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Fuel for Young Athletes: Tips and Strategies

Fall sports are in full swing, but do you know what to feed your young athlete before, during and after games? Americans spend billions of dollars on specialized coaching and personal trainers (guilty!), so shouldn’t we pay attention to what these kids eat? After all, food is fuel, the fuel that sustains them during long and arduous practices, games and tournaments. But did you know young athletes are NOT like regular kids? Here are a few reasons why and strategies to keep them well fueled:

Young Athletes are NOT like regular kids
Young athletes are like expensive racecars; they need high quality fuel, and a lot of it! These kids/teens are not only spending lots of calories in order to grow, they have significant additional demands to keep up with their sports. Young athletes need to eat a lot and eat often. If they do not give their bodies adequate fuel, they will have less energy than their peers, they are more likely to get sick or injured, and their training will be inadequate.

Consistency is the KEY
It is important for young athletes to realize that they need to pay attention to what they eat throughout the entire season, not just before games. It’s nice to think that it’s OK to eat junk all week as long as they have a good “pre-game” meal. Unfortunately, this is not how it works!

It’s all in the Glycogen
Glycogen is our reserve energy; it’s what prevents athletes from “running out of gas,” or “hitting the wall.” However, it is important to realize that this glycogen is produced in the body 2-3 days BEFORE it’s actually used. This means that the meal they eat today will fuel their workout or game in 2-3 days! I always tell my teams: ” The regular training diet is actually more important than the pre-game meal.”

What should young athletes Eat every day?
On a daily basis, it is important that young athletes eat a variety of foods and eat at least 3 meals and 2 snacks with no more than 4 hours between meals. Meals should consist of mostly carbohydrates (from fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains), a small amount of protein and some healthy fats… and don’t forget the fluids! (more on this later). Foods to Avoid: foods high in saturated fats and sugars like candy, chips, cookies, and most fast foods.

About Doctor Jacq
Jacqueline Winkelmann, M.D. – known to many as “Doctor Jacq” – is a Board Certified Pediatrician (and Chief of Staff at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital) with a special interest in Childhood Nutrition and Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes. However, Doctor Jacq is not only a Pediatrician and Nutrition Expert – she’s a dedicated Chef and Mother of two young athletes; Ryan, age 8, and ice hockey player, and Megan, 13, a competitive figure skater. Learn more from Doctor Jacq and follow her Blog at

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One Comment

  1. What a sweet picture of that little girl! It’s fantastic to keep the little ones active and help them learn about teamwork and have a little fun through team sports. However the information about glycogen was news to me! Thanks for sharing this information, it’s clearly important to alter your little one’s diet according to their activities.

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