Peter Glassford R.Kin, Cycling Coach and Hammer Ambassador
Fueling youth sport can be a complicated, and controversial topic. I work with several young athletes and with a development program at Hardwood Ski & Bike in Barrie, Ontario, and often find myself in the position of relaying nutritional concepts to young endurance athletes and their supporters. Having the opportunity to observe young athletes during weekly training, at races and during training camps, there are a few themes that might help guide the efforts coaches, parents and other supporters make in guiding the choices of their young athletes.
The biggest thing we can do for young athletes is help them enjoy and understand of basics of whole-food preparation. My biggest surprise at camps is the limited knowledge of food preparation that young athletes have today and how much of a limiter this ends up being after only a day or two of poor nutrition on the road. Some of my fondest memories are helping my mother in the kitchen with meal preparation and cleanup. We rarely did anything that would be deemed gourmet but ingredients were generally single ingredient, whole foods including meat, veggies and fruit. Knowing these staples coupled with basic shopping, cooking, cleaning skills and experience have kept me fueled and healthy while on the road training, racing, studying and working. This is a huge area that parents, and youth programs or clubs, can focus energy towards and really set kids off in the right direction. At home we can get athletes involved in the family meals and school lunches, while clubs can host pot-lucks or cooking-classes.
Once we have the young athletes eating well for their main meals of the day, we can dig in a bit deeper. One of the most common mistakes for growing youth is that they actually do not eat enough. This is often hard for parents to believe—and to pay for!—but active, growing kids require a lot of food. Focusing on great quality foods can help, but there may be situations where activity level needs to be reduced to avoid over-training/injury/fatigue and ensure long-term development of the athlete. Supplementation may be deemed necessary by a health professional after ensuring the base diet and training are appropriate. My experience is that many athletes do not eat enough for breakfast, have poor school lunches and then don’t eat till dinner. Growing athletes should be prepared to eat full meals (i.e. not just chips or chocolate milk) regularly throughout the day. Those athletes having trouble gaining or maintaining weight or recovering from workouts can typically focus on bigger meals and can increase the number of meals in the day. The post-workout snack, right after the workout, is an often missed opportunity to refuel the young athlete.
Finally, the decision to fuel during workouts for young athletes is going to depend largely on the training load the athlete is under. My suggestion is to consider whether the training is appropriate for the athlete’s ‘training age’. If the athlete’s development requires the increased loading (volume and/or intensity) then we would look to products such as Hammer Heed, Hammer Bars and potentially post-workout fueling from Recoverite. The athletes should be encouraged to incorporate whole-food solutions and be prepared with snacks during long training days or camps so as to continue to reinforce their base nutrition based on nutrient dense whole foods
Young athletes are growing and learning. Nutrition and food is part of this learning process and we can do more to help athletes learn to prepare great food to support their training and generally healthy lifestyles. Should you have questions or specific issues or goals a consultation with a local Registered Dietician or similar respected professional can be worthwhile.