As an athlete, what should you be eating and drinking? This is a question that probably dates back to prehistoric times. Ancient warriors took part in ritual meals that promised to heighten their strength and stamina in battle. Thankfully, few of us feel that the stakes are that high when we step on the pitch. Yet a gigantic industry has been built to support us in our relentless pursuit of peak athletic performance. For the small percentage of folks in the world whose livelihood is dependent upon an apparently small competitive edge, it is likely the case that some drinks, supplements, and powders offer real help. However, corporations know how to make money, and the cash doesn’t flow if the market is limited to high level professional athletes. Instead, by marketing to the everyman, and in many cases, to the kids, the industry has grown. You cannot seriously believe that they have your well-being in mind, so the question remains: what should you be eating and drinking?
I am astounded at the array of “performance boosting” crap that I see kids with at training, or hear them talk about. As I discuss at the end of this post, a healthy kid being fed a nutritious diet shouldn’t need to be “boosted” during a game or training session. Why do we buy this stuff?
Sports/Energy Drinks. A certain university in a southeastern US state popularized the idea that we need more than water to replenish the precious electrolytes lost as we perspire, while also providing a carbohydrate-based energy boost. In principle, there is little incorrect about this notion in the case of long periods of exertion in hot weather, where massive amounts of water and electrolyte are lost, and glycogen stores are exhausted. For most cases of perspiration, however, drinking water should be sufficient to maintain good hydration – the extra stuff isn’t needed by most people. This is even pointed out in a review article from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute itself. Furthermore, most youth athletes are probably not expending all of their glycogen during normal activity, so the sugar boost is unnecessary. Put simply, if your kid is going to play a 3v3 tournament in the middle of a Georgia summer day, maybe some sports drink is warranted. Sending young players to a standard evening training session with two bottles of the sugary stuff is pretty silly, however.
The whole energy drink craze is even scarier. We get our energy in the form of calories from food. Your body burns fat and carbohydrate producing energy in the form of ATP, which you then use to power all of your body processes. One can feel “energized” by ingesting stimulants such as caffeine, taurine, and the like, but they don’t really give you more energy. It is beyond me why an adult would boost a kid with a drink that simply messes with the child’s neurochemistry. If the kid is being fed correctly, and is getting enough sleep, sunshine, fresh air, and positive feedback, his/her mental state will be just fine for accessing all of that youthful energy. An “energy boost” shouldn’t be needed.
Protein Supplements/Mass Gainers. Seriously? I feel like I shouldn’t even have to go here, but I evidently do. Growing young bodies need a range of macronutrients for proper development. Fat, carbohydrate, and protein from whole, unprocessed food is the ideal way to provide those nutrients. Why give a kid a protein supplement? It won’t be cheaper than an egg and some bacon, and it certainly won’t be tastier. Feel like your child needs to build some muscle? Provide good food and then send him/her out to play – nothing could be better. Don’t mess up the wonderful, highly evolved process of childhood development by injecting “sports science” into the equation.
“Nutrition” Bars. This is a bit of a murky area, to be sure. Trust me – I have been there. Out on the field with back-to-back-to-back games during a tournament – no time to get a real meal and no desire to have a concession stand hot dog. What could be more perfect than a nutrition or meal-replacement bar of some sort? In that scenario, I would certainly choose a good portable bar over the hot dog, but beyond that, I would stay away from using them liberally as meal replacements. Most bars contain a bunch of sugar, and are no better than a candy bar in many instances (read the labels – you will be surprised). For some good options that are lower in carbohydrate and processed sugars, you might check out Steve’s Original or Tanka Bars.
Ok, so that is what you SHOULD NOT be doing. I still haven’t answered the key question: what should I be eating and drinking? We as trainers have been handed down an oral and written history of what our players should be consuming. Much of that lore is outdated, based on incorrect assumptions, derived from misinterpreted research, or extrapolated from work with elite athletes for whom a 1% improvement is important. That same 1% improvement in a 10 year old soccer player is meaningless. Worse yet, the dietary recommendations I hear coaches spout never seem to consider that a diet is not “one size fits all”. Individuals need to figure out what works best for them. Most importantly, we are dealing with growing kids for whom a long, happy, healthy life is the primary goal. We should not be jeopardizing that for insignificant or non-existent improvements in athletic performance. In my next post, I will delve a bit more deeply into this, and make some recommendations for how to fuel the young athlete. In the meantime, you will be in fantastic shape if you steer clear from the packaged and processed stuff. Hydrate with water, eat real food, and go outside to play.