Athletes, especially younger athletes, must pay attention to their nutritional status to maximize their performance and achieve optimal results. Many young athletes, most often females, do not eat enough to fuel their growing bodies and their athletic activity. Pre-competition meals are especially important for athletes. Pre-competition meals and snacks are what provide the nutrients and energy needed for performance. The composition of pre-competition meals should be given special consideration and tailored to fit the individual athlete.
Pre-competition meals should be composed mainly of complex carbohydrates and proteins. Carbohydrates provide the energy needed to compete. Complex carbohydrates such as pastas, rice, whole-grain cereals and breads are the best choices. Simple carbohydrates such as sodas and pre-packaged snack items are high in calories and sugar, but low in beneficial nutrients that provide energy.
Approximately 50 to 60 percent of a pre-competition meal should consist of complex carbohydrates. Lean meats, nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy products are good choices for the protein portion of a pre-competition meal. Although protein is important for pre-competition meals, it needs to be consumed in much smaller amounts than carbohydrates. Fifteen to 20 percent of the meal should be devoted to protein sources. A small amount of fat is also necessary for young athletes to function properly. Peanut butter, nuts, seeds and reduced-fat cheeses are items that provide healthy levels of unsaturated fats.
A meal should be consumed approximately two to four hours prior to athletic competition. This allows for digestion time and helps young athletes avoid stomach upset and discomfort. A small snack can be beneficial approximately two hours prior to competition if a meal is eaten further out from the event. Appropriate snacks include bananas, low-fat yogurt, whole-grain bread with peanut butter and bagels. Snacks should limit fiber and fats, as these digest slower and can lead to discomfort.
Hydration is vital to athletic performance and overall health. Young children are at an increased risk of dehydration and heat-related illnesses, increasing their need to stay adequately hydrated. Athletes should consume water with pre-competition meals and snacks and alone up until the competition. Sports drinks are not necessary for pre-competition meals. Sports drinks contain electrolytes that help restore those that are lost during prolonged activity. These are more appropriate for during competition and recovery hydration. Athletes should consume water and fluids throughout competition when possible. Time-outs are perfect opportunities for rehydration.
For young athletes who compete in athletic events that take extended time such as triathlons, track meets, tennis matches and football games, mid-game snacks may be needed. Fresh fruit, sports drinks, granola bars and graham crackers are easily-consumed foods that are appropriate for mid-competition snacks. Everyone digests foods at a different rate and tolerates foods slightly differently. Athletes who have diabetes should pay special attention to pre-competition nutrition and monitor their blood sugar levels appropriately.