Eating for Excellence
Young athletes have unique nutrition needs. Because athletes work out more than their less-active peers, they generally need extra calories to fuel both their sports performance and their growth. Depending on how active they are, young athletes may need anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 total calories per day to meet their energy needs.
What happens if young athletes don't eat enough? Their bodies are less likely to achieve peak performance and may even break down rather than build up muscles. Athletes who don't take in enough calories every day won't be as fast and as strong as they could be. And extreme calorie restriction could lead to growth problems and other serious health risks for both girls and boys.
Muscular Minerals and Vital Vitamins
Calcium helps build the strong bones that athletes depend on, and iron carries oxygen to muscles. Most young people don't get enough of these minerals, and that's especially true of young athletes because their needs may be even higher than those of other children.
To get the iron you need, eat lean red meats (meats with not much fat on them); grains that are fortified with iron; and green, leafy vegetables. Calcium — a must for protecting against stress fractures — is found in dairy foods, such as low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese.
In addition to calcium and iron, you need a whole bunch of other vitamins and minerals that do everything from help you access energy to keep you from getting sick. Eating a balanced diet, including lots of different fruit and veg, should provide the vitamins and minerals needed for good health and sports performance.
Athletes need slightly more protein than less-active teens, but most teen athletes get plenty of protein through regular eating. It's a myth that athletes need a huge daily intake of protein to build large, strong muscles.
Muscle growth comes from regular and hard training. Taking in too much protein can actually harm the body, causing dehydration, calcium loss and even kidney problems.
Good sources of protein include fish, lean meats and poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, soy, and peanut butter.
Carbohydrates provide athletes with an excellent source of fuel. Cutting back on carbs or following low-carb diets isn't a good idea for athletes because restricting carbohydrates can cause a person to feel tired and worn out, which ultimately affects performance.
Everyone needs a certain amount of fat each day, and this is particularly true for athletes. This is because active muscles quickly burn through carbs and need fats for long-lasting energy. Like carbs, not all fats are created equal.
Experts advise athletes to concentrate on healthier fats, such as the unsaturated fat found in most vegetable oils. Choosing when to eat fats is also important for athletes. Fatty foods can slow digestion, so it's a good idea to avoid eating these foods for a few hours before and after exercising.
Speaking of dehydration, water is just as important to unlock your performance power as food. When you sweat during exercise (which can go unnoticed when diving, as you are wet anyway), it's easy to become overheated, headachy, and worn out. Even mild dehydration can affect an athlete's physical and mental performance. It is therefore essential to have a water bottle with you on poolside.
Eating on Competition Days
Most of your body's energy on a competition day will come from the foods you've eaten over the past few days. But you can boost your performance even more by paying attention to the food you eat on the day. Strive for a competition-day diet rich in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat. Here are some guidelines on what to eat and when:
It's a good idea to avoid eating anything an hour before you compete or practice because digestion requires energy — energy that you want to use to win. Also, eating too soon before any kind of activity can leave food in the stomach, making you feel full, bloated, crampy, and sick.
Everyone is different, so get to know what works best for you. You may want to experiment with meal timings and how much to eat on practice/regular training days so that you are better prepared for competition day.
Click here for some athlete recipe ideas.