Performance Fuel for the Student Athlete

By Tammy Beasley

Playing competitive sports during your middle and high school years presents many challenges. It will challenge your body to develop its own individual speed, agility and power – to compete at a new level both individually and as a team player.

But the challenges don’t stop on the playing field. Being a student athlete requires you to meet the demands inside the classroom, too.  Balancing your time and your nutrition to be at your best inside and outside the classroom takes practice, but the results are worth the extra effort and will help you go the distance, strong in mind and body.

Early Mornings

Does your school sport require early morning workouts? Then start off on the right track by knowing what and when to fuel your body BEFORE your workout. Plan to eat a light carbohydrate snack within 30 minutes of working out.

About 100- 150 calories of an easily digested carbohydrate gives you just the right amount of carbohydrate energy to wake up your metabolism and get ready to give it your best.  Examples include:  1) a banana, 2) slice of whole grain toast, 3) graham cracker rectangle (1 whole), 4) half of a high quality energy bar, or 5) even a handful of whole grain cereal to go.  Don’t forget to drink a cup (8 oz) of water, too.

But don’t stop with just your pre-workout fuel. Whether you have an early morning workout or not, the breakfast meal, consumed within 30 minutes of finishing your workout or within an hour of getting up, is the most important fuel stop for performance in and out of the classroom. Examples of a healthy breakfast meal include:  1) oatmeal with walnuts, raisins and glass of low-fat milk, 2) whole grain cereal with low-fat milk and fresh fruit, or 3) a toasted whole grain English muffin w/ scrambled egg(s) and slice of Canadian bacon (lowest fat breakfast meat!) and small glass of orange juice (better yet, a fresh whole orange!).

If in a hurry, at least plan to have an energy/ protein bar that provides about 250 calories and at least 12 grams of protein, with a piece of fresh fruit and/or a glass of low-fat milk.   Another quick option is a protein smoothie made with low-fat milk, fresh or frozen fruit, 1 scoop of 100% whey protein and honey, to taste.  Just remember that a liquid meal will not fill you up as much as solid fuel, so expect to get hungry within a few hours and have a fruit and/or small packet of nuts to snack on before lunch.


Speaking of lunch, take advantage of this opportunity to keep your metabolism steady, your muscles primed and your brain sharp by eating a balanced meal with lean protein, quality carbohydrates and an assortment of “color” (fruits and/or veggies).

The standard turkey, chicken or lean roast beef sandwich on pita or tortilla wrap or wheat bread (light on the mayo, but mustard always fine), with pretzels, grapes or orange slices works every time. Or the classic PBJ on whole wheat, with pita chips or mini rice cakes, and a banana or apple is another option.

Throw in a few fruit newtons or low-fat yogurt to round it off. Tired of sandwiches? Pizza and some fresh fruit works well too. Don’t forget to drink at least 16 oz of water to stay hydrated.


When the bell rings and the school day is over is the time when things can get tricky for the student athlete.  Lunch has been eaten hours before, and a long workout/practice is ahead.

Make sure you plan to have a snack that includes both carbohydrates and protein in the afternoon BEFORE your workout.  The best time is about an hour before – and some good examples include:  1) peanut butter and graham crackers or a banana, or 2) low fat cheese stick with whole grain crackers (such as Triscuits) or apple slices, or 3) a high quality protein/energy bar (such as Balance, Zone or Luna) or 4) a handful of home-made trail mix of whole grain cereal (like Cheerios or Wheat Chex), raisins and almond slices (or any combo you like!).

If you don’t have access to fuel a full hour before, pack a quick easy-to-digest fuel booster like a banana or small cereal bar to eat within 15 minutes of the start of your workout as you get dressed for your activity. And as always, try to drink 16 ounces of water about 2 hours beforehand, and an extra cup within 30 minutes of the first drill.

During your workout

Next, let’s look at how you fuel your body DURING your workout. Most importantly, make sure you take water breaks during your workout, even if, and sometimes especially if, you are practicing indoors.

A hot, humid environment can zap your fluid levels quickly.  Dehydration can take the edge and power away from your workout – sports nutrition studies say even 2% dehydration can decrease your performance by 20%!

For activities lasting around one hour, it is not necessary to consume calories during the workout if you gave your body fuel beforehand.  For activities lasting longer than one hour, your body will benefit from consuming easy-to-digest carbohydrates, such as those found in a quality sports drink or energy bar, during your second and subsequent hours of activity.

Research tells us that the body can use about 30 – 60 grams of carbohydrates during each hour of competition or training.  That’s equal to about 120 – 240 calories max (in comparison, a 16 oz sports drink or a large banana is about 100 calories).

After your workout

Finally, take a look at how you fuel your body AFTER your workout. If you want your body to recover quickly and be ready for the next time your coach says, “Go!” it’s very important that you plan to refuel your muscles within the first 30 minutes after your workout ends.  this is when your muscles are like an “open door”, ready to replace the  glycogen, or energy, stores that were used up during your training.

The ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein is 3:1, or 3 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein.  A recovery fuel that is easily digested, provides the ideal ratio of carbs to protein, and has electrolytes and vitamins/minerals will help maximize your recovery.

One such fuel is low-fat chocolate milk, and16- 24 oz is all that is needed.   If refrigeration is not available or time is limited, consume a high quality, ready-to-eat protein/carbohydrate sports bar like Clif Builder with water and/or sports drink with added electrolytes (sodium and potassium).

Right after you exercise, liquids or an easily digested bar sometimes goes down a lot easier than solid foods. However, a turkey sandwich on a whole grain bagel with an orange makes excellent recovery fuel, too. In addition to your recovery fuel, drink 2+ cups of water to help replace the fluids your body used while working hard and cooling down.

Finally, FOLLOW UP with a balanced meal within the two hours after your workout. Plan to have a healthy dinner with lean protein, whole grain (great examples include sweet potato, whole grain pasta, brown rice, or whole wheat tortilla) and lots of color (vegetables and/or fruits) to give your body the reward it needs for working hard for you!

Following these guidelines for fueling before, during and after your workout will have your body geared up and ready to perform at its best every day, in the classroom and on the field. Remember, knowing when and what to eat and drink can make the difference between just going through the motions or really performing at the next level.

Tammy Beasley, RD, CSSD, LD, CEDRD is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. She offers sportsspecific nutrition services at RevItUP! for Life, LLC.