As a coach of high school aged athletes, you know how extremely difficult it is to have any influence on their diets. There are several variables that stand in your way from getting your runners to adopt good dietary habits:
- Their home lifestyle, and family routine
- The usually unhealthy options served in most cafeterias
- Pressures from peers to eat certain foods and drink certain drinks
We can relate, because we’ve all been there. At the age of 14-18, especially if you’re an athlete, your metabolism is so ramped up, it’s difficult to have anything stick calorically. This is often misinterpreted to mean that these individuals can consume anything they want as long as it’s not too close to a workout or race. The old reference to “Once a Runner”, where Quenton Cassidy’s seemingly unhealthy diet is justified with “if the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn”. Though to some degree this may be accurate, in reality, some things are certainly more efficiently burned, and converted to energy than others.
There are 3 important things to consider in terms of diet:
- What to eat
- How much to eat
- And when to eat it
Of course, your ability to control what happens outside of workout and race situations is limited. However, you can educate your runners on best practices, and point them towards resources where they can learn more about these topics. If they’re serious about the sport and optimizing their performance, they will take the time to learn.
I am not going to outline a day-by-day meal plan, I’m going to focus on the times where you, as a coach, have the most control over your athletes eating habits. If you can instill in them good habits during these hours, this will trickle over into their everyday lives.
This meal will most likely be eaten prior to coming to school or to the bus for a meet. The most important thing for your runners is not to skip breakfast. Suggest your athletes consume something reasonably healthy, like a whole grain bread and peanut butter, or a bowl of oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts. Most teenagers will immediately reach for the sugar laden cereal and drown it in milk. This is particularly ill advised on race days, as dairy is sometimes, difficult to digest, and can upset an already churning stomach.
My go to breakfast, any day of the week, no matter if there’s a race to follow or not is:
- 1 cup old fashioned dried oats
- 2 tablespoons ground flaxseeds
- ¼ cup mixed fruit and nuts – walnuts, almonds, dried cherries, cranberries
- 1 scoop of Sun Warrior Classic, brown rice protein
- Almond milk as necessary to blend in the protein
Cook the oats as normal, with water in the microwave on high for 2 minutes, or on the stove top. Then mix everything else in. It’s delicious, and is packed with a whopping 30 grams of protein, which keeps you satisfied until lunch.
Lunch is a tricky meal for high school athletes. Many students don’t pack a lunch, so they are at the mercy of whatever’s being served that day.
The challenge with lunch is the inconsistency of when they’ll have their lunch period. In many high schools, lunch can span anywhere from 11am until after 1pm. If you have practice at 3pm, that could be the difference between a full meal and a snack. If your athlete’s lunch hour is within 2-2.5 hours of practice, I would strongly recommend they eat a snack around 11am and then another snack at 1:30pm, effectively breaking their lunch into 2 parts. If they can’t eat in class at 11am, have them figure out the closest opportunity within an hour before our after.
One tactic I’ve seen work is to look ahead at the schedule for lunches in a given week and quickly outline the best options for your athletes based on the different lunch periods. I know this is quite a bit of additional work, but it’s worth it during the most important weeks of training to avoid one of your runners missing a key workout due to an upset stomach. You might have to get creative, but there are usually some consistent, moderately healthy options available. Just make sure that this outline is merely suggestive, let your athletes make their own decisions and pay the consequences if necessary, it’s part of the learning process for young athletes.
For snacks, if an athlete either has an early lunch or needs to split their lunch into smaller portions due to it being too close to practice, I recommend something that is relatively easy to digest, roughly 2 hrs before practice. This could be a handful of nuts and an apple, a banana and almond butter, some chopped vegetables (carrots, celery etc) and hummus, or simply a nutritional bar. Though be careful with these, as often times they are heavily processed and contain quite a bit of sugar. Aim for one that has less than 10-12 grams. Kind bars usually have a decent balance of carbs, to fat, to protein.
Honestly, for the distance high school races span, it is not imperative that your runners eat the hour leading up to it. It’s mainly about personal preference at this point, and what their individual body can absorb that close to a strenuous effort. Definitely have your runners test out any pre-race snacks prior to race day in a workout setting. It’s usually best to stick to simple carbs, that are easily converted to energy.
This is something I did not hear of until I was in college, but it seems to be better known now than back then, and that is the importance of consuming some balanced calories within 30 minutes of a workout. By balanced I mean a 3:1 carbs to protein ratio (30-40 grams of carbs to 10-15 grams of protein).
After a hard effort, your muscles are starved for energy and injecting some easily absorbed carbs into your system will help them begin the repairing process, and the protein is there to help with the rebuilding of muscle fibers.
This may seem like an optional addition to a runners diet, but it really is a game changer. You can actually feel the difference the next day. Definitely be a big advocate for your athletes bringing a nutrition bar or an apple and peanut butter or something to consume immediately post-run.
Dinner is another challenging meal for you as a coach to control. As long as you help to better educate your athletes on what’s ideal and what’s not, and support this with the reasons why, the hope is that they will take this home with them, and make smarter decisions, like not over do it on the desert or the pre-dinner snacks.
Ultimately, so much of a high school aged student’s diet is controlled by what’s available in their environment, so the best you can do as coach is to educate and help them maximize the options within a particular environment (like the cafeteria), and have your athlete’s explore different pre-run snacks that work for them.
Making your runner’s diet a major focus at their age is not the best use of your energy, and can potentially be harmful at an age where young adults are already feeling the pressures of media and peers to fit a certain body image. Keep the discussion around food and diet to a minimum, and keep it focused on pre and post run meals for optimal energy levels. This is not a conversation on number of calories, but simply the type of calories to consume around workouts and races.
Disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist, nor am I a dietician. However, I’ve spent a large part of my competitive running career gathering as much information as possible on these topics. What I reference in the preceding sections is not to be taken as 100% correct, everyone is different. I’m simply attempting to outline what are considered some current best practices for optimizing one’s diet for optimal performance in endurance training/racing and applying those to a possible framework for a high school aged runner.