Aug 21, 2012

Athletes Back to School Nutrition

Dear Friends,

As we send our kids back to school (especially our young athletes) its important to remember nutrition from natural sources, less supplementation and removing processed foods that are high in fat, triglycerides and cholesterol's.

Here is a great article from Swim Science that applies to all sports, including softball, football and even cheer leading:

Back to school nutrition is one of many changes swimmers face as they head back to school. In this post we’ll discuss some important considerations for keeping young swimmers optimally fueled during the school year.  It’s ironic that coaches will plan workouts down to the second, rely on high tech video cameras to correct strokes,  we’ll remove hair from the entire body to save hundredths of a second during championships, yet nutrition is often an unregulated free-for-all.    

Meal Timing
Does anyone see the irony of athletes (all ages) boasting of their dedication to train twice a day for 5-6 hours, yet they can’t devote ten minutes to preparing a halfway decent breakfast?  Swimmers partially get a pass here due to getting up long before dawn, but preparing a smoothie or finding something moderately nutritious still takes less time than the drive through at McDonald's!

Although breakfast is generally accepted as important, there’s surprisingly little research formalizing its value in youth athletes.  That said, commonsense indicates the importance of a stable blood sugar throughout the day, plus the need for adequate calorie intake. Better to fuel more regularly during the by including breakfast, rather than make up for calorie deficit later in the day (or run a chronic deficit).  Preparation for afternoon practice starts the moment you wake up.

Despite the obesity epidemic in the general population, young swimmers often have difficulty consuming adequate nutrients.  Not only may chronic malnourishment result in poor performance, it may also result in poor health and increased rehab time.  Nothing is more frustrating to athletes of any age than to do all the right things for prevention and rehab of musculoskeletal injuries only to make no progress.  Sometimes injuries are more than just muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones.

Studies have shown that poor nutrition, especially in female athletes, is significantly correlated with musculoskeletal injury (Reinking 2006, Rauh 2010).  Though we might surmise that ground contact might cause most injuries in terrestrial sports, the latter study (Rauh 2010)did include swimmers.  Authors did not find a statistically significant relationship of any particular sport driving the overall results.  The exact mechanism behind the nutrition/injury connection is unclear (lack of nutrients,persistence of inflammation, hormonal stress are three possible areas), but it is clear that better nutrition can have protective and recuperative effects in young swimmers.

Energy drinks often augment or replace meals, especially during the school year.  It’s a quick and easy solution when morning homeroom starts a mere thirty minutes after the last set ends in the pool.  Kids (and adults) don’t get enough sleep which can lead to lasting fatigue when coupled with training hard and having a heavy load at school,.  Woe to the kid that misses intervals in practice but tries to blame last night’s science project and last week’s midterms for slow swimming.  What’s the quick and easy solution…

One thorny area is the distinction between energy drinks and sports drinks.  Though sports drinks (Gatorade, Powerade, etc) are generally deemed safe and effective for young swimmers, energy drinks(Red Bull, Rockstar) are still uncertain. Because they are so new, there simply isn’t much non-company sponsored research on young athletes on which to evaluate their safety.  Still, sports drinks aren’t entirely risk free due to their high calorie and sugar content.  As for energy drinks, the American Council of Sports Medicine (2010) notes,

“Using energy drinks instead of sports drinks for rehydration can result in ingestion of potentially large amounts of caffeine or other stimulant substances and the adverse effects previously described. Of additional concern is the intentional use of energy drinks by adolescents who desire stimulant effects to combat fatigue and increase energy during sports and school activities.”

Supplements vs. Real Food
We adults, as a whole, do a poor job of providing kids with optimal nutrition choices, and ironically the situation doesn’timprove at sporting venues.  In one study from Australia, “Parents reported that their child's most frequently purchased food and beverage items at outdoor sports fields were water, chocolate and confectionery, soft drink and sports drinks, and ice cream. At community swimming pools the most frequently purchased items were ice cream, followed buy snack foods, including chips, cakes and biscuits.” (Kelly 2008)

Kids end up supplementing because they don’t have the basics in the first place, leading to more involvement with supplements than is necessary.  The school year is a ripe time for supplementation as it offers an easy shortcut around meals.  However, lack of quality nutrition is not the only reason for supplementation (“because the pros do it” is another reason…). 

“A major concern for health professionals and the sporting community is that the effects of supplement use on the growth and development of children and adolescents are unclear. Minimal experimental research exists regarding the performance enhancing qualities or adverse effects of ergogenic substances focusing exclusively on adolescent athletes under the age of 18. Many physiological changes are occurring during these developmental stages thus making it difficult to fully understand the physiological implications of regular consumption of supplements by this age group.” (McDowell 2007)

In sum, ssupplements occupy a relatively lawless frontier.  Whereas food recommendations are highly regulated (whether you agree with all of them is a different matter), the supplement industry often operates outside the realm of normal oversight.   No matter what the time constraints, do your best to obtain your young athletes’ nutrition from real foods.  

Despite these warnings, I do recognize the importance of practicality: It’s entirely unrealistic to wake up to sauteed egg whites with meat from the local butcher and buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup you harvested in your backyard, accompanied by a fruit potpourri from the farmer’s market.  An instant breakfast shake is sometimes the best a kid can do, but we still must be aware of the pitfalls in meal timing, hydration, and use of supplements.  Avoid the pitfalls in theseareas to ensure you don’t thwart your kids’ efforts in the pool. 

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