Natalie Digate Muth by Natalie Digate Muth

child athleteA growing number of kids engage in summertime sports and physical activities, and nutritional needs for those athletes vary depending on the intensity of their activity and the environment in which they play. For example, a soccer player engaging in a weekend tournament in hot weather who will play multiple games over the course of several days has different needs than a baseball outfielder who plays a single game on a cool summer evening.

Parents can gauge a child's refueling needs by addressing two questions:

Did the child break a sweat?

Kids that play for long enough, hard enough, or in hot enough weather to break a sweat need to make sure they consume sufficient fluids during and after exercise to make up for lost fluids. To be scientific, this means weighing a child pre- and post-exercise and making up for the lost weight (there are 16 ounces in one pound, so if a child lost 0.5 pound, he would need 8 ounces of fluids). To be less scientific, this is to remind a child to drink some fluids after exercise. If the exercise lasted longer than 1 hour or was particularly intense, a sports drink (particularly one that’s relatively high in sodium) may also help replace lost electrolytes.

Will the child engage in vigorous activity again within the next 24 hours?

If the answer to this question is "no," then the child should eat a normal diet after exercise (ideally one that's high in healthy whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean protein). If the answer is "yes," then a more strategic post-exercise refueling plan is in order to help quicken recovery and optimize athletic performance.

For optimal recovery, adults are advised to consume a carbohydrate-rich food within 30 minutes of finishing exercise and then have an overall increase in carbohydrate and protein intake every 2 hours for the next 4-6 hours to help replenish glycogen stores and rebuild muscles. Too little research has been done on kids to establish post-exercise nutrient recommendations. Generally, the same principles apply – the post-workout snack should be rich in carbohydrates and contain some protein.

For example, your child athlete may do well with a glass of low-fat chocolate milk or a granola bar with an orange shortly after a moderately strenuous practice or game. Or if an all-day tournament is under way, snacks that contain about 200 to 300 calories spaced throughout the day will help sustain energy. A post-game dinner of pizza loaded with veggies on a whole-wheat crust would give an athlete a good number of calories and nutrients to get her ready for the next day.

Ultimately, when it comes to youth sports nutrition, the goal is for your athlete to consume enough calories and fluids to fuel the exercise and enough nutrients to meet the body’s demands for growth and strength. The ideal foods will be high in carbohydrates and contain some protein.

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