Fueling Young Female Athletes

Alleviate the typical wear and tear that comes with being active by fueling your body for performance.

The past few weeks have included a lot of changes for my family and, most likely, your family as well.

My daughter started high school at . My step-son started school at De La Salle. A new school year always involves organization, structure, and logistical management, but with two kids starting high school at two different schools, I have felt these needs compounded.

Both kids in our blended family are very active. My step-son is involved in hockey, which makes sense since my husband played hockey professionally before getting injured. My husband often coaches his team and is extremely involved in his hockey league.

My daughter is in gymnastics and cheer, and has done diving in the past. I don’t have expertise in her specific sports, so I don’t coach. I do stay involved by designing nutrition and conditioning plans for her, so she has the tools she needs to reach the goals she sets for herself.

This past week my little girl, my 14-year old-freshman, was pulled up to varsity cheer.

She is excited to the point of being bubbly and giddy like only a 14-year-old girl can be, and of course the whole family is tremendously proud of her. She is truly talented, and I’m pretty sure I’m not just saying that as her mom.

With her skill set, she has the potential to earn cheer scholarships for college. Beyond that, it is something she really enjoys.

She actually wants to achieve within her sport. It gives her confidence, pride, a feeling of accomplishment, and a physical outlet for all of the stresses that go along with being a teenager.

What this specific achievement means though, is that she now has freshman practice, varsity practice, competition practice, tumbling practice, and the games. Some nights she will be practicing for three hours. This isn’t uncommon for athletes in any sport. The flip side is that it is also common for young athletes to get overuse injuries.

How many soccer players do you personally know who have had to have ACL surgery before they are 18?  

How many tennis players have rotator cuff issues?

Training hard is a part of being an athlete, but so is eating properly. It takes more than just practice to be great. It takes the proper fuel you need to get through the practice, to recover from injuries, and to bring your best to each competition, each game, each match.

An injury would end my daughter's dream before it has even had a chance to begin, as it would for all young athletes hoping to play college sports.

A Nutrition Plan for Performance

I recently put my daughter on a nutrition plan so she can get through her practices and competitions, with the primary intent of repairing the typical wear and tear that goes with being active.

We are fueling her body for her activity, to lesson the likelihood of an injury that she would end up living with for the rest of her life.

I increased her calories to 3,000 to 5,000 clean calories each day. Lean protein, veggies, fruits, whole grain, etc. She is eating every two hours in the morning and every three hours after lunch. Keep in mind she is only 5 feet tall and a little over 100 lbs. A young athlete who is taller or who weighs more who is doing the same amount of activity would need more calories.

When she went to school with the snacks, lunch, and more snacks on her eating plan her friends (lovingly) said, “Geez Nicky! That’s a lot of food!”

When she went on to explain that she is on a new eating plan to avoid injuries and get through all of her practices, one of her friends said, “I have a hard time eating 1,000 calories a day.” My daughter (thank goodness) replied, “That is NOT healthy!” Her friend answered with, “I know, but I just don’t get hungry.”

The Risk of Not Eating Enough

The problem is that sometimes we don’t get hungry, whether we are young athletes, or adults.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, to wait until you are hungry to eat, can slow down your metabolism. I can say with confidence that eating only 1,000 calories per day is definitely not healthy. Not eating enough weakens your body and sets you up for poor nutritional habits later on in life.

So what happens if teen athletes don't eat enough? Their bodies are less likely to achieve peak performance and may even break down rather than build up muscles. Athletes who don't take in enough calories every day won't be as fast and as strong as they could be. Girls may stop menstruating, which causes even more health problems. Extreme calorie restriction could lead to growth problems and other serious health risks for both young girls and boys.

Nutrition and Recovery

The fact that the nutritional aspects of recovery and performance are overlooked is a mystery to many sports nutritionists. After all, it is clear that a major injury alters your nutritional requirements.

For example, studies suggest that athletes who have broken their leg, may experience an increase in basal metabolism because their bodies 'gear up' to repair the injured bone.

This means a young female athlete who might 'burn' 1,600 calories during a typical, NON-workout day could see her caloric requirements shoot up to 2,000 calories during that same NON-workout day because her body is working hard to repair the bone break.

However, it isn’t as simple as just increasing calories. Various parts of the body have unique nutritional demands. The optimal nutritional plan to restore an injury to cartilage might differ from the best plan to repair muscle or a nerve.

Nutrition for Performance

There's a lot more to eating for sports than carb loading or chugging down sports drinks.

The good news is that eating for peak performance doesn't require a special diet or supplements, just some education on what types of foods fuel the body best. It's all about working the right foods into your family’s nutrition plan, in the right amounts.

All nutrients are important and having a balanced nutrition plan is imperative for young athletes, but there are a few key components I want to address when it comes specifically to proteins and branched chain amino acids.

Keep in mind that receiving nutrients from whole foods is always received better by your body than supplementation. I personally do not recommend supplementation in the pill form when it comes to young athletes. When in doubt, you should most definitely discuss your specific nutritional needs or the needs of your young athletes with your doctor, a registered dietitian, or a certified sports nutritionist.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids

Leucine is an essential amino acid. It belongs to a special group of amino acids called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are needed to help maintain and repair muscle tissue. The other two BCAAs are isoleucine and valine.

Leucine is special because research shows it helps prevent muscle proteins from breaking down during exercise. Some studies have shown that BCAAs have the special ability to boost protein synthesis and inhibit protein breakdown. This means none of the other proteins, or amino acids, have as strong of an effect as BCAAs. 

How much should a young athlete have?

The usual recommendation is 25-65 mg four every 2.2 pounds of body weight. This equals to these amounts for approximate body weights:

  • 100 lbs 3,000 mg
  • 125 lbs 3,700 mg
  • 150 lbs 4,500 mg

Foods highest in Leucine and Isoleucine and Valine

These are the foods highest in leucine, while also still being high in the other BCAAs (Isoleucine and Valine). The foods are listed from highest to still very high and are based on levels per 200-calorie serving

  • Egg Whites
  • Turkey
  • Tuna
  • Pike
  • Cod
  • Haddock
  • Chicken
  • Cottage Cheese 1 percent
  • Crab
  • Orange Roughy
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Duck
  • Lobster
  • Tilapia
  • Shrimp
  • Halibut
  • Sea Bass
  • Salmon
  • Beef (trimmed)
  • Cottage Cheese 2 percent
  • Scallops
  • Cheese, lowfat Cheddar or Colby

A mixture of amino acids, salts, glucose, B vitamins, and vitamin C increase production of collagen, a unique protein which helps to strengthen damaged areas, according to more research.

If you try to eat the lean proteins listed above, combined with lots of colorful veggies and fruits, you are going to be in a better position to perform than if you ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, macaroni and cheese, a hot dog, Jamba juice, or other typical kid-friendly food.

I will be posting information on how to receive the plan I have set up to fuel my daughter and help her avoid overuse injuries, because I believe it will help others.

I’m happy to offer this educational information free.

By teaching your young girls how to fuel their bodies now, you will not only be reducing their likelihood of injury, you will be changing the health of our nation, through your own family. The education your daughter, niece, sister, or cousin learns now, will shape how she feeds her family in the future.

Lets increase our nutritional education and end the trend of obesity in America.

Look out for how to sign up for the free plan later this week at www.sanramonvalleyfitness.com.

Elaine Hagebush August 31, 2011 at 09:58 PM
Well said! My daughter was playing competitive soccer her Freshman year at Cal High and she, you guessed it, tore her ACL. It ruined her changes of ever becoming the soccer champ that she was striving for. She played another year of it, but it was very hard to achieve the speed she once had. I'm so glad you are being proactive about this. It's also important to exercise those muscles that support the knees, hips, and joints. Way to go!
Cori Ann Lentz September 05, 2011 at 06:56 AM
Thank you so much Elaine and I am very sorry to hear about your daughter! You are also completely correct about exercising to PRE-hab injuries instead of re-hab. It is important to get the nutrition and the pre-hab exercise information out there to parents so we can educate our kids, then they will in turn educate their kids. Especially the young girls out there, since they will have so much influence with the children in their future families. :)


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