If you’re an athlete, you’ll know that some aspects of playing sports - how fast you grow, what team you’ll face next - are beyond your control. But there are two that you can control almost absolutely: the number of hours you practise, and what you eat. It may be tempting to rely on power bars and sports drinks, but there are far more meaningful daily food choices that can offer you an edge, especially when you require stamina for a wearying fourth quarter or a second game of the day.
It’s not just your nagging parents who say healthy food choices will improve your performance: American football player Melvin Gordon, of the San Diego Chargers, says that eating well gives him more energy and an advantage over other players, that water trumps sports drinks, that a well-balanced breakfast is key - and that everyone should start eating well at a young age.
Between the ages of 13 and 18, most of you will go through puberty and a huge period of growth, bringing obvious physical changes and an increase in the amount of energy you need. Studies show that poor eating can affect not only athletic performance but also overall growth and physical development, not to mention academic performance.
So how can you fuel yourselves best? Here’s some advice - advice that the pros follow, too.
When to eat
The night before a game: Begin regular hydration. Sipping water over an extended period of time is preferred over guzzling it quickly immediately before a game. Take a water bottle wherever you go, even to school.
Breakfast: Do not skip this meal, as it boosts energy and metabolism for the entire day. Breakfast eaters have been shown to have better concentration, increased problem-solving capabilities and quicker mental performance, in addition to better muscle energy.
Pre-workout meal: The ideal time for a meal is two to three hours before a game so the body has time to digest the food and use the nutrients. This might mean eating dinner immediately after school, then a lighter meal or snack after practice or a game.
According to US nutritionist Cynthia Lair’s book Feeding the Athlete, “it is critical to eat a healthy meal containing ample carbohydrates prior to a game or practice in order to have the muscle energy to play at your full potential ... When our glycogen levels are low, we become slower, weaker and less able to concentrate.” Stop eating one hour before a game or practice, as digestion will distract from performance and a full stomach is likely to cause cramps or other discomfort.
Halftime: The best halftime snack is watery fruit such as an orange, watermelon, grapes, pineapple or strawberries, all of which provide glucose and hydration yet don’t slow the body down.
After the game: Replenish immediately following a big game or workout. Studies show that an athlete’s muscles are able to restock glycogen more quickly if carbohydrates are consumed immediately following a game or practice. This is especially important if you have a second game that day or even one the following day.
What to eat
Carbohydrates turn into energy in the body faster than any other food source, so they are an essential part of an athlete’s diet, especially within 24 hours of a big game. Try fruits; vegetables; whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and quinoa; and whole-grain bread or pasta.
Protein is a longer-range source of energy, helping to build and repair muscle and tissue and also regulating muscle contraction and water in the body. Good sources are eggs, lean meats, fish, beans, nuts and seeds, and dairy. Teen athletes could use a little more protein than non-athletes, but it is a myth that you need large amounts. Stick to no more than 15 per cent of total calorie intake.
Fats are a secondary source of energy for the body. Fats build the brain, supporting quick thinking on the field. Good sources are avocados, nuts and seeds, fish, meat and olive oil.
Water supports all bodily functions. A 2013 report by the Canadian Paediatric Society said that “athletic performance can be affected by what, how much and when an athlete drinks”. Drink water before, during and following games, even if you are not thirsty.