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Carbohydrates to Fuel Young Athletes

How Much Carbohydrates Do Young Athletes Need?

Nutrition plays a critical role in fuelling and refuelling an athlete for sports, as well as for natural growth, development and the maintenance of good health. Carbohydrates are the bodies preferred source of energy during moderate to intense exercise, although fats and protein (to some extent) can also be used [1].

This makes them central to a nutritionally adequate diet for all youth athletes to ensure they can achieve peak performance and health. Despite this, carbohydrates tend to get a lot of bad press and there’s a vast amount of misleading and false information about carbs in the media.

In this article, we take a look at how much carbs we should be eating, when and what they’re for, to help us better understand their importance to young athletes.


Carbs for Fuel

As a general rule of thumb, the higher the intensity of exercise, the more carbohydrates will be used, with fats supplying the energy for low-intensity sessions [2].

Carbohydrates are stored in the body as glycogen, either in the liver or the muscles, as well as circulating in the blood as glucose [1]. The amount that can be stored, however, is limited and becomes depleted as the body converts it to energy to fuel movement.

Once the body's carbohydrates stores are emptied, usually after around 60-90 minutes of intense exercise, fatigue will kick in and performance will be directly reduced [2]. This means that starting exercise with high glycogen stores by consuming a carbohydrate-rich diet in the build-up to sports is essential to increasing endurance and delaying fatigue.

This idea is commonly explained with the analogy of putting petrol in a car. If you start a journey with only half a tank of fuel, you won’t get as far as if you’d filled the tank up completely before you set off. Your body works in the same way: ensure your glycogen stores are fully topped up and you’ll be able to compete at greater intensities and for longer.

Similarly, during longer exercise sessions (usually more than 60-90 mins), topping your tank up with fuel as you go will give you a greater endurance capacity and allow you to go further and for longer. 

How Much Carbs Should I Eat?

Although the exact amount of carbohydrates young athletes should be eating will depend on a number of things including their age, weight and activity level, the following recommendations are useful as guidelines. [2]


No. of hours exercise per day

Carbohydrate/ kg body weight/ day

Carbohydrate/ day for a 50kg athlete

Carbohydrate/ day for a 60kg athlete


5-6 g

300-360 g

350- 420 g


6-7 g

360- 420 g

420- 490 g


7-8 g

420- 480 g

490- 560 g


8-10 g

400- 500 g

560- 700g


Carbohydrates Before Exercise

Eating a high carbohydrate meal 3-4 hours before sports has been shown to increase stores of glycogen in the muscle and subsequently improve performance. If you suffer from stomach pains, bloating, or other gastrointestinal discomfort, then it’s a good idea to keep these meals low in fibre too.


Carbohydrates During Exercise

For longer competitions or endurance events of more than 60-90 minutes, consuming some carbs during exercise may be necessary to top up energy stores and maintain power. Recommendations suggest consuming between 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour of exercise and these can be in the forms of either solids, liquids or gels depending on personal preference. For events lasting less than 60 minutes, you should have enough energy stored to without needing additional fuelling.


Carbohydrates After Exercise

Refuelling after sport is essential for recovery and preparation for the next session. It’s a good idea to get young athletes in the habit of bringing along a nutritious snack to training so that they can begin recovering straight away. Flavoured milks, bananas, rice cakes and dried fruit make great post-workout snacks and should be followed by a nutritious high carb, high protein meal within 2 hours [2].


Short Recovery Times

When athletes have multiple training sessions in the same day, or if there’s less than 8 hours between sessions, the timing of refuelling the muscles energy stores becomes vital. Eating a carbohydrate meal straight after training will ensure muscle glycogen stores are replenished as quickly as possible, ready for the next session [3]. Current recommendations suggest eating 1g of carbohydrate for every kilogram of body weight as soon as possible after a session [3]. So, for a 50kg athlete, this would be 50g of carbohydrate etc.


Take a look at our other articles for more information on the other essential macronutrients: fat and protein.


  1. Lanham-New, S. (2011). Sport and exercise nutrition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  2. Bean, A. (2013). Anita Bean's Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  3. Jeukendrup, A. (2012) Sports nutrition. Maidenhead: Meyer & Meyer Sport.


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