leftover pasta salad (always make extra for snacks)
  • Low fat yoghurt and fromage frais
  • Cold corn on the cob or a small can of corn
  • Cold boiled egg
  • Fresh fruit
  • Cereal bars
  • Breakfast cereals/crackers/rice cakes
  • Nuts, dried fruit, scones

Never skip meals or leave long gaps without food. This will result in low blood sugar levels and fatigue leading to a drastic decrease in your performance.  The key is to be prepared and plan your eating around your own daily schedule.

12. How do I know if I play enough sport to warrant changing my diet?

Everyone can benefit from this healthy eating lifestyle, whatever their fitness level or sporting commitment. Having a healthy balanced diet will help you to achieve greater results, train for longer, maintain good health, reduce your risk of injury and generally ensure you have more energy and feel healthier.

13. Does this advice apply to friends who don’t play sport?

Absolutely. While some of the advice is sport-specific, there are some great ideas in this booklet on how to incorporate healthy meals and snacks into your diet and how to achieve a more balanced, healthy lifestyle. Good nutrition is important for healthy growth and development as well as fuelling energy needs for sport.

Where can I find out more?

Click here to access the factsheet section for teenages

If you feel you need specific advice tailored to your individual needs, contact a sports dietitian or registered sport and exercise nutritionist:

In Republic of Ireland - listings are on the website: Click here to find a Dietitian

 

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