Teenage Athletes and Sports Nutrition

I want to address the issue of sports nutrition for young athletes. It has been something that has been on my mind for a long time, but I never seem to find the time to formalise my view in an article until now. More and more at ACLAÍ Health and Performance, we are becoming known for our no-nonsense, straight to the point approach to training and nutrition, and with regards youth sports nutrition, our approach is the same.

To set the scene for this post, it is important to know that over the past 10 years I have worked with many teams and athletes, and in particular, I have spent a lot of time working with 14-18 year old athletes, squads, and teams. Just like Youth Strength and Conditioning, there are many misconceptions surrounding what and how young athletes should feed their bodies. From protein requirements, calcium, and supplements, the Internet is afloat with promises and testimonials about what you should be doing. Some of it is valid, and some of it is marketing, so in this post I want to separate the good from the bad, and give you some guidelines about how to approach the young athlete and their nutrition.

Covering the Basics

The importance of covering the basic components of a sound nutrition plan cannot be underestimated. At ACLAÍ, we have a very simple, but most effective nutrition system that has just as much importance to the young athletes as it does the senior competitor. In essence, the basics covers 6 elements:

  1. Sleep
  2. Hydration
  3. Nutrient Timing
  4. Eating Whole-foods
  5. Eating Gluten Free

Check out our Nutrition Pyramid for more detail on our simple system. This system is so effective that I have seen an average of 3% decrease in bodyfat and substantial increases in muscle and strength over a 3-month period with a squad of elite athletes, so the effectiveness of this system is clear.

The reason for highlighting our Nutrition Pyramid is because is forms the foundation for success in sport from a nutrition point of view, and must be mastered before any athlete can move on to the more technical elements of tweaking a nutrition plan. The vast majority of athletes could spent months just perfecting their Nutrition Pyramid, and would need no more advice outside of this. It is particularly pertinent to the youth athlete, as our system focuses on wholefoods, is very nutrient dense, and is based on forming positive lifestyle habits from the very beginning. If a youth athlete can master the Nutrition Pyramid, their potential will explode as they move to the adult grades. It is worth noting here that the results our adult athletes see when they implement our nutrition system are superb, but they all need to go through the steps of getting up to speed on the basics. If you can achieve this as a youth coach with your athletes, or if you are a youth athlete yourself, then you are going to be years ahead of most people by the time you are playing in the big leagues.

Nutrition Supplementation

Discussing the merits of the ACLAÍ Nutrition Pyramid leads me nicely into a brief discussion of supplementation for youth athletes. This is a controversial issue, and should be approached with care. Young athletes need to develop healthy nutritional habits for life, and the sooner they do that the better. This means investing time and effort into preparing food in advance, and bringing it to Training/ School etc. Unless there is a specific medical reason for supplementation, youth athletes do not require additional systematic supplementation such as protein, amino acids, multi vitamins etc. There is more than enough nutrition to be found in real whole foods, the cost is less, and the benefits for later in life far outweigh any short-term benefits that you will get from supplementing with powders and capsules.

However, from time to time, there may be a case for some choice supplementation, but this should be on the advice of a qualified professional such as a sports nutritionist, sports scientist, or GP. These situations may include:

  • A bout of multi-vitamins to help with periods of high stress (during exams, coming back from injury, getting run down),
  • High grade fish oil supplementation to promote healing and reducing inflammation (this is one supplement that is more like a food serving and can be consumed more regularly)
  • A protein supplement when the training load is exceptionally high and getting real food in is difficult (while on camp, or when doing very early sessions before school or double sessions)
  • Specific vitamins or minerals that are advised during particular periods of training, or to address a specific deficiency that is identified by a qualified professional.

The Supplement Warning:

It is very important to note that the specific situations mentioned above where supplementation should be implemented ONLY on the advice of a qualified professional, and only for a finite time (i.e. not indefinitely). It should also be noted that if you are taking a supplement to address a particular issue (for example, fish oil to reduce inflammation in an injured area), then the key to success is to back your supplementation up with an increased focus on quality nutrition (refer to the ACLAÍ Nutrition Pyramid), and sensible, guided training. The information provided here is simply a guide based on our own expertise and experience, but you should seek the advice of a professional before embarking or investing in nutritional supplements.