Here is some advice for optimizing, or NOT hindering your child's performance during sporting activities that require lots of exercise.
When we say nutrition, we are referring to pre to post game calories from macronutrients. Hydration is also very important, which most people know; however, they also under estimate how much can be required and when. Read below to get a general idea of what to do.
Many people believe it is beneficial for their kids to snack on the way to a game or practice, but that is exactly opposite of what you want to do. Also known as nutrient timing in performance level sports, it is important not to eat anything that will cause any major insulin response prior to your child's activity. A snack may be okay, but it must be measured.
What happens when you do feed your child a peanut butter and jelly on the way out the door? First, their blood sugar will spike, followed by an insulin response which is intended to bring blood sugar levels down to normal; but if they have began exercise, which is already rapidly depleting their blood sugar, they will bonk. Bonking is an expression used by cyclist for when they hit the wall, due to exercise induced low blood sugar. Bonking can occur at an accelerated rate due to exercising and eating too much on the go.
Have a look at the image:
You might notice that it takes about 2-3 hours for blood sugar levels to stabilize after eating. So, if you intend on feeding your child before the game or practice and you don't want to hinder their performance, you have two options:
If your child participates in sports daily or even regularly, and you wonder why their energy levels are so varied, it may have more to do with their "recovery". Endurance athletes like long distance runners and Ironman triathletes can tell you just how important post workout recovery is, as they experience this at the highest level.
When athletes work hard during training, they can burn about 1/2 of their daily caloric needs per hour; for a 160 pound male, it is about 850 calories per hour. You can't possibly eat enough for breakfast to fuel a workout like that, but luckily of muscle tissue stores glycogen which is the fuel our body uses for short intense bursts of energy like that in soccer. The problem with muscle glycogen stores and athletes or very active people, is that glycogen replenishment is a slow process, except for the 20-30 minutes right after exercise and while the muscles are still warm and the blood vessels are still dilated.
So, it is a good idea to send your child to practice or the game with a "post activity" snack to replenish the energy stores for tomorrows game.
200 plus calories
Gatorade - yes it's sugar, but it goes straight to where it needs to go... And in this case, now the insulin response is a desired effect.
Tournaments can make nutrient timing very challenging. It is important that players do not get too depleted; the results of neglecting this detail are seen at every tournament in the final games as some teams show more fatigue than others - partly due to fitness perhaps, but more likely due to energy management.
In the situation where there are games back to back, it is best to consume small amounts (with water) throughout the duration of the event. Bananas and oranges are good choices for this, and also bites of a 'Power Bar'. Where there is some time between games, it is important to maximize the time post game to prepare for the next game; so, to do this it is best to have the post game food ready to consume right as the final whistle is blown. The amount of calories for this can be calculated based on the time and the 2 calories-per-pound /hour rule and again with water (always with water).
So, for a 50 lb kid with 2 hours between games, the food should look like this: 200 calories of mostly complex carbohydrate (turkey/ham sandwhich without mayo) with a 'bike bottle' full of water (not water mixed with additional calories). It may take the 2 hours for the kid to consume all the water.
Hydration is always very important. Energy levels are affected greatly by hydration levels as it takes 4 ml of water to metabolize 1 gram of carbohydrate, or 1 ml per calorie. So, in an activity where a small child burns say 250 calories, they would need at the very minimum 250 ml of water, and this is without adjusting for other factors like heat.
The important part about hydration is to be proactive and stay slightly ahead of the needs by timing and consuming according to the calculation with measured consumption - this is in contrast to simply giving a child a water bottle watching them have a sip, then say they are good. At some point the child could fall behind, and loose energy from the slightest dehydration.