Sports Nutrition for Youth Ages 13& Up…Part 1

My last few blogs covered sports nutrition for youth athletes 12 years old and under. Now I’ll focus on teenagers, age 13 and up. There will be several similarities and some things unique to this age group. Read on for more information.

*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.

As we go from younger athletes focused primarily on health, growth and then performance, we go to older youth athletes with similar but slightly different focuses. In my opinion performance should be in the third spot, however a lot of youth athletes in their teens will put it as #1. They will forgo things that they might need for overall health and growth, in order to do things that they believe will equal better performance.

The nutrition for older youth athletes should be primarily focused on:

  1. Overall Health-always the number one importance, no matter the age
  2. Growth-Puberty
  3. Performance/Recovery

By 13 years, most athletes know what foods they like and don’t like. Now it’s about teaching them specifics on when to eat specific foods, and how those foods will help them achieve their goals.

Overall health is always going to be number one in my book, and hopefully it will stay there as they progress throughout the rest of their lives. For most females, they have already started puberty, or will soon. Most male athletes will be starting puberty in these years, so nutrition for both sexes needs to be a primary focus. Male athletes might even appear to eat  you out of the house. Their body is growing and will usually need more food then you had thought was typical. This is also when females put on more body fat, and their hormones are changing. To them, this is not a good thing. This is good from a biological perspective, however to the athlete, it can cause a multitude of issues. Their body shape is changing, they are putting on weight, they might feel worse, the menstrual cycle starts (or a year or two earlier), etc.  Where food issues and disordered eating patterns might have been emerging in the younger years, these years are where full blown eating disorders develop.

Performance becomes a greater motivator starting in this age group. Team as well as individual sport athletes will be training 1-2x a day 5-6 days per week. Their body is going to be asked to do a lot to support their training and racing, and nutrition needs to be a priority. Nutrition can really make a huge difference in helping athletes to prepare for training, racing and recovering properly. Let’s take a swimmer as an example. A 15 year old swimmer might train 1 hour before school, and then another 2 hours after school. Recovering from their morning swim will be crucial to being prepared for their later swim. Making sure the right nutrients are consumed will help with this.

What Does A Typical Youth Athlete Need? (assuming training 5-6 days per week, 6-15 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 6-15 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.
  • Older youth athletes training at greater loads, or going through puberty will require more then the typical adult
  • Older youth have greater glycogen stores then their younger athletes do. Their body is much more similar to an adult and will have a greater emphasis on using glycogen.

13& up Athletes:

Male: 2500-3500kcal-some might be above 3500kcal, especially swimmers, runners or winter sports like x-country skiing

  • 50-60% carbohydrate, 6-10g/kg/day i.e. 312-450g/day
  • 15-25% protein, .8g/lb or 1-1.5g/kg/day i.e.115-180g/day
  • 20-35% fat, 83-100g/day

Female: 2200-2500kcal- some might be above 3000kcal, especially swimmers, runners or winter sports like x-country skiing

  • 50-60% carbohydrate, 6-10g/kg/day i.e. 275-375g/day
  • 15-25% protein, .8g/lb or 1-1.5g/kg/day i.e. 83-150g/day
  • 20-35% fat, 50-83g/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?
40-60g of carb per hour-think sports drink, sport chews, pretzels, bananas- 1 medium banana is 30g of carbohydrate as a reference

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. Athletes of these ages should already be consuming carbohydrates in the 6-10g/kg range. The upper end of this range, or 8-10g/kg is considered to be a carbo loading range.


Hydration is very important for youth of all ages. You may have heard that youth are more vulnerable to heat related conditions. This was believed to be true for a long time, however research is finding that this isn’t the case.

Compared to adults:

  • Youth have a greater surface area compared to their mass-they can effectively dissipate heat
  • Youth have lower sweat rates-their sweat glands are closer together, which allows for greater evaporation
  • Youth take longer to acclimatize to heat
  • Youth expend more energy doing the same activity-this is believed to be true because they are less bio-mechanically efficient
  • Youth regulate their body temperature as efficiently as adults

So really, youth have to worry about hydration to the same degree as adults. Here are some numbers:

Pre-exercise: consume 8-16oz of fluid

During exercise: consume 16-32oz of fluid per hour, along with 300-500mg of sodium

Post-exercise: consume 16-20oz of fluid, along with some sodium-coconut water is a good option.

Part 1, Youth 13& up is complete. Part 2 will feature protein/recovery, periodization of nutrition with exercise, disordered eating, supplements and more. Feel free to post any questions in the comments below, or share with anyone who might need help with this.



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