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  • Aiveen Connolly

Nutrition for the Young Athlete

Nutrition is such an important part of sport performance for young athletes. Proper amounts of macronutrients, micronutrients and hydration is crucial to provide energy for growth and development.

It's important to teach young athletes how to eat a balanced diet to maintain good health and to optimize performance. Knowing what, when and how to eat and drink before, during and after activity is important for young athletes to learn. The nutritional guidelines are adapted for children and adolescents to meet the specific demands of exercise and sport.

How much energy do young people require?

There are no specific energy requirements for young athletes but we can calculate a rough estimate of children's average requirements for their standard age which is published by the Department of Health. Similar to adults, energy requirements for young athletes will be increased compared to their non athletes peers.

Do young athletes burn fuel differently from adults?

During exercise, children use more fat and less carbohydrates than adolescents or adults. With this being said, there is no reason to recommend they should consume more than the recommended maximum for fat for the general population (35% of energy).

Protein intake for young athletes

Young children are still growing and developing so they need more protein relative to their weight than adults. The general protein recommendations for children and non athletes is 1g of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight. For example, a non-athlete who weighs 40kg should get 40g of protein daily. For athletes, this may be increased to 1.2-2g of protein per kg of body weight depending on the athlete and their training intensities.

Young athletes can meet their protein needs by including 2-4 portions of protein rich foods in their diet. These foods include lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, lentils, tofu and nuts. Young athletes should also have balanced amounts of whole grain foods like bread, pasta, cereals and dairy foods (milk, yoghurt, cheese), as these all supply a small amount of protein too. A well balanced diet with lots of variety is key!

Should young athletes use protein supplements?

Protein supplementation is not necessary for children. Children are able to meet their protein needs through whole foods alone.

Carbohydrate intake for young athletes

There are no specific recommendations for young athletes. However, if a young athlete is training up to 2 hrs a day, they would need around 5-7g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight. For example, a young athlete who weighs 60kg who trains 1.5hrs each day would need 360-240g of carbohydrate per day.

This may sound like a lot of carbohydrates but try to aim for 4-6 portions of carbohydrate rich foods (this include grains, potatoes, etc); 5 or more portions of fruit & vegetables; and 2-4 portions of dairy foods.

Pre exercise foods for young athletes & timing

Carbohydrate foods are key before exercise for young athletes. The energy from carbohydrate foods eaten several hours before is needed to fuel their activity. Eating the right amount of carbohydrate before exercise will mean young athletes will have high levels of glycogen in their muscles.

Pre exercise meals should be eaten 2-3hours before with some fluids. Examples of pre exercise meals include a sandwich/ roll/ bagel/ wrap with a protein source and some salad, a jacket potato with beans and tuna, porridge with milk and some berries, chicken and vegetable casserole with potatoes or rice.

Pre exercise snacks should be eaten 1 hour before exercise, again with some fluids. Here are a few examples of pre exercise snack options- fresh fruit, cereal bar, oatcakes or rice cakes with peanut butter and banana and a yoghurt with some fresh fruit.

It's important to not let children eat lots of sugary foods, sweets and soft drinks just before exercise. This can cause a huge increase in blood glucose and insulin which can result in hypoglycemia, early fatigue and reduced performance.

Post exercise foods for young athletes

After exercise, replenishing fluid loss is a major priority, so give young athletes water/fluids straight away. Replacing energy they lost is key too so having a post exercise snack or meal is important, this will ensure they are recovered. Choose foods with a moderate to high glycemic index (GI). These foods will raise blood glucose levels quickly to then be converted into glycogen in the muscles.

Some examples of suitable recovery meals include jacket potato with beans or tuna, rice with chicken and veggies or fish pie. Some snack options include yoghurt, yoghurt drink, nuts, smoothie, a roll or a bagel.

Avoid foods like crisps, chocolate bars, sweet and fizzy drinks after exercise as these will not promote good recovery.

The importance of hydration

Young athletes are more likely to be dehydrated and overheat than adults. Encouraging young athletes to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise is essential. There are some risks associated with dehydration in young athletes which include:

- Heart rate is increased than normal

- Concentration labels are reduces

- Fatigues quicker

- May develop cramps, headaches

Just like adults, young athletes should aim to be well hydrated before exercise. Aim to drink 6-8 cups or 1.5 litres of fluids during the day and 150-200ml of water 45 mins before exercise. During exercise drink 75-100ml every 15-20mins especially for longer duration activities.

Hydration after exercise is crucial! Fluids lost through urine and sweat must be replaced. Drink fluids until no longer thirsty. Plain water is best but flavoured water, sugar free squash or dilated fruit juice are good alternatives too.

Electrolyte replacement can be very beneficial when sweat losses are high. Sports drinks containing sodium are great to have for this especially after intense exercise lasting more than 2 hours. The sodium content will promote water retention and prevent hyponatremia.


Bean, A,. 2017, Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition. [S.I]: Bloomsbury Sport

ACSM/AND/DC (2016), ‘Nutrition and Athletic performance’. Med Sci in Sports and Ex,

vol 48 (3) pp. 543-568.


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