Fuel for Sports – what and when should teenagers eat?

Monday, March 29, 2021


Do you love sport? Whether you’re playing team sports, or exercising in your own time, how can you best fuel your body to help both during exercise and with recovery? Are sports drinks and protein shakes really necessary?

Let’s start with a quick overview of how we fuel our bodies for exercise and growth.

Carbohydrates (found in fruits, vegetables, cereals, grains such as rice and wheat) are needed for most activities. Carbs break down into glucose, which can be stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles. Glycogen provides much of your energy for exercise. If you don’t have enough glycogen stores, you will get tired faster may not be able to train at your highest intensity level. Also, your body will start to look for other sources of energy, such as protein and fat stores – which are also needed for growth, muscle repair and lots more in our bodies.

Which brings us to protein. Protein is found in meat, chicken, fish, nuts, eggs, seeds, grains, dairy, vegetables and legumes (e.g., chickpeas, beans, lentils). Exercises stimulates muscle growth; muscles (just like the rest of your body) need protein to grow and develop. Growing teenagers need plenty of protein; if you’re also doing lots of exercise, you need protein throughout the day, with both main meals and snacks.

Fats are essential for ensuring we absorb fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E and K), for skin health, our immune system, hormone production and much more. Quality fats include those found in nuts and seeds, avocado, extra virgin olive oil and fatty fish such as salmon.

If we need carbs, protein and fats for our general growth and development, what does that mean for those of us doing lots of exercising? How much more do we need? The simple answer is: it depends. It depends on how much you are exercising, the type of exercise, the extent of training and recovery time, timing of your exercise and where you are in your stages of growth.

If you are playing sport once or twice a week, training once or twice a week, getting around an hour of exercise each day, three main meals and a couple of snacks, plus plenty of water, should be enough. However, it’s important to time your meals around your exercise. Main meals should be a couple of hours before exercise; snacks around one hour before or within an hour after exercise. Make sure you have a mix of carbs, protein and fats with your main meals. Snacks can combine protein with carbs or healthy fats, e.g., fruit or yoghurt with a handful of nuts; protein ball made with dates and nuts; wholegrain crackers with cheese.

What about sports drinks?

If you are training or playing sport for longer than 90 minutes, you may need some extra electrolytes like those found in sports drinks, especially if you are outside in warm weather. Unfortunately, commercial sports drinks usually have lots of unnecessary added sugar. Try unsweetened options such as Hydralite or a sports-based electrolyte powder that you can mix up yourself on game day. Alternatively, add a pinch of salt to your water bottle on hot days to help replace what you lose in sweat.

In general, making sure you are sipping water throughout your training and games and drinking plenty of water afterwards will be enough to keep you hydrated.

And protein powder? 

Again, this depends on individual circumstances. Generally, if you are eating three meals a day plus a couple of snacks, you are likely to be consuming plenty of protein, so protein powder may not be necessary. But it is a convenient way to get some extra protein if you are short on time – such as when you’re running out the door without breakfast. In this instance, adding a scoop of protein powder to a smoothie isn’t a bad breakfast option.

If your sport commitments mean you regularly train or play more than an hour a day, if you are always tired or often get injured, make an appointment to see me. I’ll do a comprehensive assessment of your needs and together we’ll work out how to ensure you are fuelling your body for success.

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