What You Really Should be Teaching Athletes About Nutrition

September 10, 2020

By Randee Ochinero

If you’ve been coaching for 10 years or 10 days, you know there is so much more to it than teaching sport specific skills. As coaches, we’re teaching life lessons, whether it’s intentional or not.

One of the those life lessons we tend to skip over for athletes is how to take care of themselves properly.

Sure, we encourage them to rest up, hydrate and eat properly, but when was the last time you went into detail about what that actually means? You know players need to eat enough to fuel their bodies, but most of them don’t know what it means.

This happened to me just last week. I had girls really excited they packed plenty of protein for an away game that required 4 hours of bus travel. Their source of protein: cheese and nuts. We stopped and bought sandwiches on the way because that wasn’t going to give them the energy they needed (but maybe a stomach ache!)

Now are you wondering what exactly you should be teaching your athletes? Read on…

Start With The Basics

Start with the very basics – what exactly a calorie?
What we refer to as a calorie is actually a Kcalorie, which is a measure of energy. It takes 1000 calories (or 1kcal, which is what we use when we refer to nutrition) to heat one kilogram of water one degree celcius. That’s it, a measurement of energy. No more and no less.

Now to put it into useful information, we need to apply that to how our athletes need energy not only to practice but also to survive. Our bodies depend on a certain amount of calories each day to do normal functions, pump oxygen through our blood stream, breathe, move, digest food, etc. But when we add in sports, we need to consume more food to give us more energy. With the average high school athlete practicing approximately 2 hours a day, 5 days a week, she needs to consume 20 calories per pound of bodyweight minimum. 

If an athlete weighs 135 lbs, she needs to consume at least 2700 calories per day. This might shock girls at first but if you split it into 3 equal meals and 1 snack, it’s only 675 calories per meal.


The macronutrients are just as important as the calories, but you shouldn’t obsess over them for most athletes. Macronutrients are the protein, carbs and fats that make up each calorie. We need all of these to function at our best as athletes. 

Protein helps muscles regenerate and should be spread throughout the day. Encourage kids to eat eggs for breakfast, have a turkey or chicken sandwich for lunch and another protein source at dinner.

Carbohydrates (or carbs) are the bodies favorite source of energy for athletes. Spread these through the day and sandwich exercise with carbs. A quick carbohydrate snack before practice like a rice krispie treat is great. A glass of chocolate milk right after practice gives them the carbohydrates and protein they need to recover.

Finally, fats are important for keeping us full, happy and our brains functioning. To decrease the stomach ache and to keep players going through the day, encourage them to eat nuts , nut butters and avocados in the morning. 

Nutrient Dense Foods (Aka fruits and veggies)

The final thing you can do is encourage kids to eat something that has nutrients in it. We can classify all food into two main categories – nutrient dense and calorie dense. Very rarely are foods both calorie dense and nutrient dense. A calorie dense food is usually something that is fried, loaded with sugar and fats, etc. Think things like fast food, desserts, and so on. Nutrient dense foods are minimally processed, like fruits and vegetables. They’re full of a variety of nutrients like vitamins and minerals to keep our bodies functioning and healthy.

Encourage your athletes to eat a handful or two of fruits and veggies with every meal. A banana with breakfast and maybe a handful of cucumbers and strawberries at lunch and a salad at dinner will go along way in keeping their body healthy. Most kids can find enough fruits and veggies they like to do this. 

But wait…can I even talk to kids about this?

I often get questions and concerns if coaches can even give this advice to players. YES! You can absolutely encourage your players to eat a well rounded diet without stepping on the toes of parents and nutrition professionals.

In fact, you do not need to be a registered dietician or certified nutrition coach to educate your players to eat the right amount and varieties of foods. Most of us aren’t lucky enough to have a RD or nutrition specialist on hand for our teams, so we need to educate ourselves enough to help our players.

If you can educate your players on eating enough calories and trying to eat a variety of macronutrients each day, you’ll see an increase in their performance, especially if they were under-eating!

Want more information on properly fueling your athletes and teams?

Get your copy of Fueling the Female Athlete now!

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