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Good nutrition at all times is essential for excellent athletic performance, even if competition is only seasonal. The basic nutritional requirements for athletes and fitness enthusiasts are the same as those for the general population. However, a few minor modifications prior to competition may enhance your child's athletic performance.

Two decades ago, athletes were advised to eat a high protein diet, eat little on days of competition, stay away from refreshments and cold drinks during competition, take salt tablets during periods of heavy sweating, consume large doses of vitamins, and eat less than usual for a day following competition. These recommendations have proven more harmful than helpful, and have been discredited in recent years.

Following are the general guidelines advocated currently by nutritionists for a well-balanced diet for athletes and fitness enthusiasts. These guidelines may also be modified eventually as research provides additional information about nutrition and athletic performance, but they represent sound nutritional sense.

  • PROTEIN--Contrary to what many coaches and athletes believe, the protein requirement for athletes is not significantly greater than it is for others. Most persons need about 1 gram of protein for each kilogram of weight. This amount is easily obtained in a diet in which protein comprises 10 to 15 percent of total calories.

  • CARBOHYDRATES--The recommended percentage of total daily caloric intake for carbohydrates is 65%. Complex carbohydrates--as opposed to simple carbohydrates (sugar)--should make up the majority of the carbohydrate requirement. Complex carbohydrates are found in potatoes, brown rice, dried beans, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole-grain breads and cereals. These foods also provide dietary fiber, an important element in regulating bowel function. In addition, complex carbohydrates provide the liver and muscle cells with glucose. This is stored as glycogen and converted back to glucose for use when needed during exercise.

  • FAT--No more than 20% of the dietary calories should come from fat.

  • SPECIAL DIETS--Many good books provide detailed dietary and diet supplement-regimens for athletes. However, beware of advice given by anyone making extraordinary claims for fad foods or for protein, vitamin and mineral supplements. Most of these are not based on sound nutritional research, and are not recommended by nutritionists.

  • WEIGHT-LOSS DIETS--Athletes engaged in vigorous physical activity should not skimp on their diets to "lose weight." Vigorous exercise will replace some body fat with muscle at the same time the body weight remains constant. A strenuous exercise program is accompanied by an increased metabolic rate, requiring an increased caloric intake. If your child stops exercising for any reason, be sure to reduce caloric intake. Otherwise, the child may gain weight rapidly.

    Some supplements may be necessary for females.

  • Calcium supplements are recommended for women who exercise so strenuously (as in marathon running) that menstrual periods cease. These women are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis (softening of the bones) at an early age.

  • Iron supplements are also recommended for some females. Normally, iron stores are not diminished directly by exercise. However, if iron-deficiency anemia develops from other causes (such as excessive menstruation), an iron supplement is essential to assure normal physical performance in women.


  • BEFORE COMPETITION--Your child should eat a meal 3 to 5 hours before competition. This meal should contain lots of carbohydrates (pasta, fruits, cooked vegetables, gelatin desserts), decreased fats, decreased protein (small amounts of lean meat, fish, or poultry are acceptable), and decreased foods that cause extra "gas." The food can be digested in the 3 to 5 hours before competition, allowing nutrients to be stored before excitement begins.

  • AFTER COMPETITION--Glucose stores in the liver and muscles diminish during strenuous exercise. To replenish these, your child should increase carbohydrate intake for 3 days following competition. Otherwise, training should be reduced during that time.


  • WATER--Drink cold water during competition. It is absorbed faster and is less likely to cause cramps than warm water. In addition to drinking extra water during competition, drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. An occasional soft drink or cup of tea or coffee is not harmful, but these should not make up the major portion of your daily fluid intake. Clear, pure water is best to meet your daily fluid requirement.

  • FLUID AND GLUCOSE REPLACEMENT--During extended athletic activity, such as jogging or running a marathon, fluid and glucose must be replaced as they are used by the body. The recommended concentration of glucose is 2 to 2.5 grams of glucose (sugar) to each deciliter of water. Don't drink more than 800ml of fluid during any hour of endurance activity. To exceed this will overload your stomach and may impair performance.
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