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How to Get Young Rowers to Eat for Sport

Parents and coaches want their rowers to feel good, eat well and perform to their best ability. But that’s not always easy to accomplish when you’re dealing with hungry, growing bodies, different food preferences and food temptations around every corner.

I’ve heard a variety of food complaints from parents:

“Every time I look at Ryan, he’s eating fruit snacks or cookies!”

“Emily is starving all the time. I don’t think I am doing a very good job of feeding her.”

“I can’t get Tyler to touch a fruit or a vegetable. He’s the carb king!”

The eating challenges are many when you have a young athlete. From picky eating and wanting a quick performance fix, to hitting the drive-thru for fast food and munching on the wrong foods during competition, it’s not easy to steer the young rower to eat for performance. As it is, many young athletes eat to lose, rather than win!

Knowing what to feed the rower is challenging enough, but even when you have all your nutrition ducks in a row, getting the rower to make the right food choices is a whole different battle.

So how can you encourage your rower to eat well? These five tips will help you:

Set up a Healthy Food Environment: Parents are the “nutritional gatekeepers,” that is, they control the majority of food that gets purchased, stocked and prepared in the home. They also control how frequently the family eats together, dines out and visits fast food joints, as well as the purse strings (the money). The reality is, as rowers grow up, parents have less control over these factors – especially their eating – which is why it’s important to establish a nutritious food environment early on. If healthy foods are available at home, the rower will see that as the norm and be more likely to eat them, both at home and away.

Encourage Fueling: Rowers who want to perform their best need to have nutrition on board. It makes a difference! Rowing on an empty stomach, a tummy full of sugary or fried foods, or an overly full stomach will impact pace, comfort level and endurance. The practice of fueling for sport is a daily commitment, not something you do the night before competition. Rowers do best when they understand the right amount and type of food to suit their body, whether it be a banana before practice or a bagel with peanut butter.

Tap into the Developmental Stage: Each developmental stage is different. For example, during the school-age years, kids are interested in learning new skills, which is why the learning phase of many sports happens during childhood. Teaching young rowers how to cook and the basics of nutrition, like what is healthy to eat for sport and what is not, is not only developmentally appropriate, it allows a natural way to explore food and learn. During the teen years, the brain is more capable of understanding complex nutrition topics, like how the body uses food during exercise. Explaining this helps build ownership and responsibility for taking care of one’s own nutritional needs. Remember, though, teens are also risk-takers and love to experiment with new things (even unproductive dieting!), so keep the conversation about healthy nutrition going.

Set the Food Rules: Leading up to and during competition, set a “no junk food” policy (i.e., no candy, no chips). This can be a team or family rule and sets the tone and manner for the importance of nutrition for athletic performance. Consider a training diet rule as well, such as “sweets and junky indulgences on the weekends only.”

Stick with a Plan: Eating tends to fall apart when there is no plan. When rowers come to a regatta without nutritious snacks, they go to the concession stand or grab quick energy foods like candy or cookies. When rowers don’t have water or a sports drink, they go to the vending machine or a vendor and choose unhealthy beverages. When a nutritious pre-competition meal isn’t planned, rowers may not get a good balance of the nutrients they need such as carbs and protein. While it may seem hard to get a plan going, the reality is a plan makes everything easier.

How do you manage to get your rower to eat well?

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School ( She is the creator of Just The Right Byte (, and is working on her next book, entitled Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT.

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