Coaching Youth Middle Distance Runners: Nutrition

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Coaching Youth
Middle Distance Runners

Proper nutritional practices alone cannot generate elite performances, but they can 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 improve their performance and increase their enjoyment of the sport. Bingham, Borkan, and Quatromoni (2015) provide this practical advice for young athletes:

  • Eat fresh, minimally processed foods.
  • Ingest enough calories to remain healthy and competitive.
  • Eat after exercising to recover.
  • Consume enough fluids to maintain proper hydration levels.
  • Plan meals ahead of time.
  • Vary the content of meals to ensure they include a variety of nutrients.
  • Seek help from a professional to address signs of disordered eating behavior.

Caloric Intake

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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 improve running performance and mood. Couto et al. (2015) found that a diet high in carbohydrates correlated with a faster sprint speed in the final 400 m of a distance race. 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 et al., 2000). The quantity and type of calories ingested should depend on the individual athlete and the current training phase; higher volume and intensity should necessitate greater caloric intake (Stellingwerff et al., 2007). Obese children and adolescents often lower their caloric intake while participating in a structured physical activity (Schwartz et al., 2016).


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Athletes should understand that dehydration is unhealthy and detrimental to performance. 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). Stearns et al. (2009) found that improper hydration habits can even affect a runner's pacing ability. Education programs for athletes, such as a short group lecture on the importance of hydration, are an effective tool for improving young athletes' endurance performance (Kavouras, et al., 2012). Although adolescent runners can effectively gauge the amount of fluid they consume during exercise (Wilk et al., 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 et al., 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)

Sports drinks

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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 et al., 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 et al., 2010). In warmer temperatures, consuming a "slurry" of crushed ice prior to a workout can improve athletes' endurance capabilities (Siegel et al., 2010; Siegel et al., 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).


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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 et al., 2007; Schubert & Astorino, 2013). For some athletes, especially females, iron or calcium supplementation may be beneficial (Nickerson et al., 1989; Rowland et al., 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 et al., 2007, p. S73).

Gender Differences

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There are sex-specific factors that play a role in the bone health – which is closely tied to nutrition – of adolescent runners (Tenforde et al., 2015). Most notably, the female athlete triad of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis makes athletes more susceptible to long-term injuries, such as stress fractures. While it should be noted that Hulley et al. (2007) found that "participation in distance running at an elite level does not in itself predispose to an eating disorder" (p. 521), and mere participation in competitive athletics has no negative effect on bone mass levels in young females (Lucas et al., 2003), coaches should be well aware of the signs and symptoms of these conditions and be willing to address them.

One of the primary factors affecting these conditions is inadequate caloric intake (Gabel, 2006). Female runners are less likely than their male counterparts to meet the caloric intake requirements of an active young athlete (Barrack et al., 2014; Hawley et al., 1995). Female runners who exercise dietary restraint are more likely to have low bone mineral density (Barrack et al., 2008) and those who are "careful about their weight" are eight times more likely to sustain a stress fracture than those who are not (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). Female runners often lack essential knowledge in this area (Zawila et al., 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)

One such education program for high school athletes improved students' nutritional knowledge by 32%. All of the participants claimed to have made changes to their food intake as a result of the program (Sarkisian, 2016).


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