Fueling For Sports Performance

Registered Dietitian Connie Liakos, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, is available to counsel child and teen athletes from the Portland, Oregon metro area.  She has worked with all types of athletes from recreational to elite competitors. She is board certified as a sports science dietitian.

Does your young athlete have a tough time making it through the week? While many factors can come into play, underfueling is a prime reason that student athletes run out of gas a few days into the week. In addition to taking a rest day, eating enough of the right foods can make a big difference in energy level and athletic performance.

Low Energy Availability

When an athlete is not eating enough calories to meet basic body needs, this is known as Low Energy Availability (LEA), commonly referred to as underfueling. For a child or teen athlete, a proper diet supplies the calories and nutrients needed for activity, growth, development, repair, and replenishment of energy stores. Failing to eat enough of the right foods at the right times can result in health problems, poor athletic performance and even impaired mental functioning.

While it seems logical that the athlete with LEA will lose weight, that is not always the case. In fact, underfueling can actually make it more difficult to achieve a healthy weight because eating too few calories over time results in a lowered metabolic rate (metabolic rate is a measure of the body’s use of energy). When metabolic rate decreases, a slowdown occurs and fewer calories are burned both at rest and during activity.

Some signs that an athlete may be experiencing LEA include some or all of the following:

  • Difficulty making it through practice or games/events
  • Increased risk of injury or illness
  • Prolonged recovery times after workouts or games/events
  • Change in mood, including irritability and anxiety
  • Unusual change in weight (weight loss or gain)
  • Fatigue
  • Low bone density with increased risk of fracture
  • Loss of or delay in menstrual cycles
  • Decline in growth percentiles

Preventing LEA

The demands of growth, development, and physical activity in the child or teen athlete require regular meals and snacks to meet these needs. Meal skipping, low carbohydrate intake and failure to pack appropriate snacks are common contributors to LEA.

Everyday Diet

The more active the child, the more carbohydrate is needed to fuel the work of the muscles. Fatigue, “burn out,” weight loss and lack of stamina can all be signs that muscle glycogen stores are low or depleted. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrate in muscle cells that fuels muscle work. Nutrient-rich carbohydrates such as milk, whole fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, and whole grain varieties of rice, pasta, bread, bagels or tortillas provide both nutrients and the carbohydrates needed to fuel exercise or sports.

Encourage your young athlete to skip the meal skipping. Start every day with a balanced breakfast and be sure to fuel up with a healthy lunch at school. Since many sports begin right after school, your child may need to pack healthy energy/protein bars (look for at least 9 grams protein and fewer than 12 grams sugar/bar), trail mix, nuts, seeds, small containers of nut butter, whole grain crackers and dried or fresh fruit to snack on 1-2 hours before practice.

When there’s time after school, choose snacks that will keep your athlete fueled and strong. Greek yogurt and fresh fruit, whole grain cereal with milk or a tuna sandwich on whole grain bread are examples of quick, healthy choices.

While healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds and fatty fish are an important component of the diet, limit fatty foods right before a workout. Fat takes longer to digest than carbohydrate or protein, so especially avoid greasy foods such as chips, fries and candy bars before practice or games.

Recovery Eating

Help your child recover from activity by providing plenty of fluids and a nutritious meal or snack such as a bean and cheese burrito, lean beef vegetable soup or a slice of veggie pizza. Post-exercise snacks should ideally be provided within 30 minutes and include both carbohydrates as well as some protein.  A ratio of 3-4 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein is ideal for the young athlete. Examples of recovery snacks in this ratio are listed below. Adjust portions to meet the need of your hungry young athlete.

– 1 slice whole wheat bread, 1 tbsp. peanut butter, ½ cup grapes

– 1 cup low sugar cereal, 4 medium strawberries, ½ cup milk

– 6 oz. cup vanilla Greek yogurt, 1 small banana

– ¼ cup hummus, 6 whole grain crackers, 1 medium carrot, cut into sticks

When to Get Help

If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing LEA, be sure to talk to your pediatrician and dietitian. A registered dietitian with expertise in working with young athletes can help to assess, make recommendations and come up with solutions for fueling your child for both life and sports.


Registered Dietitian Connie Liakos, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, is available to counsel child and teen athletes from the Portland metro area.  She has worked with all types of athletes from recreational to elite competitors. She is board certified as a sports science dietitian.

Source: Fueling For Sports Performance: Pediatric Associates of the NW

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