How To Properly Fuel Young Athletes for Their Training & Games

As carbohydrate is the primary fuel of working muscles, meals prior to exercise need to be carbohydrate focused and need to be seen as an opportunity for young athletes to top up muscle glycogen stores and get the most out of their performance training & performance

Jelly Beans - The Youth Academy

In order to be useful, food eaten must be digested and absorbed, making the timing of a meal a key factor in pre-workout fueling strategies. Ranging from sweet sugars to starchy wholegrains, carbohydrate sources vary considerably in their digestibility, and optimal fueling strategies consider the type of carbohydrate and when to consume it.

At The Academy, we recommend a fueling strategy composed of a pre-workout meal 3-4 hours before, with a top-up pre-workout snack timed 1-2 hours prior to exercise. Today, we put a spotlight on the best carbohydrate sources to use at pre-workout meal occasions

3-4 Hours till Exercise: The Pre-Workout Meal

Timing a meal 3-4 hours prior to a workout provides ample opportunity for the body to digest and absorb its nutrients, and we can, therefore, be more relaxed about slower digesting foods. At this meal occasion slower digesting, higher fibre carbohydrate foods from wholemeal/grain bread and cereal, fruit and starchy vegetables are not only appropriate but will contribute to a slow, steady release of energy leading up to your workout

As a general rule, we don't recommend doing anything too different from general healthy eating, however, go easy on fats as a combination of slow digesting fibre, protein and fat may spell digestive troubles even with exercise 4 hours away. Example meals include:

  • Breakfast cereal with milk
  • Toast/English Muffins/Crumpets with topping of choice
  • Baked beans and toast
  • Sandwich or Bread Roll with filling of choice
  • Pasta with a tomato-based sauce
Toast - The Youth Academy

1-2 Hours till Exercise: The Pre-Workout Snack

In the hour or two prior to exercise, a moderate approach to slow digesting fibre, protein and fat is beneficial not only in avoiding stomach troubles but also in assisting the body to digest and absorb carbohydrate for fuel. At this occasion, more heavily processed, "white" varieties of bread and cereals; higher sugar fruits and sugar-sweetened foods, are easier and more quickly digested, resulting in a faster release of glucose to top up muscle glycogen stores. Example snacks include:

  • Toast with low-fat toppings such as jam or vegemite
  • Small bowl of sweet cereal with low-fat milk
  • Muesli bars
  • Flavoured or fruit yoghurts
  • Flavoured milk or smoothie
  • Fruit such as banana, grapes, mango, or canned
Juice - The Youth Academy

Less than 1 Hour till Exercise: Making up for Missed Opportunity

Perhaps time got away from you, or you feel slightly underfueled... for whatever reason, you need to top up glycogen stores and correct the situation, quickly! The hour prior to exercise requires rapidly digested carbohydrate sources that lead to a fast rise in glucose levels, and this is where simple sugars not only have their place but shine. In this situation, we need to choose foods characterised almost solely by sugars without fibre, protein or fat to impede the rate of digestion. Examples of emergency sugar sources include:

  • Sports drinks and gels
  • Cordial or pulp-free fruit juice
  • Small handful of lollies such as jelly beans or gummy snakes

At The Academy, we believe pre-workout fueling strategies are an art in getting to know what works best for your body. Practice makes perfect, and applying the general recommendations above to training sessions, with some trial and error, will result in a fine-tuned pre-workout nutrition strategy.

Nick Maier