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Understanding and Preventing Fatigue in Youth Athletes

Recognizing fatigue in our youth athletic population can be difficult. Many are unaware that there are four types of fatigue which manifest in different physical and emotional ways. Furthermore, it is up to coaches and parents to assist our youth athletes with various strategies to prevent fatigue from occurring and to know when to solicit the help of qualified individuals. Let us discuss each one and shed some light on this important aspect of training and competition.

1. Metabolic Fatigue

Metabolic fatigue is essentially the depletion of energy stores within the body. This can arise from improper fueling during training sessions that last for an hour or more. Coaches and parents must also be aware of the caloric needs for multiple training sessions in one day or training performed over a number of days. Meeting the fuel requirements for an athlete, especially if they are not use to multiple sessions in a day or consecutive days, may be overlooked. As a result, fuel stores slowly deplete and after several days, the athlete may show signs of metabolic fatigue. This could include early fatigue outside of the athlete’s normal abilities, or they struggle to complete a session or an event.

Prevent metabolic fatigue with the following:

  1. Rehydrate and refuel before, during, and after training.
  2. Ensure the athlete has a meal within 1-2 hours of training and hydration is monitored.
  3. Choose calorie-dense meals/snacks with good-fats (e.g. almond butter, avocados, olive oil, nuts, etc.), carbohydrates (e.g. fruits, veggies, and grains), and quality sources of protein (e.g. grass-fed beef, organic chicken, wild-caught seafood).

2. Neurological Fatigue (Peripheral and Central Nervous System)

Peripheral Fatigue – Muscles and the nerves which innervate the muscle

Most of us have experienced neurological fatigue as it relates to the peripheral nervous system (i.e. arms that feel like Jell-O after performing multiple bicep curls or legs that feel tired after a long run). Neurological fatigue can occur after short, high-intensity movements, or after long, slow-intensity sessions involving repetitive movements. The resulting fatigue presents as reduced, localized force production such as slow feet, diminished acceleration, or poor technique.

To aid in recovery, try the following:

  1. Rehydrate and refuel with small amounts of carbohydrates, electrolytes, and protein, before, during, and after training. This may include quality sports drinks during training and a recovery shake or chocolate milk after training.
  2. For muscles themselves, use a spa or shower with the jets focused on the large, fatigued muscles.
  3. After training or later in the day, massage sore muscles using jostling or a light shaking technique.

Central Nervous System (CNS) Fatigue – The Brain

High-pressured training sessions which include hurried decision making and swift reaction, may result in fatigue to the brain. In addition, the monotony of training, emotional factors, or injury can manifest as CNS fatigue giving rise to poor motivation.

To assist in recovery:

  1. Ensure the athlete is consuming a steady intake of carbohydrates during training to maintain normal blood glucose levels. The brain’s primary fuel source is carbohydrate, which is naturally depleted during the training session.
  2. After training unwind using music or visualization, a sauna, or hot-cold contrast showers. Ensure plenty of rest.  

3. Psychological Fatigue

If not managed properly, stressors related to sport, family, school, or personal relationships could results in psychological fatigue. Be it personality conflicts with other teammates, strain from coaches and parents, or competition pressures, each adolescent athlete deals with these stressors differently. If these are not addressed properly, the athlete may lose self-confidence, have poor interaction and communication with other athletes and staff, exhibit signs of anxiety, and/or demonstrate poor sleep quality. Parents and coaches must be vigilant in recognizing these signs/symptoms and taking the appropriate measures to assist their child in working through these issue(s).

Techniques may include:

  1. Taking the child’s mind off of training with funny movies or books.
  2. Socializing with family and friends.
  3. Debrief following training/game (i.e. identify 1-3 things that worked well and 1-3 things that need more work).
  4. Focus on the process rather than rather than the outcome of the practice/game.
  5. Utilizing relaxation techniques 10-15 minutes before bed.
  6. Stay cool in the heat with various modalities (e.g. ice packs, shade, iced towels).
  7. Minimize visual fatigue by limiting screen time with computers, phones, and video games.
  8. Refer to appropriate mental health practitioners when appropriate.  

4. Environmental and Travel Fatigue

Most of us have experienced environmental fatigue whether it be through travel or extreme climates. Flying through several time zones or multiple trips over a short period of time can take a toll on our body clock. Environmental fatigue occurs when there is a disruption of normal routines, effecting your diurnal rhythms. Travel challenges our body with sitting for long periods in limited body positions, it alters or decreases sleep, varies waking times, and leaves us with limited or poor food choices. In addition to travel, outdoor temperatures can have a great impact on our youth. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children are more susceptible to temperature extremes and their health effects. Our youth are less able to regulate body temperatures compared to adults. As such, coaches and parents should be particularly aware of outdoor temperatures in order to prevent environmental fatigue and potentially heat/cold related illnesses. The effects of environmental fatigue may include slower starts (i.e. the athlete takes longer to warm up), an increase in errors during the first 15 minutes of competition, or the athlete may fatigue quicker than normal. With regard to temperature, athletes may develop faintness, extreme tiredness, headache, and intense thirst. With a little preplanning, parents and coaches can have a profound impact on mitigating these effects.

These may include:

  1. Arrive to the competition location in advance to allow ample time to adjust to the time zone or try to make the transition at home by going to bed earlier/later and waking earlier/later in accordance with the time zone into which you are traveling (*note – for each time zone, change sleep/wake time by one hour each day until one reaches the desired time zone).
  2. Pack quality snacks to ensure your child has good food choices at hand.
  3. Stay hydrated by bringing a water bottle as travel often contributes to dehydration.
  4. Keep moving as much as possible on long trips and be sure to utilize travel-size foam rollers and stretching techniques once you arrive to your destination.
  5. Limit visual fatigue by wearing sunglasses and restricting screen time on phones, tablets, and computers.
  6. Be especially diligent with water consumption during extreme temperatures and provide adequate rest periods during practice/games.
  7. Practice indoors during temperature extremes and in the shade when possible. Ensure appropriate clothing (i.e. layered clothing during cold temperatures and light cotton materials for hot weather).

Finally, it’s important that the stages of athletic development (refer back to my previous article, Does My Child Need a Strength Coach?) are taken into consideration as this provides a roadmap to the appropriate amount of training and competition for each child. Coaches who understand Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) will appreciate the loads, volumes, amount of training/competition, and other variables indicated for each stage, which will have a great impact on preventing fatigue. In addition, the developmental stage and training experience of the athlete will guide coaches as to which variables to measure as it pertains to training and competition. Objective measurements provide insight as to how the child is responding to training, which can provide early cues with regard to the onset of fatigue.

Parents can also play a key role in preventing fatigue with proper hydration, quality food/snacks during/after practice and games, monitoring screen time, assisting in recovery techniques, and pre-planning for travel. Check in with your child regularly by asking them how their body is feeling and their thoughts on practice, teammates, and competition. Keep the signs/symptoms of the four types of fatigue in mind so you can implement additional strategies when necessary. Utilize a team of people including mental health practitioners not only during signs psychological fatigue, but to educate the team or child on how to mentally prepare for games/competition. Finally, coaches and parents together can implement the recovery strategies listed above not only to prevent fatigue, but also to establish good habits among our youth so they understand the importance of recovery and regeneration.


Calder, Angela. Canadian Sport for Life. Recovery and Regeneration

ISBN 978-0-9738274-8-3

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). Extreme Temperatures: Heat and Cold. Retrieved from

Written by Dr. Jenn Reiner-Marcello

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