Catherine Norton: Right food is key if young players are to succeed
The question of what to feed young athletes is probably the one that I am most frequently asked. Parents, coaches and athletes themselves are often confused by all the different messages out there.
The information here is not intended to serve as prescriptive advice for any individual, rather as a guide on what good nutrition might look like in young athletes.
Today, youth athletes train like professional athletes, spending several hours a day practising.
The demands of training expected from youth athletes need to be accompanied by proper nutrition and hydration in order for them to reach their optimal level of performance.
The advice in the food pyramid, which is taught in schools from a young age, is something that all youth athletes should be familiar with and follow daily.
Foods in the bottom shelves of the pyramid are nutrient dense and tend to be lower in calories.
Examples of foods here are: carbohydrate-rich breads, cereals, rice, pasta, potatoes as well as fruit and vegetables. Each meal in the day should contain plenty of foods from these groups to support growth, development and daily physical activity demand.
The middle shelves of the food pyramid are made up of protein-containing foods.
Unfortunately, in a western diet many of the foods we eat from these shelves tend to be high in fat as well as protein - examples here include meat, fish, chicken, eggs, cheese and other dairy products.
The best advice here for health is to eat these in low-fat formats - no fat/skin/batter/breadcrumbs, and choose low-fat, fortified dairy products.
The upper shelves of the pyramid contain foods that have a high calorie content and very little else.
These foods add flavour or are treat foods that should be eaten infrequently. I suggest athletes can include these foods when each of the other food groups is represented as it should be, but make sure you don't have an inverted pyramid.
The biggest mistake young athletes make is that they forget to fuel before they train and then they don't give enough consideration to recovery afterwards.
These are two of the three basic rules of sports nutrition: fuel well in advance; hydrate well during and after; and recover adequately to best benefit from the training you have done.
Failure to do these three things mean that you don't make the same gains in training; you fatigue earlier, miss reps, sets or drills, and this will transfer onto competition performance.
All players training after school need to bring a suitable snack to eat after the last bell rings and before you start to train, for example, fruit, cereal bar, rice pot, fruit or low-fat flavoured milk, or a sandwich.
Many schools teams don't provide fluids at training - so BYO! At least this way you chose what you drink, how much and you know that the bottle is clean. Sports drinks are not necessary either as you can easily make your own.
After training you need to replace what you have used up; for most athletes this means fluids and salts (lost in sweat), carbohydrates (the preferred fuel source for exercising muscles) and protein (to rebuild / repair soft tissue).
The last topic I want to touch on is supplements.
There is sound evidence in the scientific literature to show that some nutritional supplements can assist adult athletes to achieve peak performance in certain circumstances and under the direction of a qualified professional (choose a member of the INDI (www.indi.ie) or a registered sports nutritionist).
The I RFU, GAA and Irish Sports Council all have the same stance on the use of sports supplements in youth athletes - don't do it!
We don't yet know what the long-term effects might be; there is a general lack of safety and efficacy data in youth athletes.
In Munster we adopt a food-first approach, whereby we aim to get all the nutrients required for players from food first. We don't use supplements in our age-grade teams and they seemed to do very well without supplements this year.
For more information visit www.irishrugby.ie/agegrades/eat_2_compete.php and www.irishrugby.ie/downloads/IRFU_supplements_the_young__FINAL.pdf