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Athletes – like race cars – need proper fuel to compete. For young athletes, certain things don't mean much without the nutrition necessary to perform at the highest levels. The best habits in the weight room, hard work during practice and mental preparation for competition won't get you far enough on their own. A race care analogy may be the best way to describe what an athlete has versus what an athlete needs.

A race car may have:

  • The most horsepower (speed)
  • The strongest body frame (strength)
  • The most expensive tires (equipment, sponsorship)
  • The best driver (mind, attitude, dedication)
  • The best pit crew (coaches, parents, teammates)

But if the race car doesn't have the right kind of fuel, it's likely not to make it past the starting line, much less be the first to the finish line.

Fuel up with the good stuff

Not just any fuel will do. A race car requires lots of high-octane fuel for fast speed, long races and high competition. Depending on the race, the car may need several pit stops for refueling. Why? Because the fuel burns quickly when it constantly goes faster, demanding more and more.

Athletes demand energy for practice and competition, and they need more energy for rebuilding and gaining strength. They need a healthy meal before competition, hydration and possibly healthy snacks during competition, and a healthy meal for rebuilding and strengthening after competition.

Athletes who eat poorly (or not enough) can't perform at their peak, can't rebuild after a long workout and cannot gain endurance and muscle. Athletes who perform well while eating poorly need to know 1 thing: They would be even faster, stronger and healthier if they ate better.

Just like a car, an athlete would run smoother, faster and more powerfully on higher-octane fuel. Race cars use almost all their fuel during the race (like an athlete during practice) and need to be refueled often. A car that doesn't get enough energy with gas – or an athlete that doesn't get enough energy with food – will sputter to a stop while the competition passes them by. Race cars that get too little gas (not enough calories) or bad gas (fast food, junk food, soda) ultimately have problems with winning the race and have problems with the car (weak bones, less muscle mass and poor concentration).

Balance fuel and activity

Athletes sometimes become overly concerned with eating because they see friends who may not be athletes gaining unhealthy weight. Kids playing video games or watching TV are more like SUVs than race cars. SUVs travel more slowly (not as much exercise) and use less fuel. The leftover fuel becomes excess weight in an SUV (person not exercising), while excess fuel in a race car is helpful to beat the competition in the final laps of the race (an athlete uses excess calories to build stronger bones and more muscle). Although humans are not as simple as cars, this analogy is essential for young athletes to understand.

Healthy eating will result in:

  • More energy
  • Normal growth
  • Healthier immune system
  • Stronger bones
  • Muscle gain
  • Faster recovery after exercise
  • Improved focus and mental sharpness
  • Less need for supplements

Operating on fewer calories will result in:

  • Less energy, less stamina, less endurance
  • Less normal growth
  • Weaker immune system
  • Possible osteopenia (weaker bones, more stress fractures)
  • Difficulty in getting stronger – no fuel to build muscle
  • Harder recovery after practice or competition
  • Decreased mental sharpness
  • Need for more vitamins or supplements

Calories in (eating) = calories used (exercise) = no weight change

Calories in > (more than) calories used = weight gain

Calories in < (less than) calories used = weight loss

Examples of calories used in one hour by a 150-pound person:

  • Running – about 600 calories per hour
  • Playing soccer – about 600 calories per hour
  • Sleeping – about 65 calories per hour

Non-athletes need relatively fewer calories than their athlete friends because they are not doing enough physical activity to burn the energy they may be consuming.

Yet non-athletes often get bored and snack on unhealthy food or eat too much, which results in weight gain. Athletes, on the other hand, may get too cautious or watch their diet too closely, not realizing the energy is going to be consumed so quickly anyway.

So if you are gaining (rather than reducing) time in your swimming, not accomplishing your goals in gymnastics or soccer, or having more frequent stress injuries, it may not be that you are eating too much. It could be just the opposite. It could be that your body needs more energy – and that means more fuel to produce more calories. If you happen to succeed while eating poorly (or not enough), you will actually improve even faster if you eat correctly and eat more.

Eventually your competition will pass you by if your diet is poor. Just like a race car with lower-octane fuel (unhealthy food) or a race car running out of gas on the last lap (not enough food), an athlete needs the best food and enough of it to beat the competition.

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