It is important for cheerleaders to know how to fuel their bodies to support their training and performance. Here are 10 cheer nutrition tips to help ensure cheerleaders have the energy needed to perform at their best.
Cheer Nutrition Tip #1: Plan Ahead
With busy school, practice, game, and competition schedules it is important for cheerleaders to plan ahead for how they will meet their nutrition needs. Taking time to prep meals and snacks in advance can save cheerleaders valuable time during the week. It can also help ensure they have the right foods available during the week to support their activities.
Meal prep does not have to be complicated to be advantageous. Consider the following small tasks that can be done in advance to make the weekdays easier:
- Chop fresh fruits and vegetables
- Individually package snack items for the week
- Prepare overnight oats to enjoy for breakfast
- Meal prep items you can enjoy for dinner following a game
Cheer Nutrition Tip #2: Fuel Your Performance with Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates provide cheerleaders with the energy needed to train and perform at their best. Thus, carbohydrates should be at the foundation of a cheerleader’s meal plan.
There are a variety of food groups that provide carbohydrates, including:
- Fruit: Fresh, frozen, dried
- Starchy Vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, corn, peas, beans, and legumes
- Grains: Bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, oatmeal cereal
- Milk and yogurt
Carbohydrate needs vary based upon the intensity and duration of the activity that cheerleaders will be participating in (1). On days when cheerleaders will be engaged in high-intensity or longer-duration practices or competitions, they need to fuel their bodies with additional carbohydrates for energy.
Cheer Nutrition Tip #3: Spread Protein Throughout the Day
Including protein in the diet is also important for cheerleaders. Protein has many important roles, including helping the body to build and maintain lean muscle mass.
To get the most benefit from protein intake, cheerleaders should aim to consume protein spread throughout the day with meals and snacks (2). Lean sources of protein that cheerleaders can add to their meal plans include:
- Chicken, turkey, seafood, pork, lean cuts of red meat, eggs
- Low-fat milk, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese
- Beans, legumes, nuts, and nut butters
- Soy milk, tofu, edamame
Cheer Nutrition Tip #4: Enjoy Healthy Fats
In addition to carbohydrates and protein, cheerleaders should not neglect the importance of including healthy, unsaturated fats in their diets. Dietary fat plays many important roles in the body. The body needs fat for the absorption, transportation, and storage of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, K).
Fat also provides an energy source for the body, helps protect internal organs, and provides structure to cell walls. Essential fatty acids are also necessary for optimal brain function.
Ideas for foods containing healthy, unsaturated fats that cheerleaders can add to their diets include:
- Fatty Fish: Salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, mackerel
- Nuts, Nut Butters, Seeds
- Olives and olive oil
- Liquid vegetable oils: Canola, corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower
Cheer Nutrition Tip #5: Choose Anti-Inflammatory Foods
It is also important for cheerleaders to include foods in their diet that can help reduce inflammation in the body and enhance recovery from exercise.
Cheerleaders should focus on enjoying a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, which contain vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber. In addition to fruits and vegetables, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices all provide anti-inflammatory benefits and are healthy options for cheerleaders to include in their meal plan as well.
Cheer Nutrition Tip #6: Focus on Hydration
Cheerleaders should make hydration a daily focus, as it is important for both health and performance. Dehydration increases the risk of heat illness, especially when exercising in a hot and humid environment. Dehydration can also negatively impact performance and cognitive function (3).
To help meet their daily hydration needs, cheerleaders should make sure to consume fluid with each of their meals and snacks. In addition, they can consider carrying a refillable water bottle throughout the day as a reminder to drink.
Hydration During Activity
During activity, cheerleaders sweat to remove heat from their bodies resulting in the loss of both fluid and electrolytes (mainly sodium). Therefore, hydration plans during activity should focus on minimizing the amount of dehydration that occurs and focus on replacing both fluid and electrolytes (4).
Although hydration needs vary greatly amongst cheerleaders, a general rule is to aim to drink ~3-8 ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes (0.4-0.8 L per hour) of activity (1, 3) . Drinking a big gulp of water or sports drink is equivalent to approximately 1 ounce of fluid. Thus, cheerleaders should aim for several big gulps from their water bottle every15-20 minutes of practice or competition.
Sports Drinks During Activity
Cheerleaders may wonder if they should be drinking a sports drink during practices and competitions. Sports drinks are formulated to contain fluid, carbohydrates, and electrolytes. When consumed during activity, the carbohydrates in the sports drink provide energy for the working muscles. The fluid and electrolytes in the sports drink help replace sweat losses.
When cheerleaders will be exercising over 1 hour, have multiple practices or competitions in the same day, or if it is hot and humid outside, sports drinks can be beneficial in helping them meet their hydration needs (3, 5).
Rehydrate After Exercise
Following cheer practices or performances, it is important for cheerleaders to rehydrate and replace the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat. Weighing before and after activity can help cheerleaders determine how much fluid was lost in sweat. For each pound of weight lost during the activity, cheerleaders should aim to drink 20-24 oz of fluid (1).
Consuming sodium, following activity, with meals and snacks can help cheerleaders with replacing the sodium lost in sweat. In addition, sodium helps the body to better retain the fluid consumed after exercise (3).
Cheer Nutrition Tip #7: Start the Day with Breakfast
Starting the day with breakfast is important for cheerleaders. Eating breakfast helps to refill carbohydrates (glycogen) stores (6) and provides cheerleaders with the energy needed for the day’s activities.
Breakfast does not have to be a sit-down meal to meet the nutrition needs of cheerleaders. Here are several breakfast-on-the-go ideas that cheerleaders can try out.
- Fruit smoothie
- Greek yogurt parfait with frozen berries and granola
- Whole grain bagel, peanut butter, banana, low-fat milk
- Protein overnight oats
- Instant oatmeal with sliced almonds, blueberries, high-protein milk
- Hard-boiled eggs, cheese stick, English muffin, apple slices
- Cottage cheese with fruit, breakfast bars, 100% fruit juice
Cheer Nutrition Tip #8: Eat Before You Compete
If cheerleaders want to perform at their best, it is important they fuel their bodies appropriately. Eating a well-planned meal prior to games and competitions can help ensure cheerleaders have the energy needed to perform at their best.
Cheerleaders should aim to eat their pre-competition meal 3-4 hours prior to the start of activity. This allows time for their bodies to digest the meal and to go to the bathroom, if needed, before the start of the competition.
The pre-competition meal should include a good source of carbohydrates, a moderate amount of lean protein, and be low in saturated fat.
Example pre-competition meals may include:
- Fruit smoothie, bagel with nut butter
- Turkey sub sandwich, pretzels, apple slices
- Pasta with marinara, sliced chicken, vegetables, breadsticks
- Grilled salmon, steamed rice, green beans, dinner rolls
Halftime Snacks for Cheerleaders
Cheerleaders should take advantage of the halftime break in the game as well as breaks during competition to refuel. During the break, cheerleaders should focus on eating carbohydrate-rich snacks for a quick source of energy. In addition, they should use the break as an opportunity to rehydrate with fluid and electrolytes.
Ideas for carbohydrate-rich snacks include:
- Fresh fruit, dried fruit, applesauce squeeze
- Fig bar, low-fat granola bar
- Pretzels, pita chips, snack crackers
- Sports drinks
A carbohydrate-rich snack during the break can help provide cheerleaders with the energy needed to perform at their best during the second-half of the game.
Cheer Nutrition Tip #9: Pack Your Snacks
Nutritious snacks can be an important part of a cheerleader’s diet. I encourage cheerleaders to view snacks as mini-meals that can help them meet their nutrition needs.
When planning snacks, cheerleaders should aim to combine a carbohydrate-rich food item with a source of lean protein.
Here are several easy snack ideas cheerleaders can enjoy:
- Granola bars with nut butter
- Hummus with pita chips
- String cheese with whole grain crackers
- Apple slices with almonds
- Greek yogurt with fresh berries
- Trail mix made with pretzels, whole grain cereal, dried fruits, and nuts
- Peanut butter and jelly on honey wheat bread
Cheer Nutrition Tip #10: Avoid Underfueling
Consuming adequate calories to support health and performance is important for cheerleaders. Cheerleaders often expend a high number of calories through cheer practices and competitions, game day performances, as well as normal daily activities.
When daily caloric expenditure from these activities exceeds the dietary intake of calories from foods and beverages an imbalance occurs. We refer to this imbalance of calories as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport or RED-S (7).
RED-S is associated with a syndrome of health concerns that can have negative impacts throughout the body. In addition, the caloric imbalance can also negatively impact your cheer performance.
Signs and Symptoms of Underfueling in Cheerleaders
- Chronic fatigue
- Frequent illnesses
- Overuse injuries and stress fractures
- Irregular period or cessation of the menstrual cycle
- Decreased heart rate and body temperature
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability, depression, mood swings
Disordered Eating in Cheerleaders
It is important to note that in some situations, disordered eating patterns are also contributing to the calorie imbalance. Disordered eating behaviors exist on a continuum ranging from occasional unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors to clinically diagnosed eating disorders (7). Research looking at competitive cheerleaders has found an increased risk amongst cheerleaders of both energy deficiency and disordered eating behaviors (10).
Cheerleaders anywhere along the continuum displaying disordered eating behaviors can benefit from meeting with a sports dietitian nutritionist. A sports dietitian is a key part of the treatment team, working alongside a physician and mental health professional, to address the cheerleader’s specific health and nutrition concerns.
Cheer Nutrition Tips to Support Performance
You are now set with 10 nutrition tips to support cheer training and performance. Cheerleaders should remember to plan ahead and make nutrition a priority to ensure they are fueled to perform at their best.
Check out my blog, 9 Essential Items for an Athlete’s Grocery List, for additional ideas on meeting your cheer nutrition needs.
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About the Author
Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy has experience working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.