#192: How to Fuel for Athletic Performance: What Parents Need to Know w/ Registered Dietician Ashley Harpst

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Is your young athlete constantly tired during practice or games?

Do they struggle to focus or seem sluggish throughout the day? Confused about what to feed your growing athlete to optimize their performance?

As a coach, I know these are common concerns parents face. But don’t worry! Proper nutrition plays a critical role in a young athlete’s success, and with the right information, you can fuel their bodies for peak performance and overall well-being.

That’s why I was super excited to dig into the world of sports nutrition with registered dietitian Ashley Harpst. I’m excited to share what I learned because fueling our athletes the right way makes a huge difference in how they feel and perform. Let’s get started!

Busting Nutrition Myths

Let’s start by busting some myths. One big one is that carbs are the enemy. Many athletes, influenced by trendy diets, may avoid carbohydrates, worried that they’ll hinder performance or lead to weight gain. However, as Ashley emphasizes, carbohydrates are vital for energy, concentration, and mood stability.

“Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for your body,” Ashley emphasizes. Young athletes need carbs for sustained energy, focus, and even a good mood. So don’t be afraid of those pasta nights and oatmeal breakfasts!

Another misconception? Thinking all foods are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Ashley suggests labeling foods as “always food” (fruits, veggies, whole grains) and “sometimes food” (treats and desserts). It’s okay to have the ‘sometimes’ stuff – enjoying food is important too!

Timing is Everything

When it comes to fueling young athletes, timing is crucial. Ashley suggests eating a meal rich in carbs with some protein about 3 – 4 hours before games or intense practices. This gives their bodies time to digest everything for maximum energy. Also, don’t forget hydration! “After a hard training day when you’re all done, within two hours, you want a snack or a meal to boost muscle recovery. That’s the window,” Ashley explains.

Hydration: The Unsung Hero

Don’t underestimate the power of hydration! Water is vital for every bodily function, and athletes lose fluids through sweat during exercise. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, decreased performance, and muscle cramps.

Ashley advises, “A general recommendation would be if it’s going to be an intense practice or a game, about two cups of organic Gatorade or homemade sports drink two, you know, an hour before that’s ideal.” During intense practices or games, sports drinks or homemade electrolyte drinks can help replenish lost electrolytes. And remember, sipping fluids throughout the day is crucial even when it’s not game time.

Beyond the Basics: Macronutrients for Young Athletes

We discussed the importance of carbohydrates, but a well-rounded diet requires a balance of macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Here’s a closer look at each:

  • Protein. “It is a good idea to eat a combination of carbohydrates and protein because that will help you stay full longer. The protein main function of proteins is to repair muscle tissue after exercise,” Ashley explains. Protein is especially important after exercise when muscles are in a state of repair. Aim for lean protein sources like chicken, fish, beans, lentils, and low-fat dairy products.  While the transcript doesn’t mention specific daily protein intake, Ashley emphasizes its importance for muscle recovery.
  • Fat. While not the primary source of energy during exercise, healthy fats are essential for overall health, hormone regulation, and nutrient absorption. Include healthy fats like avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil in your athlete’s diet.

Making it Work: Practical Tips for Parents

Now that we understand the key principles of sports nutrition, let’s explore some practical tips to implement these changes for your young athlete:

  • Meal Planning and Prep. Planning meals and snacks in advance can save time and ensure healthy options are readily available. Involve your athlete in the process! Pre-cut fruits and vegetables, pre-portioned snacks, and homemade trail mix are great for on-the-go convenience.
  • Packing Healthy Snacks. Pack a variety of healthy snacks for practices, games, and tournaments. Avoid sugary drinks and processed snacks that won’t sustain energy levels.
  • Leading by Example. Children learn by observing their parents, “As you know, your kids are always watching you. They’re watching, they’re listening to what you’re saying. They’re always watching you. So, it’s very important that they see you eating.” Make healthy eating a priority in your own life and involve your athlete in preparing and enjoying nutritious meals together. But Ashley also says, “If they see you eating ice cream on occasion, that’s okay.” Just strike a balance and always be mindful about how you talk about food.
  • Building a Positive Relationship with Food. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Instead, encourage a balanced approach. Focus on incorporating a variety of nutrient-rich foods and allow occasional treats.

Addressing Picky Eaters: Strategies for Success

Picky eating can pose a challenge for parents of young athletes. Here are some tips from Ashley to navigate this:

  • Offer Choices. Provide a few healthy options and allow your athlete to choose what they want to eat. This fosters a sense of autonomy and encourages them to try new foods.
  • Get Them Involved. Ashley suggests, “With picky eaters, another thing parents can do is try to get them involved in the kitchen. Try to include them in shopping and going shopping.” If they’re not interested in helping right away, that’s okay. Keep inviting them casually, and eventually, their curiosity might win over.
  • Exposure is Key. Repeated exposure to a variety of foods increases the likelihood of acceptance. Offer new foods alongside familiar favorites to minimize stress.
  • Focus on Progress, Not Perfection. Celebrate small wins; even a single bite of a new food is progress. Avoid pressuring or nagging, as this can lead to negative associations with food.
  • Make it Fun. Experiment with different shapes and textures, or get creative with how you describe foods. Involve your child in meal preparation to spark their interest in different ingredients.

Additional Tips from Ashley

  • Early-morning games. If your kid struggles with pre-game nausea, go with easy-to-digest carbs like applesauce, fruit pouches, or Welch’s fruit snacks.
  • Don’t skip breakfast. Even if they’re not super hungry in the morning, try to get something nutritious in, like a smoothie, toast with peanut butter, or cereal with milk.

Remember: It’s a Journey!

Fueling your young athlete is an ongoing journey. By providing a supportive environment, modeling healthy behaviors, and equipping yourself with knowledge, you can empower them to perform at their best.

For more information and resources, follow Ashley Harpst on Instagram at @surf.turf.sports_dietitian or visit her website https://goforthegoldnutrition.com/.

Let’s support our athletes in reaching their full potential, both on and off the field!

Episode Highlights: 

[00:00] Nutrition for athletes with registered sports dietitian Ashley Harpst.

[04:02] Carbohydrates and their importance for athletes, particularly female athletes.

[07:36] Common nutrition mistakes made by athletes, including skipping meals and cutting out carbs.

[14:06] Hydration and nutrition for athletes, including recommended fluids and electrolytes.

[19:10] Nutrition for athletes, including easily digestible options and the importance of parental influence.

[22:32] Shaping kids’ eating habits and nutrition, including strategies for dealing with picky eaters.

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