Coaching Youth Middle Distance Runners: Nutrition
Middle Distance Runners
Nutrition | Psychology
Proper nutritional practices alone cannot generate elite performances, hence the reason for smart training methods and competition strategies, but healthy nutritional habits will significantly affect young athletes' overall wellness. Maintaining a healthy energy balance, practicing effective hydration habits, and understanding the various aspects of supplementation practices can help athletes not just improve their performance but also increase their enjoyment of the sport in general.
Many elite runners maintain high carbohydrate, low-fat nutritional programs (Schröder et al., 2008). One study by Achten et al. (2004) indicated that significantly higher carbohydrate intake can not only improve running performance, but can also improve mood as well. That said, children and adolescents have smaller glycogen stores, meaning that they are more likely to process fat during exercise than adults (Jeukendrup & Cronin, 2011), and a higher fat content diet does not inhibit endurance or anaerobic activities in runners (Hovarth, Eagen, Fisher, Leddy, & Pendergrast, 2000). The quantity and type of calories ingested should depend on the individual athlete and his or her current training phase; higher volume and intensity should necessitate greater caloric intake (Stellingwerff, Boit, & Res, 2007).
Athletes should understand that dehydration is both unhealthy and detrimental to performance. Stearns et al. (2009) even found that improper hydration habits can affect a runner's pacing ability. Hydration education programs are an effective tool for improving young athletes' endurance performance (Kavouras, Arnaoutis, Makrillos, & Garagouni, 2012), but there is little doubt that "(a) dehydration is a major and common problem within children exercising in the heat; and (b) children do not have the capacity to translate hydration awareness to successful hydration strategies" (Kavouras & Arnaoutis, 2012, p. S11). Although adolescent runners can effectively gauge the amount of fluid they consume during exercise (Wilk, Timmons, & Bar-Or, 2010), even experienced runners tend to underestimate the amount of fluids they lose through sweat (O'Neal et al., 2012), and they sometimes struggle to manage their hydration needs by ingesting fluids ad libitum—that is, "at one's pleasure" (Passe, Horn, Stofan, Horswill, & Murray, 2007). Therefore, coaches should carefully monitor athletes' fluid intake during training and competitions to avoid dehydration:
The athlete should consume approximately 500 to 600 ml (17 to 20 US fl oz) of water or a sports drink 2 to 3 hours before exercise and 300 to 360 ml (10 to 12 US fl oz) of water or a sports drink 0 to 10 minutes before exercise. (Casa, 2004, p. 7)
So long as the athlete has ingested an adequate meal approximately three hours before exercise, carbohydrate-based sports beverages such as Gatorade have not been found to provide physiological or psychological advantages over other drinks (Rollo & Williams, 2010). They can also lead to a higher rate of gastrointestinal complaints than water alone (van Nieuwenhoven, Brouns, & Kovacs, 2005). Medical groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, caution against the overreliance on such drinks, and they strongly oppose the use of energy drinks containing stimulants (Schneider & Benjamin, 2011). A possible alternative—aside from water—is tart cherry juice, which has been shown to reduce runners' pain levels and aid recovery after a strenuous race (Howatson et al., 2010; Kuehl, Perrier, Elliot, & Chesnutt, 2010). In warmer temperatures, consuming a "slurry" of crushed ice prior to a workout can improve athletes' endurance capabilities (Siegel, Maté, Brearley, et al., 2010; Siegel, Maté, Watson, Nosaka, & Laursen, 2012). Ingested immediately post-exercise, low-fat chocolate milk has been shown to be a more effective recovery drink than water or carbohydrate-only drinks (Lunn et al., 2012; Pritchett & Pritchett, 2013).
Nutritional supplements are widely used among national-level youth track and field athletes (Nieper, 2005, Petróczi et al., 2008), but with very few exceptions, conventional supplements do not improve middle distance runners' performance (Burke, Millet, & Tarnopolsky, 2007; Schubert & Astorino, 2013). For some athletes, especially females, iron or calcium supplementation may be beneficial (Nickerson et al., 1989; Rowland, Black, & Kelleher, 1987; Winters-Stone & Snow, 2004). That said, even though many athletes report that their coach exerts the most influence on their supplementation practices (Nieper, 2005), this is not an appropriate role for a youth coach; rather, "an appropriate dietary intake rather than use of supplements (except when clinically indicated) is recommended to ensure young athletes participate fully and safely in athletics" (Meyer, O'Connor, & Shirreffs, 2007, p. S73).
Special consideration should be given to the differences between genders as they pertain to all aspects of middle distance running, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of nutrition. Most notably, the female athlete triad of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis makes athletes more susceptible to long-term injuries, such as stress fractures; however, Lucas et al. (2003) found that "sub-elite competitive athletics has no detrimental effect on bone mass accrual in adolescent females" (p. 848) and Hulley, Currie, Njenga, and Hill (2007) found that "participation in distance running at an elite level does not in itself predispose to an eating disorder" (p. 521). One of the primary factors affecting these conditions is an energy deficit caused by inadequate caloric intake (Gabel, 2006). While male athletes tend to meet the necessary caloric intake requirements of an active young athlete, this is often not true of female distance runners (Hawley, Dennis, Lindsay, & Noakes, 1995). Female runners who exercise dietary restraint are more likely to have low bone mineral density (Barrack, Rauh, Barkai, & Nichols, 2008) and those who are "careful about their weight" are eight times more likely to sustain a stress fracture (Bennell et al., 1995). Nieves et al. (2010) also found that "in young female runners, higher intakes of calcium, skim milk, and dairy products were associated with lower rates of stress fracture" (p. 146). Studies have shown that female runners often lack essential knowledge in this area (Zawila, Steib, & Hoogenboom, 2003; Wiita & Stombaugh, 1996), so coaches must be prepared to educate others involved in the process:
Such efforts may include educating athletes, coaches, and parents about overtraining, the importance of rest and recovery, sports nutrition, and signs and symptoms of disordered eating as well as the female athlete triad. Education should also include discussion of the myths associated with endurance sports training, including the misperception that more training and lighter weight is always associated with performance improvements. (Voelker, 2013, p. 172)
In any case, coaches have an obligation to intervene in favor of an athlete who may be suffering from disordered eating behavior.
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