Nutrition for the Student Athlete

Nutrition for the Student Athlete
Posted on 01/23/2020
Nutrition for the Student Athlete

Ryan Hooke, ATC
Athletic Trainer
Douglas County High School

It is often evident that the life of a student-athlete is a hectic one. With a busy schedule, including school, work, social life, jobs, practices, and games, some things can be neglected. Nutrition, one of the most important factors to an athlete, is one of those things. From my previous experience as a student-athlete in high school and my experience as an athletic trainer for the past year and a half, I know the struggles student-athletes have in balancing such a busy workload. Many students, in general, are rushed from place to place, and they do not have time to supply their bodies with the proper nutrients to sustain them for a full day of rigorous schoolwork combined with five to six days of sports activity.

My goal for this school year was to increase nutrition education and the value of eating good full meals for our student-athletes. The main barrier to accomplishing this appears to stem from the athlete's lack of time. With kids having so many stresses placed upon them, their time is prioritized to benefit what they want more than what they need. Every kid wants an extra five minutes of sleep in the morning, and who am I kidding, so do I.
The old cliche of "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is still crucial to this day. Most, if not all, of my athletes skip breakfast in the morning. This is a major problem as it starts their day at a deficit. Good breakfast in the morning helps engage the brain for the rest of the school day. The brain uses carbohydrates as direct fuel to tackle a grueling school schedule. Carbohydrates, as well as proteins, are also used to fuel your body when it comes to early morning weightlifting classes or a mid-day PE class. Skipping breakfast puts athletes at an energy deficit and increases the risk for sluggish behavior and tendencies, which in turn affects their school work and performance.

Lunch is another meal often skipped on game days. Some athletes do not want to be "weighed down" or seem slowed down by the intake of food. But in reality, without the fuel they require for the high demands of their activity, they will do what they are fearing. They will have not properly fueled their bodies with the correct amount of carbohydrates and proteins to excel in their sport. Their body will, in turn, rely on the stored fuels in their body, which predisposes them for an injury due to sluggish performance, increased muscle breakdown, and a lack of calcium and other needed electrolytes.

You may be thinking: "Well, isn't that what Gatorade and protein shakes and supplements are used for?" I 100% love the incorporation of such products in an athlete's diet as they are great for replenishing protein and sugars at quick and convenient times. But, a majority of kids use supplements too late, after electrolyte levels are already depleted, when they are already experiencing cramping and fatigue.
To counter these issues that they face, I am imploring student-athletes and their parents to try to supply athletes with the correct amount of nutrients. For daily dietary intake, it is recommended that 2.5-3 grams per pound of body weight of carbohydrates and 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight are consumed. This will allow for proper storage of glycogen, the main fuel source for muscles, and will also provide the athlete with a good foundation for muscle replenishment. Consuming the recommended amount of carbohydrates and protein is just the foundation of helping a student-athlete.

When it comes to physical activity, the timing of when to supply the body with nutrients is also crucial. With the number one issue for athletes being depleted muscle glycogen stores, there are some rules of thumb to consider. Pre-activity the athlete should consume carbohydrates and protein approximately one hour before activity. This supplies the body with the fuel needed for their game or practice. Each athlete should take into consideration their own digestion rate when deciding how close to activity to eat. During their activity, they should not need to consume additional food unless it is continuous aerobic activity lasting longer than one hour, such as long-distance running. If this is the case, the athlete can consume an additional 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per extra hour of activity.

Lastly, an important consideration is the consumption of food post-activity. After physical activity the athlete should consume protein immediately within 20-30 minutes (no later than 60 minutes) to help repair some of the muscle breakdown that occurs during activity. This is where I personally feel the incorporation of protein shakes and bars are best implemented. They are easily transported and can be consumed quickly. Then about 2 hours post-activity the athlete should consume a balanced meal that includes high carbohydrate content to help replenish the glycogen stores.
The last item that is important to an athlete's diet is their hydration. Time and time again, athletes struggle with hydrating their bodies properly. It is essential to have a water bottle throughout the day to make sure they are hydrated prior to physical activity. Athletes should not need the supplement of Gatorade or other electrolyte drinks throughout the day because the naturally occurring electrolytes in the body should be sufficient. During competition, it may be helpful to have some type of electrolyte drink to provide the body with a quick re-supply. Hydration is often one of the most overlooked components in an athlete's life. Adequate water intake not only prevents dehydration during activity but also helps protects the body from illness, aids in digestion, and increases physical performance.

With a well-balanced diet consisting of full meals, the timing component, and appropriate hydration, the student-athlete can help supply their body with the proper nutrients to fuel the brain and the body for better performance in sports and in life.


Belski, R., Forsyth, A., & Mantzioris, E. (2019). "Nutrition for sport, exercise and performance: a practical guide for students, sports enthusiasts and professionals." Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.

Jeukendrup, A. E., & Gleeson, M. (2019). "Sport nutrition an introduction to energy production and performance." Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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