To be in top condition for competition young athletes need proper nutrition – even more than their older counterparts do.
"Adolescence is the major growth time for everybody, but boys and girls participating in organized sports are depleting their bodies of energy and proteins and carbohydrates while their bodies are trying to grow, so it's kind of a double whammy for them," said Christopher Ina, M.A., athletic training coordinator at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "That's why we stress to high school athletes that they need to eat properly, stay hydrated and get enough sleep to keep up with what their bodies need. If they don't, their body is going to fall behind and they won't be able to perform at their best."
In his position at Wake Forest Baptist, Ina coordinates all athletic training services and manages the outreach program that contracts certified athletic trainers to 12 public high schools in a partnership between the medical center and the local city-county school district. Those are full-time jobs that involve far more than dashing from the sidelines to treat athletes who get injured during games, matches or meets.
"Emergency care and injury management are definitely important, but the main goal of athletic trainers is prevention of injuries," said Ina, a certified and state-licensed athletic trainer who spent 15 years as an assistant trainer at Wake Forest University, working primarily with the football and men's tennis teams. "That's where nutrition comes in. We want the kids to be in the best shape possible, and healthy eating is part of that."
A balanced diet – one that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry and fish while limiting fats, salt and added sugars – is recommended for just about everybody, but for high school-age athletes eating right also includes eating at the right times.
"One of the big elements of nutrition for sports is timing," Ina said. "In addition to eating balanced meals young athletes need to know when to eat what types of food to allow enough time for the digestion and absorption of the nutrients they need to perform."
Loading up on carbohydrates the night before a competition works well for virtually all athletes, regardless of their particular sport or event, Ina said. But things are definitely different on game day.
"It all depends on what time you're performing," he said. "If you have a game in the morning, breakfast is really important. If it's later in the day or at night, you need to have a good breakfast but you also have to make sure to eat a good but not too heavy meal at least a couple of hours before the game or match, then maybe only a small, light snack about an hour before, so you won't feel tired or sluggish."
Attaining or maintaining optimum "playing weight" over the course of a season is important in most sports. Some young athletes – such as wrestlers attempting to drop weight and football linemen looking to put on more pounds – can go to unhealthy extremes in this regard, but Ina said there are ways to gain or lose weight within the confines of eating properly.
"Nutrition is basically calories in, calories out," he said. "If you want to lose weight you should stick to lean proteins and stay away from heavy carbohydrates like pasta and bread. It's just the opposite if you're trying to gain some weight. You need to take in more calories than you burn up in a day. And research has found that instead of eating three big, heavy meals it's better to have smaller bites throughout the day to keep your body continuously fueled."
Getting teenage athletes to adopt healthier habits isn't as difficult as it might seem, Ina said.
"Most of the kids are shooting for college scholarships, they want to get better, to take their game to the next level," he said. "Simple things like proper nutrition, staying hydrated and getting enough sleep really can help them do better on the field. Once they come to realize that, to buy into it, they start to see that their performance does improve."
But it's not all up to the athletes themselves. To stick to a healthy diet high school-age competitors need help, especially at home. And that can pose problems.
"The family's eating habits are probably the hardest factor in this," Ina said. "The kids aren't making the food choices. It's mom or dad going to the grocery store and they have their budget and they're doing the best they can for the family. It might help if the young athlete went to the grocery store with them and helped them pick out some things that are little more nutritious – whole-grain bread instead of white bread, for example – that you don't have to spend a lot of money on.
"You can eat healthier without necessarily spending more. Chicken costs about the same as hamburger meat or some convenience food, a piece of fruit is less than a bag of chips, and McDonald's and other fast-food places served grilled chicken, so there are options out there."
But does all this mean young athletes have to totally steer clear of the pizza, cheeseburgers, fries, and other tempting treats that their classmates are consuming?
"No, that's impossible," Ina said. "But moderation is the key. Athletes can eat pizza and stuff like that, just not all the time. And definitely not before a game. But after the game? Sure, that's fine."