Fueling Your Student Athlete to Maximize Performance

Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

We all know that proper nutrition is essential for athletes to be at the top of their game. But as parents, we can’t always be in control of what our kids eat while they're at school, on the field, or traveling with their team. I sat down with the experts — coaches, teachers, athletes, and their parents — to find out how they balance healthy eating with competitive training.

Casey Medairy, former collegiate baseball player and now varsity baseball coach and chemistry teacher at Hammond High School in Columbia, Maryland, offers this simple advice to his student athletes. “Eating well is like studying for a test. You perform better on tests by studying, so in order to perform well on the field, you must eat well—amongst other things, like coming to practice regularly. It is part of the preparation process for optimal performance.”

If you have kids involved in sports, your evenings and weekends are likely filled with shuttling them back and forth to practices and games. You spend much of your free time in the car, or on the sidelines and stands. It’s easy to pick up fast food or packaged snacks on the way to and from your kids' activities. But these options aren’t the best choice to fuel young bodies. How is it possible to give your child healthy foods while you’re on the go?

Allison Walsh, former collegiate athlete and mother of four living in West Friendship, Maryland, strives every day to make sure her kids have the right foods to maximize their energy level during sports. Her three sons and daughter are involved, all told, in basketball, football, lacrosse, golf, soccer, and field hockey. Some of these sports are year-round for her oldest kids as they're now competing at the highest level for their sport.

“With my younger kids, when given the chance, I try to feed them dinner before practices and then feed them leftovers afterwards,” Allison says. This helps her save time later in the evenings when they get home.

“But I juggle trying to feed Connor, my oldest, all of the time since he plays varsity football, varsity basketball, and travels all over the country on weekends for AAU [American Athletic Union] basketball. Teenage boys don't always take care of themselves, so I make sure I do little things when I can, like have breakfast ready for him to eat on the way to school. This often includes Greek yogurt, granola, and fruit. I will send a protein shake to school with him before a game or pack something as simple as chocolate milk. I try to keep him hydrated all week.”

“When he travels with his team, I try to pack things for him that are nutritious and easy to grab,” Allison explains. “Travel teams usually go out for team meals but they don’t always have the healthiest choices available, so I pack protein drinks, homemade granola bars, and fruit.”

"It’s important for parents to intervene," Allison says, "and help their kids with constant reminders, to make sure that they always have healthy foods nearby.”

Becca Sigmund, a professional dancer and school manager at Kinetics Dance Theatre in Ellicott City, Maryland, notes that girls have similar challenges when it comes to fueling their bodies properly, particularly those involved in long rehearsals for upcoming performances.

“When I was younger, I always found it difficult to properly fuel my body for a long night of dance,” Becca says. “I would either eat too much and feel weighed down by what I ate, or not eat enough and would crash before the end of the night. As a dancer, you want to feel light on your feet to help with your balance and jumps, but it's hard to get enough food without feeling weighted down sometimes. I find that the most important thing for dancers to have before or in between classes is protein.  Greek yogurt and protein bars are great snacks. Anything that is high in protein with a little bit of sugar and complex carbs works great. I usually recommend avoiding items that are high in starch without protein, or high in sugar, as they don't provide energy in a way that can be broken down efficiently and effectively over the course of a long day or night of dancing.”

Related: The best high-protein snacks

How can we help student athletes make better decisions on their own? Sigmund says, “I think the biggest problem I see in young athletes’ diets is eating too many processed foods, which aren't as nutritionally dense. They fill you up without providing sustainable energy. I'd much rather see my students snacking on real foods such as yogurt, vegetables, and hummus, or an apple with peanut butter, rather than a bag of chips or a fruit roll up.”

The bottom line: Finding time to feed your busy son or daughter is tough, but with a little bit of advance planning you can give them the tools they need to make smart choices. Many schools and sports teams have access to a registered dietitian who can work with you and/or your child to help maximize his or her athletic potential through healthy eating.

See more helpful articles:

How to Eat Like an Athlete

Fueling Your Workouts the Right Way at the Right Time

The Best Pre-Workout Fuel

The Best Post-Workout Fuel