A Guide to Recovery Nutrition for Youth Athletes
With the intense sporting, schooling and social demands that youth athletes have, recovery can be one often be one of the biggest challenges. Finding time for a nutritious meal, late at night, after a gruelling day spent between the classroom and gym can be a tough ask. Especially if there’s a long commute home and a late-night finish in there. But going to bed on an empty stomach after a heavy session could ultimately cost you your place on the podium. Making sure you fuel your body with exactly what it needs after a session is essential for winning performances and more importantly, health, growth and development of all young athletes.
Three R’s of Recovery
Post-training nutrition can be broken down into three simple categories; refuel, repair and rehydrate.
Long or high intensity sessions will use up all of the fuel (glycogen) stored in the body. Therefore, replenishing this as quickly and efficiently as possible is one of the key aspects of recovery . As it can take up to 24hours to fully replenish the glycogen stores in the body, starting this process as soon as possible is essential l. Especially so when athletes have training sessions or events the following day.
Glycogen stores and therefore the bodies fuel source can be replenished from eating carbohydrates. Although the exact amounts an athlete needs to consume will vary from athlete to athlete depending on their age, gender, sport type etc, consuming a carbohydrate rich meal or snack in the hours immediately after exercise is recommended for all. When recovery times are shorter (8 hours or less) the timing may be more important. In these cases, aim to consume 1g/kg of body weight of carbohydrate as quickly as possible after the session, followed by a carbohydrate rich meal when possible. For a 50kg athlete, this would translate to 50g of carbohydrate. For longer recovery times, the timing is less important .
There is some evidence to suggest that carbohydrates with a higher Glycemic index (GI) may be more efficient at replenishing glycogen stores . These include foods such as:
- White breads
- Breakfast cereals
- Fruit juices
After exercise, the proteins in our muscles will need to adapt and repair in order to grow and develop. Muscle protein synthesis (the building and repair of proteins) is highest after exercise and evidence shows that the body can adapt to the training session better if a high-quality protein source is consumed following exercise . Incorporating protein into the snacks and meals eaten after a training session is key to enhance training adaptations and promote recovery, as well as helping to reduce muscle soreness . High qality sources such as animal and dairy products are most efficient , with the optimum amount to consume 10-20g . Consuming protein alongside carbohydrates has also shown to increase the rate of glycogen repletion, particularly if the amount of carbohydrate’s consumed are inadequate .
Good protein sources include:
- Milk and flavoured milk
Athletes are likely to be dehydrated after a training session, even if they have drunk before or during the session, and this is more likely to occur in hot or humid conditions . Athletes should aim to consume around 1.5 times the amount of fluid they have lost during exercise to rehydrate sufficiently. Because hydration and dehydration can vary so much between athletes related to individual sweat losses etc, the exact amount will vary, and an individual fluid plan may be beneficial.
If a session is particularly hard or the conditions are hot and humid and sweat losses are high, then consuming water alone will not be adequate. Electrolytes including sodium and chloride will also need to be replaced and this can be achieved through hydration drinks/ tablets, sports drinks or in the foods consumed in the recovery meal/snack .
Athletes can gauge their hydration status based on the colour of their urine. The chart below  provides a guide to hydration levels.
The most important thing to consider with recovery is planning. Making sure a young athlete knows exactly what they will be eating after their session and when to start refuelling is key to success. Whether this is a snack on the journey home or a meal on the table when they arrive, athletes should always be prepared. Plan ahead and don’t get caught with a rumbling stomach on the journey home from practice.
- Jeukendrup, A. (2012) Sports nutrition. Maidenhead: Meyer & Meyer Sport.
- Bean, A. (2013). Anita Bean's Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
- NHS (2020) [Online]. 2020. Nhs.uk. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/keogh-review/Documents/quick-guides/background-docs/5-Birmingham-urine-analysis-tool.pdf. (Accessed: 16 January 2020).