You Don’t Know if You Don’t Ask.
As a nutrition, fitness and health coach for sports minded families and Pro Athletes, the scope of my efforts encompass food intake and training oversight. But when diet and training are maximized and the results are not as expected – what do I do next?
We are concluding this series of posts on youth athletes with the less glamorous, but certainly valuable, review of what I call the “hidden hurdles.”
The “hidden hurdles” are lack of sleep and/or sleep disruption, stomach upset, stress, fatigue, and loss of focus. Any one of these are enough to take down an adult; so imagine one or more of these hurdles confronting a youth athlete who is being expected to excel in school and sports, all while still growing!
As a recap from our last blog, sports nutrition for youth (and for any athlete at any level for that matter) should have three main components:
- Appropriate Macronutrient Intake (Some would also add timing)
- Hydration and Recovery Strategies
- Prevention of the negatively impactful obstacles that can be so disruptive to young athletes, such as digestive distress, lack of sleep or sleep disturbance, less than optimum brain health, and nutrient shortages.
We covered the first two components in my last blog.
Now it’s time to drill down on the certainly less glamorous, but equally important issue of preventing digestive distress, poor sleep quantity and quality, less than optimum brain health, and insufficient nutrient needs in youth athletes.
I’ll challenge you with this formula:
RECOVERY = GOOD SLEEP QUALITY & QUANTITY + OPTIMAL DIGESTION + GOOD BRAIN HEALTH + SUFFICIENT NUTRIENT STORES
Are you tracking how much your youth athlete sleeps and asking if they feel rested? A recent study in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics found that when youth athletes (grades 7-12) get less than eight hours of sleep a night, their risk of injury increases and this risk worsens as the young athlete gets older.1
Why does sleep matter? To state the obvious it’s when the body rests. If the rest is deep enough and long enough, then an adequate level of human growth hormone is produced and, “since HGH helps build and repair muscle mass, tissue, and cells, imagine how simply getting 60-120 minutes more of quality sleep could improve performance.”2
Losing two hours of sleep each night (sleeping six hours instead of eight, or 8 instead of 10 in the case of youth) can significantly impair performance, attention, working memory, long-term memory, and decision making.3
Poor sleep, or lack of sleep, impairs cognitive function and makes it difficult to perform simple tasks and remember familiar things.
There is a link between sleep deprivation and numerous psychological disorders, including depression (Taylor, et al. 2005; Colten & Altevogt 2006).
Multiple studies in college age athletes have found that “sleep extension” (encouraging athletes to sleep longer) to 10 hours per night in athletes whose sport ranged from football to swimming measurably improved performance and reaction time.4
Get your youth athletes (and yourself!) to sleep. Proper sleep room temperature (a bit on the cool side), a dark and quiet sleeping environment, preceded by a 60-minute “power down time” with no exposure to electronic light from mobile phones, tablets, and computer screens all lend to a deep, thorough night’s sleep that aids in recovery, potentially decreases injury, and improves overall health and performance.
For more on a winning sleep game plan check out my latest #SportsFamilyRevolution tips and tools for greater success!
You either love to talk about it or you avoid it at all costs. Either way, digestive health is the gateway to overall health. Overuse of antibiotics, poor dietary intake, overtraining, and excessive pain medications can disrupt the fragile, yet critical digestive terrain in young athletes or anyone for that matter.
Set the stage for investigation. How often do you ask about digestion? I set the stage in the first visit with some ice-breaking lines and a key question that goes something like this: “I’m going to ask you about your gas and your poop. I have three small kids, so I’m knee deep in both depending on the day! You are learning and working really hard at getting great fuel into your body, and what we need to know is how well your body is doing digesting and absorbing it. How much gas you have and what your bowel habits are will tell us that. Are you okay talking to me about that?”
The ice is now broken and now you can investigate. Why is digestion important? Besides digesting and absorbing our food, our digestive system is the second barrier (after our skin) against the outside world. If that barrier is compromised in any way (antibiotics, pain medications, chronic overtraining, or infection/pathogen exposure) an often times not-so-silent health revolt can start from the inside, out. This revolt is not specific to sport, gender, or age – it can happen in the youngest of athletes and children, so be on the lookout.
Over half of the student athletes I work with have some level of digestive distress. Most of their parents have no idea, because they had never asked, or if they did ask, an eye-roll was the answer. There is often a simple solution to gut health that my favorite sports supplement brand can remedy! Many of these young athletes can be adequately supported by simply adding a science backed Probiotic.
Others need consult with their primary care practitioner as they might have something more extensive going on, like yeast, SIBO, or a parasite infection. I’ve see all of these infections in young female athletes who present with fatigue and gas. A hint is that the symptoms are not improved in 1-2 weeks after dietary upgrades and probiotic addition. Know your scope of expertise and align yourself with a functional medicine practitioner or nutritionist when that expertise is needed in these cases. This “discovery” can be a life-changing experience for a teenage athlete.
They’re kids, what do they have to be stressed about? I found this conclusion in a 2011 issue of Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine: “When scheduling youth sporting events, potential activity volume and intensity over any 48-hour period, recovery time between all training and competition bouts, and potential between-day sleep time (≥ 7 hours) should be considered to optimize safety. An overscheduling injury can be defined as an injury related to excessive planned physical activity without adequate time for rest and recovery, including between training sessions/competitions and consecutive days.”5
Ninety-five percent of the student athletes I work with are “over scheduled,” not just with their sport but with life, and lack of sleep is the norm. Fatigue and the physiological effects of stress, such as cortisol levels, should be monitored, especially in student athletes competing at a high level.
We can get into the entire story on adrenal gland health, but for this population the key remedies are sleep, hydration, proper fueling, and knowing the signs of over training. Fatigue can also stem from iron deficiency and digestive distress. So keep on asking!
Brain health is of particular interest in sports where head trauma/injury is more probable (football, soccer, hockey). Outside of this area, brain health and the support of brain health should be considered a high priority simply because of the rate of ADD in the youth population.
Nutrition, as we covered it in Part 1 of this blog, should be the foundation, with special emphasis on investigating food sensitivities, especially when ADD or a similar condition exists. Because the gut is like our “second brain,” keeping the gut in stellar health is beneficial for the brain as well.
Proper fatty acid intake also plays a critical role in brain health. This is an easy place to start with youth athletes and their family because adding healthy food is sometimes an easier place to start versus reducing or eliminating food. Many young people and sport minded families, athletes or not, simply aren’t consuming enough omega-3 rich foods like cold-water fish, raw walnuts, and pumpkin seeds. Again, an easy place to start!
Interesting clinical data has shown that having optimal levels of omega-3 fats in the body before a head trauma can have a positive effect on the outcome and recovery. A simple solution is to add omega-3 rich foods to their diet, as well as a clean, pure, fish oil supplement like Omega-3 gelcaps or Omega-3 liquid, for both brain protection and brain health.
There are many ways to assess nutrient needs. I’m all for testing, not guessing! For many families these tools are not always available. So how do you assess when a youth athlete should be supplementing? Without testing this is what I assess: how much food variance are they getting in their diet each week (are they eating the same seven things over and over again?); what’s their gut health like; how’s their brain power/focus/attention; are they eating adequate protein; has their pediatrician or primary care practitioner tested their iron and Vitamin D3 levels? This last one we’ve covered in-house for you – here is your access to nutrient deficiency testing.
After all that has been assessed, here is a basic supplement protocol and where I can support you and your young athlete (pre-teen to college age and beyond):
- Omega-3 Gelcaps or Liquid
- Whey Isolate or Vegan Protein Powders
- Vitamins D + K and/or Iron (If testing shows the need)
Please share this blog and my game planning tools with any sports families you know, or anyone who works with youth athletes and sports families. Together we can make a difference!
1. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. J Pediatr Orthop 2014 Mar;34(2):129-133.
2. IDEA Fitness Journal, Mike Bracko, Editor, November-December 2013.
3. Alhola P, Polo Kantola, P. Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance, Neuropsychiatrie Disease and Treatment 2007;3(5):553-567.
4. Mah C, Mah K, Dement C. Extended sleep and the effects on mood and athletic performance in collegiate swimmers. Sleep 2008;384:128-131. Mah C, et al. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep 2011;34(7):943-950. Via Reference #2
5. Sports-related injuries in youth athletes: is overscheduling a risk factor? Clin J Sport Med 2011 Jul;21(4):307-314.