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We have all heard that we shouldn’t eat before bed, but are bedtime snacks ok for young athletes?  Learn why bedtime snacks are important for young athletes, when they are recommended and also what are the best bedtime snacks for young athletes.

Myth Bust!

The 2022 ISSN position stand on protein and exercise explains that having a bedtime snack does not negatively impact insulin levels, metabolism, or fat burning overnight, in active individuals.  They conclude that bedtime snacks can be an important tool to meet protein needs in physically active individuals who are training regularly.

Young athlete interacting with an Apple sports watch showing the time is bedtime at 11:10 PM

Why are Bedtime Snacks Important for Young Athletes?


1. Eating a protein-rich bedtime snack at night helps build muscle overnight.

The 2022 ISSN position stand on protein and exercise explains that a bedtime snack that includes 30-40g of casein protein helps to build muscle overnight. Casein protein is the main protein found in milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese and it is absorbed into the bloodstream slowly, making it an excellent slow-release protein to build muscle overnight.

Pro tip: Having a dairy protein bedtime snack is an underused strategy that can improve muscle mass, body composition, and performance in young athletes.


2. Protein-rich bedtime snack helps muscle recovery.

A randomized, crossover study on professional soccer players in 2019, showed that having a creatine protein bedtime snack speeds up functional recovery, compared to a carbohydrate bedtime snack.  Soccer players were given either a carbohydrate or casein protein-rich snack 30 minutes before bed after an evening soccer match.  The protein-rich bedtime snack improved countermovement jump recovery, strength, and muscle soreness the next day, in soccer players, compared to the carbohydrate-rich bedtime snack.

So what?

Having a big bowl of yogurt or a smoothie with milk and yogurt after a late-night practice will improve your muscle strength, recovery, and soreness the next day.  Who wouldn’t want that?


3. Replace fuel for your next practice.

When athletes have practices or games late into the evening, it is critical to have a recovery snack immediately within 30 minutes post-training.  This is called the recovery window and is the athlete’s chance to refill their muscle glycogen stores, the muscle’s gas tank.  Having a snack during your recovery window helps to stop muscle breakdown and kickstarts muscle building and recovery after a hard practice or game.  The best recovery snacks are mostly carbs with a little protein and are timed within 30 minutes after training.

Are you missing your recovery snack?  Read about the Top 3 Mistakes Young Athletes Make.


4. Add extra calories to gain weight.

Many young athletes have trouble eating enough to catch up to the demands of their training schedule, growth, and development. Some teenagers can grow as much as 6 inches in a year and they struggle to keep muscle on during growth spurts.  It can be difficult to meet their caloric needs through three meals a day and for many athletes, snacks can be just as important as the meals.  An added challenge is that practice times often overlap meal times and many athletes don’t want to eat a big meal before training. Particularly in sports with a heavy practice schedule like swimming and rowing.  Bedtime snacks can be an important opportunity to add extra energy to support building muscle, and growth and allow for gaining weight.


What Time Should We Have a Bedtime Snack?

Bedtime snacks are typically timed to be 2 hours after dinner and 30 minutes before bed.


When Do Athletes Need a Bedtime Snack?

There are a few circumstances in which young athletes NEED a bedtime snack:


1. After an Evening Practice:

Always have a bedtime snack after a late practice or game, even if you are not hungry.  Never go to bed on an empty stomach after playing sports or you will lose muscle, have poor recovery, and have low energy at tomorrow’s practice. Pro tip: high-intensity training is an appetite suppressant and makes athletes nauseous for 30-60 minutes after exercise.  Athletes still need to have a recovery snack right after evening practice.


2. Athlete has an Early Dinner:

When dinner is before 6 pm and there are 3 or more hours before bedtime, most young athletes will need a bedtime snack. Growing athletes have high metabolisms and they need to eat every 3 hours to stay fueled and support their training.


3. Athlete takes ADHD Medication:

Stimulants tend to be appetite suppressants and most kids who take ADHD medication will eat less during the day.  To avoid losing weight and ensure that your adolescent or teen continues to grow at a healthy pace, they will need to add a bedtime snack to make up for their lower intake during the day.


4. During Growth Spurts:

During growing years when adolescents get tall very quickly, they can have a hard time eating enough to catch up to their height.  Just as we see babies eat more often during growth spurts, we need to allow adolescents and teens to eat more, and adding in a bedtime snack is an easy way to get in the extra fuel.


5. During High Volume Training:

When young athletes are training more than 2 hours a day, their energy demands double over resting.  Their snacks start to look like meals and you have yourself a kid who is eating 6 times a day.


6. Athlete has a Smaller Appetite:

Some kids seem to have a lower appetite and get full quickly.  This can be a concern when these kids are training in demanding sports and just cannot eat enough at their meals to get the energy they need to grow and thrive. High-calorie snacks specifically bedtime snacks become an important strategy to help match their energy needs.


Will bedtime snacks interfere with appetite in the morning?

A 2021 study showed that having a bedtime snack does not interfere with the athlete’s appetite at breakfast the next morning.

So What?

If you have a young athlete with a small appetite and struggle to eat enough during the day, adding a bedtime snack can be an excellent strategy to boost their Calories, without interfering with their appetite at the other meals.


When Athletes DON’T Need a Bedtime Snack:


1. Athlete is not Hungry:

Most youth are pretty good at knowing when they are hungry and when they are full and parents can honor their hunger cues.  See above for the exception to this rule after a high-intensity evening practice, which may mask normal hunger cues.


2. Athlete has a Late Dinner:

An athlete may not need an evening snack if they have a late dinner or go to bed within an hour or two of dinner.


3. Athlete has Light Training:

Teens who have a light practice schedule or during the off season, may not need a bedtime snack.


4. Athlete Ate 3 Hearty Meals:

Athletes who have 3 hearty meals and a couple of daytime snacks may not need a bedtime snack.


5. Athlete is a Picky Eater:

Bedtime snacks should not become a way for picky eaters to refuse to eat family dinners and help themselves to a peanut butter sandwich after dinner.  Sitting down for family meals is important for the health and well-being of all adolescents and teenagers.  If your teen misses the family meal due to a late practice or game, offer to reheat leftovers for them when they get home.

For a complete guide to feeding your athlete with the best meal and snack ideas that fuel performance and nutrition, take the Sport Nutrition Course for Parents of Young Athletes.


Dietitian Tips: Best Bedtime Snacks for Young Athletes:

Making a bedtime snack should be easy enough that your teen can do it independently in a couple of minutes.  Whether it is a bowl of cereal, yogurt, and granola or a grilled cheese sandwich, it shouldn’t take long to make or eat.


High Protein Bedtime Snacks for Young Athletes to Build Muscle:

Adding dairy protein (aka casein) to a bedtime snack essentially trickle-charges the muscles overnight and tells the body to build muscle and improve muscle recovery.

  • Greek yogurt + granola
  • Cottage cheese and fruit
  • Protein shake with milk

For more tips to build muscle, read 10-Steps to Gain Muscle.


High Carb Bedtime Snacks for Recovery after Practice:

Athletes with late-night practices or games should have a high-carb recovery snack immediately after practice.  Even if it is very late and they just want to go to bed, give them a smoothie, bowl of cereal, or toast and milk to help their muscles refuel and recover.

  • Vector + milk
  • Toast + PB + milk
  • Leftovers
  • Greek yogurt + fruit


High-Calorie Bedtime Snacks to Help Young Athletes Gain Weight:

If your teen athlete can polish off a tub of Nutella or a box of crackers in one sitting, that’s a sign that he isn’t eating enough at the right times.  Providing high-calorie snacks that are easy for the lazy teenage athlete is a trick!  These high-calorie bedtime snacks are fast, and easy and are sure to please your hungry athlete.

  • Granola + Greek yogurt
  • Smoothie with Greek yogurt, banana, milk, fruit, and seeds
  • Bagel + peanut butter
  • Trail mix + milk
  • Grilled cheese sandwich + milk


For more smoothie recipes, check Smoothies to Help Young Athletes Gain Muscle.

Is your young athlete training hard and not paying attention to their nutrition?

Do they get their sports nutrition tips from TikTok?

Book an appointment to work with Cristina Sutter, top sport dietitian in BC, and bridge the gap to help them become faster, stronger, and better athletes.