Sports Nutrition for Youth Athletes, 12 &under….Part1

My cute nephew (in kindergarten)

My cute nephew (in kindergarten)

Two weeks ago I spoke at the International Swim Coaches Association in Florida. I did two talks, both geared towards swim coaches who coached different ages. The one group was the youth swimmers, these were 12&under athletes. The other group was the senior athletes, these were the 13&up. It’s a bit strange to call 13 year olds seniors, but that’s the way they do it in swimming. Since there are many other sports that have active youth participation, I thought it would be good to bring a focus to basic sports nutrition for all youth athletes. I’m going to split this into several blogs, as it’s a lot of info to cover. I’m going to start with overall nutrition and carbohydrates.

*Reminder to note, the guidelines listed in the blog below are based on an average athlete and may not be appropriate for all youth athletes. If you are concerned, please reach out to your physician, send me a question or reach out to a local sports nutritionist/dietician.

First and foremost. This should seem common, however I need to say it again. The nutrition for youth athletes of this age group should be primarily focused on:

  1. Health
  2. Growth
  3. Performance

Take note, performance is third. I’ve seen too many parents and coaches forget that the primary focus on athletes this age should be overall good nutrition, developing good nutrition habits and learning why sports nutrition is important. While achieving success in sport is great, youth of these age groups should be primarily focused on skill development, having fun and trying multiple sports. That’s for another blog though, let’s stick with nutrition today.

What Does A Typical Youth Athlete Need? (assuming training 4-6 days per week, 6-9 hours per week)

  • This applies to both team sports or individual sports, however with some sports you end up standing around quite a bit. These numbers are for athletes that are fairly active for all 6-9 hours. A good example is a gymnast.  They might practice 1-3 hours at a time, however they aren’t active for the entire time. Each apparatus means short interval type work. 10min work, 15min break, 10min work, etc. So when thinking of your athlete, think about the time they are actually exercising. Then compare it to what I am suggesting.
  • Surprisingly, youth athletes have similar nutrient and calorie needs to adults
  • Youth of this age do not store glycogen as easily or as abundantly as older youth or adults do. They use more fat as a fuel source then adults or older youth athletes. This is not to say that they need to consume more fat though. It does mean that parents need to make sure they have carbohydrate based foods and snacks available for their athletes, to replenish the smaller stores.

12&Under Athletes:

Male: 2000-2500kcal

  • 45-55% carbohydrate, 5-8g/kg/day i.e. 225-312g/day
  • 15-30% protein, .8g/lb or 1-1.5g/kg/day i.e. 75-90g/day
  • 25-35% fat, 77-97g/day

Female: 2000-2200kcal

  • 45-55% carbohydrate, 5-8g/kg/day i.e.225-275g/day
  • 15-30% protein, .8g/lb or 1-1.5g/kg/day i.e. 75-83g/day
  • 25-35% fat, 77-85g/day


Carbohydrates Why are they So Important?

  1. Carbohydrates=glycogen
  2. Our body uses glycogen to fuel our muscles
  3. Without enough fuel on board, our energy fizzles out, just like gas in a car-no gas, the car doesn’t run
  4. Include them in your  everyday diet: whole grains, fruits and vegetables i.e. whole wheat bread/pasta, brown rice, quinoa, bananas, potatoes
  5. Competition diet: lighter on the fiber if nervous stomach/GI issues: smoothies/liquid nutrition, bananas, “white breads”

*One of my sayings is, your competition diet is the exact opposite of your everyday diet. Your daily diet should consist of complex carbohydrates (like whole grain bread, beans, legumes,etc) which have a lot of fiber. If someone has a nervous stomach or feels bloated or gassy, switching to “white” products (this means more refined) is actually fine, and can be beneficial. The simple sugars found in these products are used very quickly by the body for energy, as they don’t have to be broken down as much, and don’t contain as much fiber. One of my favorites was pancakes. My dad would make me “white” pancakes before swim meets. On a normal day, whole grains were the norm.


What About Sugar? Is it as Harmful as the Media Portrays It?

  • The media preaches the evil of sugar, thus the rise in the low carb and paleo diets. What parents need to realize is, sedentary youth and adults are very different from active youth. I have no problem with sedentary adults reducing their carbohydrate intake, I do have problems with active youth (and adults) doing this. Sedentary youth need to maintain a good balance, and I don’t want youth believing they are on “diets.”
  • Sugar is another name for glucose/glycogen; the fuel we need for training and racing. So how could what we need be harmful? The answer, it’s not. As long as you are just before exercise, during exercise or just after exercise, sugar is not going to cause negative effects. You body is preparing for exercise and topping off your glycogen stores, it’s using the glycogen stores or it’s replenishing the depleted stores from exercise.
  • So, pre, during or post exercise, foods with added sugar/high amounts of natural sugar are not harmful, they provide beneficial carbohydrates for working muscles.
  • The other times of the day when youth athletes are not training or competing, they should stick with natural sugar (fruits, veggies, dairy). Also, reduce added sugar during the day-no Gatorade during class.
  • Sports drinks are fine. As long as they are right before, during and after exercise. Hence, no Gatorade during school. But if your child doesn’t have an easy way to consume calories or carbohydrates while exercising, drinking a sports drink is not a problem. Sure there are some sports drinks I prefer over others, but I want to just get it out there that no, sports drinks aren’t bad, they have a time and a place.

When Should You Take in Carbs vs When Don’t you Need Them?

  • Exercise Less than 30min: No, water is fine
  • Exercise 30-60min: No, water should be fine-you can have added electrolytes if it’s a hot day (i.e. Nuun tabs)
  • Exercise 60+min: Yes, when you’re training or competing over 1 hour, having carbohydrates added into your drink or as a snack can be beneficial

How Many Carbs Should you Take?

  • Pre-exercise-Less than 30min before: >.5g of carb per lb body weight (less than 100kal)- keep the carbs liquid (easy to digest) like a smoothie or sports drink
  • Pre-exercise 30-60min before: .5g of carb per lb body weight (100-150kcal)-keep the carbs liquid to semi liquid-smoothie, applesauce, sports chews
  • Pre-exercise 1-3 hours before: .5-1g of carb per lb body weight (150-300kcal)-can be of any consistency-fruit, sandwich, cereal, dried fruit
  • Pre-exercise 3-4 hours before: 1-1.5g of carb per lb body weight (300-600kcal)-full meals-pasta with meat sauce, cooked veggies, roll

How Many Carbs Should you Consume During your Training or Competition?
– 20-40g of carb per hour-think sports drink, sport chews, pretzels, bananas


Should you Carbo Load?

There is no need to do the traditional carbo load. Making sure your athlete has adequate carbohydrates before and during training and competition will ensure that they have glycogen stores that are topped off and ready for action. If they want to have pasta, go for it. They just don’t need to gorge themselves on it. Think about having a plate that has a 1/3 pasta, 1/3 veggies and 1/3 protein.

That’s a wrap on the 1st blog post for youth nutrition. Please feel free to ask me any questions, or share with fellow parents if you think it might be helpful.


3 thoughts on “Sports Nutrition for Youth Athletes, 12 &under….Part1

  1. Thank you Cristina! Great information. I have passed this to the familia! Several of my grandchildren are into sports and 1 is an athlete, She will really appreciate this info. My eldest grandson 12 yr is overweight and wants so much to be an athlete. He loves basketball. We struggle with how to approach the weight without diets.


    • It’s so hard when a youth athlete is overweight, and the last thing they want to do is eat more veggies and less goodies. What I found really helps is increasing the fiber (veggies, beans) and things that will cause a feeling of fullness, in addition to reducing processed foods and increasing protein. If they consume foods that have a high satiety factor, they will feel full longer and will eat less. Increasing the lean protein (have some at each meal and snack), will also help with this. Good luck! And thank you, he is quite the swimmer.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s