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

As a former high school football player, football coach, and now occasional nutrition counselor for high school athletes, I have seen many sides of the high school athletes. One of the sides involves several nutritional challenges. From the start, 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, working parents, 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 is water. Maintaining hydration is key to optimal performance and health but can be challenging. Athletes without full biological maturity do not sweat the same as adults, and they 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; however, 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 many parts of the high school athlete’s body and endocrine system. Eating adequate carbohydrates allows proteins to rebuild and repair damaged muscles. When carbohydrate intake is low, the muscles will breakdown body proteins (amino acids) into carbohydrates, making 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 an addition to recipes in meals adds an additional 6 grams of protein in a one-ounce serving.

Last 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 and can maximize a young athlete’s stage of rapid bone growth. Iron is another key nutrient for the young athlete’s optimal growth and energy levels.

The timing of nutritional intake 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, their body will be optimized for both training recovery. It 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.

In the off-season 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, look 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 vitamin D and iron when deficiencies are present.