In, and Off-Season Nutrition for the High School Athlete

I have seen many sides of the high school athlete – as a former high school football player, football coach, and now occasional nutrition counselor for high school athletes, it can be an athletic population with several nutritional challenges.  From the start you have some young men and women who haven’t reached their full biological maturity, which means physiologically they require different amounts of fluids and foods than their peers in the same sport.  They also may face the unfortunate pressures of aesthetic appearance (thin women and muscular men) and may have a difficult family schedule with school, parents working, and multiple siblings all going in different directions.

Laying down the foundation of sound nutrition is the key to successfully navigating these challenges.  First things first, the most important, and prevalent, nutrient in the high school athlete’s body – water.  Maintaining hydration is key to optimal performance and health but can be challenging as athletes without full biological maturity do not sweat the same as adults and have a more difficult time cooling off.  They also do not prefer the flavor of plain water so flavored waters and sports drinks are advisable.  Next, no athlete can sustain regular intense training and competition without adequate energy (caloric) intake.  Signs of inadequate energy intake would be unwanted/unadvisable weight loss, chronic fatigue, and irregular menstrual function.  A balanced fueling plan that is not restrictive should provide adequate energy for the high school athlete.  Now on to some specific nutrients.

Carbs are fuel.  There’s no other way to put it.  Any intense training utilizes carbohydrates for fuel, and yes, there are some “endurance” athletics in high school, but those endurance events still require bursts of intense efforts to take the lead or finish a race.  Those bursts require carbohydrates.  Based on the type of sport and position, I recommend 1/3 – 2/3 of each meal include nutrient dense carbohydrates.

Proteins are the building blocks for so many parts of the high school athlete’s body and endocrine system.  By eating adequate carbohydrates, they allow proteins to do their best job to rebuild and repair damaged muscles.  When carbohydrate intake is low, they will breakdown body proteins (amino acids) into carbohydrates, making their training less effective.  Based on the type of sport and position, I recommend 15-40 grams of nutrient dense protein at each meal.  Including pistachios in the high school athlete’s diet as a portable, shelf stable snack or addition to recipes in meals adds an additional 6 g of protein in a one ounce serving.

Lastly, but not least, are essential fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D, and iron for the high school athlete.  Essential fatty acids are just that – essential for optimal health. They are key to brain health and development as well as wonderful nutrients for athletic recovery.  Calcium and vitamin D are necessary for the young athlete’s bone growth in a stage of life when bone grown can be maximized.  Iron is another key nutrient for the young athlete’s optimal growth and energy levels.

The timing of intake of all these nutrients plays another role.  If high school athletes eat within an hour of waking (breaking the fast) and eat both quality carbohydrates and protein every 4 hours, they will be most prepared for training and optimize the recovery of it. This can be difficult to accomplish but waking up with enough time to eat an adequate breakfast (which means getting to bed at an appropriate time), along with well-planned snacks and lunch, will set up the high school athlete for daily success.

The off-season for the high school athlete is also important as their training volume and intensity may be higher.  This is also the time when, appropriate, weight loss and weight gain should be achieved.  

Many high school athletes, like professionals, are looking for an edge over their competitors and/or desire quick changes to their body composition, so they look to supplements.  While I believe all energy and nutrient needs can be met through whole food, it is advisable to supplement with vitamins (vitamin D, iron) when deficiencies are present.