Fuel your body

girl with gym gear sitting eating a bowl of yoghurt boy in gym gear aitting with a basketball in his lapsafefood, in partnership with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI) in the Republic of Ireland and the British Dietetic Association in Northern Ireland, have developed a booklet which provides general advice for 13- to 17-year-olds who are involved in sport.

This booklet is packed with information about what to eat and drink to perform at your best in sport, stay healthy and feel great.

For more specific advice, contact a sports dietitian.

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Find out what your body needs

As a teenage athlete, your active lifestyle and growing body means you have special nutritional needs. You need to start with the basics of a healthy and varied diet. There are no quick fixes – supplements, in particular, are not recommended for teenagers.

FAQs

1. Why is it important for sports people to eat well?

If you are playing sport regularly for your school or a club, what you eat and drink is important, to help you perform at your best and protect you from fatigue and injury. 
 
Good nutrition can:
  • Delay fatigue
  • Improve skill and concentration
  • Prevent injury and illness
  • Achieve fitness and training targets.
 A poor diet will prevent you from achieving your potential by:
  • Increasing your likelihood of injury
  • Decreasing your concentration and skill
  • Causing you to fatigue sooner
  • Not allowing you to achieve consistent training targets.

2. Should I follow this advice at all times or just before a competition?

You should follow this advice at all times to get the best possible results from your training, to maintain good health, avoid illness, decrease your risk of injury, and ensure the best possible preparation for a competition.

3. I don’t want to make big changes to my diet – what are the most important changes I should make?

Choose one or two things to change in your diet at any one time as smaller changes are easier to maintain. Try introducing one or two of the following: 

  • Eating breakfast every morning
  • Improving your snack options
  • Ensuring your fluid intake is adequate.

Once you have got some small changes right, move onto something else. These incremental steps over time, can help create a healthy and varied diet.

4. What foods should I eat in order to build muscle?

This is a question we get asked a lot. Protein is one nutrient needed for building and repairing muscle. Some excellent protein-rich foods include lean red meat, soya and tofu, chicken, turkey, nuts, fish, pulses, eggs, yoghurt, low fat milk and cheese.

Include protein rich foods at each main meal and after exercise to support muscle growth and repair but remember – it’s a myth that you need protein supplements to build your muscle mass. Protein intakes way above your needs will not result in further muscle growth and could do your body harm. Did you know that carbohydrates also play an important part in gaining muscle? If you’re not eating enough to meet your energy (calorie) needs, then you won’t be able to build or maintain muscle mass. And it’s also essential to have a structured training programme too.

5. What snacks should I eat before and after exercise?

Before exercise:

To ensure your energy levels are at their best when you exercise, eat a meal or snack that is high in carbohydrates two to three hours before you exercise. Some ideas for pre-exercise snacks include the following 

  • Toast (Add banana, nut butter or baked beans as a topping )
  • Chicken with rice and salad
  • Jacket potato with beans, tuna or chicken and salsa

You can find more ideas on page 13 of the booklet to help with this.

After exercise:

To restore your energy levels after exercise and to maintain muscle mass, eat a snack that is high in carbohydrates and protein. This could be a mixed fruit salad with Greek yoghurt topped with mixed nuts and seeds. Even drinking semi-skimmed or skimmed milk is a good alternative if you find it hard to eat after exercise. Timing can also be important, aim to have a snack after exercise within the first 30-60 minutes and then a meal a couple of hours after this.

6. Do I need extra protein after sport?

This is another myth to be busted! The simple fact is that you don’t need huge amounts of protein to "bulk up". Protein powders and shakes are not recommended and could be doing your body harm. You will get plenty of protein by including the foods listed in the booklet.

7. How much fluid should I be taking on? How do I know if I’m getting enough fluid?

Don’t wait until you feel thirsty because that’s a sign your body has needed fluids for a while. During tough training sessions or a competition lasting longer than 60 minutes, consider having an isotonic sports drink to replace fluids. For any training that lasts up to 60 minutes, water is fine. Checking your urine colour is a quick and simple way for you to see if you are drinking enough fluids; it should be a pale yellow colour. Refer to the “pee chart” on page 11 of the booklet to help with this.

8. I don’t cook my own meals – how can I ensure my parent cooks suitable meals for me?

The diet of a sportsperson is essentially a well-balanced diet which can benefit the whole family. Pick some of your favourite balanced meals, help out with the preparation and suggest that the whole family can try and enjoy this healthy lifestyle.

8. What’s the big deal with supplements?

These products come in many forms - drinks, protein powders, shakes, bars, liquid meal replacements, creatine, caffeine, herbal preparations and more.

The fact is sports supplements have not been tested on teenagers or children, so there is zero evidence to show they are safe for your growing body and are not recommended for anyone under 18 years of age.

10. Do you need supplements?

Absolutely not, and don’t believe the hype. They won’t make you faster, stronger, or more skilful. As a young person playing sport, your focus should be on developing a good nutritional foundation through eating a varied balanced diet and timing your nutrition to fuel up and recovery adequately.

11. How do I Improve my performance through nutrition?

  • Eat enough to meet your growth and energy needs
  • Drink enough fluids to stay hydrated and replace any lost fluids
  • Plan your training and recovery properly
  • Improve your own technique, talent and skills through training
  • Make sure your input and outputs are matched. Look at some of the online food and activity diary tools to help you monitor this.

12. I find it difficult to eat like this as part of my daily routine – what should I do?

Organise your food in advance. If you don’t have time for proper meals, take a supply of healthy snacks with you. This way you can keep your energy levels up, refuel after training and ensure you are getting a good intake of nutrients. Plan to eat a small snack every two to three hours.

Examples of healthy snacks are:

  • Sandwiches / rolls / pitta / bagels with cottage cheese, banana, salad, tuna, turkey, ham or chicken.
  • Leftover pasta salad (always make extra for snacks)
  • Low fat yoghurt and fromage frais
  • Cold corn on the cob or a small can of corn
  • Cold boiled egg
  • Fresh fruit
  • Cereal bars
  • Breakfast cereals / crackers / rice cakes
  • Nuts, dried fruit, scones.

Never skip meals or leave long gaps without food. This will result in low blood sugar levels and fatigue leading to a drastic decrease in your performance. The key is to be prepared and plan your eating around your own daily schedule.

13. How do I know if I play enough sport to warrant changing my diet?

Everyone can benefit from this healthy eating lifestyle, whatever their fitness level or sporting commitment. Having a healthy balanced diet will help you to achieve greater results, train for longer, maintain good health, reduce your risk of injury and generally ensure that you have more energy and feel healthier.

14. Does this advice apply to friends who don’t play sport?

Absolutely! While some of the advice is sport-specific, there are some great ideas in this booklet on how to incorporate healthy meals and snacks into your diet and how to achieve a more balanced, healthy lifestyle. Good nutrition is important for healthy growth and development as well as fuelling energy needs for sport.

15. Where can I find out more?

If you feel you need specific advice tailored to your individual needs, contact a sports dietitian or registered sport and exercise nutritionist:

In Republic of Ireland - listings are on the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute website. 

In Northern Ireland, visit Sports and Exercise Nutrition Register or The Association of UK Dietitians.

Case study

A 19 year old Rugby player was selected for a provincial academy squad. His position involved quite a bit of running and his gym-based training had increased significantly. On top of this he had started a course at University and was living away from home. His weight was 72kg and the coaching team felt that he needed to be at least 80kg in the medium to long-term.

He was given an eating plan in terms of meals and snacks he was to eat and also given supplements including protein and creatinine to help with this weight gain. Over the next three months he was weighed on a weekly basis and his weight would increase by a 1-2kg and then drop back to his original weight. After six weeks he was reviewed and he said that he was doing everything that he had been asked to do.

In the following weeks there was still no change in his weight. After about three months it came to light that the player was not really following the eating plan that he had been given and was just taking the supplements. He thought that they would do the job and he didn’t really need to worry about a regular eating pattern. Once he started following the eating plan and began eating regularly in quantities that he needed his weight increased to what had been anticipated.

Supplements often cause athletes to take their eye off the eating plan that they should be following. This could be because it is quicker or because others are doing it, but it can be a disadvantage to performance.