As the sports seasons change, it can be a good time for parents to take a breath and gear up for the next phase of their busy adolescent’s sporting schedule. The adolescent athlete has many challenges, they are at a time of their life where their body requires extra dietary energy for growth and skeletal development.
In many cases, they are competing in multiple sports as well as partaking in specific strength and conditioning sessions during school. Combine this with a full school day and potential travel times to and from trainings, families are faced with a very challenging ability to fuel appropriately.
It’s common at this age for athletes to under-fuel and, if only occasionally and not excessively, this shouldn’t be an issue. However, for the adolescent competing in numerous sports, or training across multiple sessions per day, under-fuelling can not only impair energy levels but also health, performance and long-term development.
For the adolescent athlete, the concept of energy availability is vitally important. Energy availability underpins how much dietary energy (calories) is left over to the body after exercise has been accounted for. The body needs a certain amount of energy available each day to function optimally for processes such as bone development, muscle function, the immune system, optimal hormonal profiles and, in females, the reproductive system. So, when dietary energy is not sufficient to accommodate energy burnt from exercise these important bodily processes can be downregulated.
Low energy availability underpins menstrual dysfunction and is associated with lower bone mineral density and a higher prevalence of stress fractures. Research is constantly evolving about impairments in performance and a reduced training response from low energy availability.
At the Axis performance nutrition clinic, we commonly see adolescent athletes struggling to maintain optimal energy availability. Obviously, disordered or restricted eating practises can play a significant role in this. However, in many situations, it is the unawareness of the training demands young athletes are undertaking that is causing an accidental mismatch in energy availability. Training sessions that require running or other modes of physical exertion, such as swimming or rowing, can expend a significant amount of energy. When these trainings exceed an hour and occur multiple times in a day, the dietary energy required significantly increases. As young athletes develop and progress, it can be easy to be accustomed to their training demands and for it not to feel as if it is tough.
Total energy (calorie) requirements can be 30-40% higher in adolescent athletes, compared to their sedentary friends at school and their parents and less active siblings. With the logistical challenges of providing enough food across the day, it’s easy to slip into a pattern of under-fuelling.
On top of this, it is clear the rest of the world are not in a low energy availability crisis; indeed most are in an energy surplus with record rates for adolescent obesity and inactivity. Due to this, most nutrition messages that young athletes can be exposed to at school is the promotion reducing excess energy from fat, sugar and refined foods. Often, parents will be going on a lifestyle journey to improve their own diet, which usually results in energy reduction. All these factors can result in a reduction in energy content of the young athlete’s diet by limiting food groups, snack options and often energy dense foods that may be useful at certain times.
Key nutrition tips to optimise energy availability in young athletes: