Expert nutrition tips for high school athletes

Molly Morgan, Apalachin resident and expert in the field of sports nutrition. (Photo: Photo provided to PressConnects)

Molly Morgan, Apalachin, N.Y.,  resident and expert in the field of sports nutrition. (Photo: Photo provided to PressConnects)

Food is fuel. Fuel is essential for performance. Victories, championships, perhaps even college scholarships are tied to peak performance.

And so, teenage athletes, read this and absorb rather roll the eyes and tap over to Instagram.

Proper nutrition is about balance, discipline and, to an extent, common sense. It does not exclude all things palatable, and in fact, the more active the person, the more leeway there is in that diet.

Molly Morgan, Apalachin, N.Y., resident, RD, CDN and CSSD — i.e., an expert in the field — shared a mountain of information pertaining to the nutritional necessities of young athletes. And so, with the onset of the autumn scholastic season approaching, the time is right for a refresher on some of the basics.

Stay on schedule

Alarm clock conk out? Pressed for time? Or, simply not hungry? Oh well, some may believe, that snack at lunchtime will suffice until dinner hour.

Not a chance!

Make time for a sensible, ample breakfast — ditto for lunch.

An athlete’s body requires fuel by way of food. To expect something approaching optimal performance come practice or game without properly fueling the body is a hope as empty as that athlete’s tank.

Three well-rounded meals are not merely recommended — they are a vital part of the young athlete’s routine. Cut corners through the day and rely on gorging come dinner time, and the results on the field or court or in the pool will reflect such neglect.

For on-the-move athletes, have a snack at the ready. Perhaps tuck away some peanuts, a PB&J sandwich and a juice box or three.


A rule of thumb to which Morgan subscribes: Listen to thirst and respond to thirst in order to maintain proper hydration, as the under-hydrated body is unable to work at peak efficiency.

Sip water throughout the day. Come time for practice or game, coaches are encouraged to provide repeated water breaks so that athletes may hydrate gradually rather than gulp excessively during infrequent pauses. For periods of continuous activity up to one hour, water should suffice. Should continuous movement exceed one hour — or in extreme heat — sports drinks are appropriate.

While an athletic contest is ongoing, hydration procedures should fall in line with common sense.

A cross country runner will not tote a water bottle through a race, therefore must carefully maximize hydration before toeing the start line. That is opposed to a swimmer competing in multiple events, or a tennis player with recurring changeovers, who have ample opportunities to hydrate. In soccer, with only halftime interrupting the action, athletes must take in fluids moderately.

Ted Hudock, multisport coach at Susquehanna Valley, is among those who harp on the need to hydrate in a prudent, productive fashion.

“They’ve got to be getting enough liquid and it’s got to not be the liquid that they’d prefer to drink,” he said. “If I could count the number of kids who show up with Mountain Dew or an energy drink or something … I just look at them like, you’re defeating the purpose of actually taking in the beverage because there is so much other stuff in there.”

He is among SV coaches who stress the need for proper, regular hydration — “especially in the fall season when temperatures can be just brutal at the beginning of the season.”

Balance also factors into the hydration process, as over-hydration can dilute the electrolytes in the blood and bring with it adverse effects. One way to gauge hydration is to monitor urine color. Neither too light nor too dark is good. Ideal is a pale lemonade color.

Pre-game plan

Ideally, an athlete might better plan to shove away from the pre-game meal table two hours before that game, match, meet or whatever, and most certainly should not venture beyond one hour before. The body requires time to digest what has been consumed, and during competition on the field or court is no place for said digestion to take place.

What’s on the plate? Quality protein is mandatory, so one meal that’d do the trick would begin with grilled chicken breast or salmon bumping up against brown rice and vegetables — perhaps asparagus or broccoli — washed down with a sizable glass of milk or water.

And do know, athletes needn’t be as afraid of consumption of salt as, say, couch potatoes. Perspiration contains sodium and active athletes perspire. The wise ones have had limited intake of processed foods, and so naturally the sodium intake has been lessened in accordance with that sensible diet. So, shaking a small amount of salt on the food can help the body retain fluids.

As for the popular night-before pasta dinner? If one so desires, go for it. A whole-grain pasta is advised, to go with a vegetable salad.

Post-game plan

The spent body is in need of refueling as it attempts to rebuild and repair muscles, and so the quicker that process can begin, the better. Prime time to get in front of that is the first 30 minutes upon completion, but best not to linger more than two hours.

A quick and easy starter-set option for the young athlete: Chocolate milk, which is an inexpensive, convenient blend of carbohydrates and protein. Another for back on the home front is a do-it-yourself shake consisting of, say, yogurt, fruit and a splash of milk or juice.

Or, if on the move from Point A to Point B, a submarine sandwich is an excellent choice. Lean toward a whole grain roll filled with grilled chicken or deli meats accompanied by an ample supply of vegetables with a dash of olive oil or sub sauce — the topping by way of introducing healthy fats. On the side, some apple slices or apple sauce.

Common mistakes/misconceptions

Morgan’s experience has been that young, male athletes too often determine protein intake to be their sole nutritional focus. However, while protein helps to build and maintain muscle mass, it alone isn’t about to fuel or enhance performance. There must be a balance of protein, quality carbohydrates and healthy fats.

With regard to protein intake, Morgan said, “It’s kind of like that, ‘If some is good, more is better.’ That’s another common misconception.” In fact, if one exceeds optimum protein intake, the body cannot utilize that excess protein and instead stores it as fat — not good.

Another myth: Fat makes you fat.

“Avocados, olive oil, nuts, peanut butter— high-fat foods don’t make you fat. It’s excess overall energy, overall calories, that lead to weight-gain over time,” Morgan said.

Healthy fats also include guacamole as a sub topping, pistachios, and olive oil used to saute vegetables.

“It’s certainly all about balance, but healthy fats are an important part of your eating routine,” she said.

Some no-no’s

While there is room for the occasional soda, the time immediately preceding a workout or practice or game is the worst time. Blood sugar soars, giving that quick rush of energy — but then comes the crash and obvious effects on the ability to perform. Feel a need to grab that cola at the drive-through? Do so after the athletic event, if you must.

Similarly, do not be the guy or gal exiting the vehicle in the parking lot pre-practice or pre-game with a satchel full of whatever from the nearby fast-food dispensary. Few options on those menus are smart choices before play.

SV’s Hudock, however, addressed one challenge with regard to heading off athletes choosing drive-through or quick pick-up fulfillment.

“It’s a dicey subject,” he said. “Ever since they have restructured the school meals and they have cut down portion sizes because they are worried about the overeating epidemic. It’s great that they are worried about that epidemic, but the portion sizes that they are giving for an athlete who is going to leave his house at 8 in the morning and is relying on a school lunch, a very small meal, that is not going to get him through practice from 3:30 to 5 o’clock.”

And so, some opt for quick and inexpensive — if unwise — alternative boosts to ward off hunger.

“Is it the best thing? No, but they need food, they need something to be able to have in their body,” he said.

As for full-blown skull-and-crossbones material: Energy drinks such as those on display in the colorful cans with the catchy names so easily marketable to teenagers. When Morgan addresses school-age athletes and coaches, she encourages coaches to institute a “Not In Our Locker Room” rule.

Final points

•Whole grains are an athlete’s friend. Since they digest slowly, they provide longer-lasting energy. An afternoon snack of a whole-grain granola bar, yogurt and fruit will have lasting benefits, as opposed to processed foods such as pretzels, white bread and the like, which are quickly digested.

Ah, but here’s a twist: During competition, “Plain old pretzels are great because they’re quick energy — it’s like fueling the fire, so to speak,” Morgan said, “versus your day-to-day (routine), you want to give your body the more nutrient-rich, whole grain food.”

Those preferred options for meal time include whole-grain cereal at breakfast, whole-grain bread for the sandwich at lunch and brown rice rather than white with dinner.

•What role should supplements of vitamins, minerals, etc., play in a teenage athlete’s routine?

“Generally speaking, if you’re eating healthy you don’t need a supplement every day, maybe just every now and then,” Morgan said. She does recommend that a young athlete consult with his or her pediatrician regarding supplements.

“In sunny Binghamton, certainly a Vitamin D supplement in the winter months is probably not a bad idea for most of us,” she said.

•Tim Hogan is a veteran multi-sport coach at Windsor, where the football program’s “Bend The Bar” program accentuates not only weight training, but nutritional needs as well.

“It’s not just getting in a stance and tackling and blocking, you do just that and you’re in trouble,” he said. “We used to joke: Get off the chicken wing and Mountain Dew diet. Pound the water and eat this and that, a well-balanced diet.”


Hydration schedule

•Two hours before activity: 16 ounces
•15 minutes before: 8-16 ounces
•During activity: Every 15-20 minutes, 6-8 ounces
•After: 24 ounces per pound of weight loss
(Check weight before and after practices and games.)

Day-to-day regimen

•You must stock up on healthy foods.
•Plan at least six meals and snacks throughout the day.
•Know your daily goals for calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates.
•Challenge yourself to try new and different foods.
•Include plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, as well as a variety of fats.
•Emphasize whole grains.

Protein tips

•Daily protein goal should be 1 gram per pound of body weight; i.e., 170-pound individual takes in 170 grams of protein daily.
•Incorporate protein into all meals and snacks.}
•Every ounce of meat, fish or poultry is equal to about 7 grams of protein.
•Vary protein sources. Options include almonds, pistachios, quinoa, peanut butter, almond butter and Greek yogurt.
•After workouts, aim to have 20 to 25 grams of protein along with carbohydrates to optimally refuel tired muscles.

About Morgan

Molly Morgan is a Williamsville native who was raised in Apalachin and was a member of Vestal High’s Class of 1996. She is a registered dietitian, certified dietitian nutritionist, certified specialist in sports dietetics, and team dietician for the Ottawa and Binghamton Senators. Her website:

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