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Sports Drinks 101: Young Athletes

Sports drinks for young athletes

This article was updated in June, 2019.

As a pediatric nutritionist who’s worked with many young athletes over the years (and wrote a book on the topic), I’ve watched the pendulum swing back and forth on sports drinks.

On one end of the spectrum, sports drinks were welcomed with open arms (and open mouths) regardless of age or sport.

There was a health halo phase when many parents thought their kids needed them on the playground, at daycare, as well as on the sporting fields.

At the other end of the pendulum, I’ve seen sports drinks be banned from pools, soccer fields and courts. Coaches who have disallowed them for their athletes. 

Are they good for young athletes? Or, are they bad for them?

Is it the beverage?

Or is it user error? 

Of course, in these matters, the answer is somewhere in between.

In this article, I’m taking a look at some areas you should consider when choosing whether to use a sports drink for your child, and how to decide which options are best.

Sports Drink Consumption Trends

Young athletes guzzle sports drinks on the fields and courts across America. From pee wee soccer to elite high school sports, their popularity and consumption is on the rise, and it’s not limited to the athlete.

According to the website Statista, consumption has grown between 2014 to 2017, increasing from 4.3 to 5.1 gallons per capita (or per person). 

Part of the reason is that more than a quarter (27%) of parents perceive them to be a healthy option for their kids.

The Truth About Active Kids

What may surprise you to know is that many American children are not physically active enough to fully utilize a sports drink. Their practices and games aren’t long enough, nor sweaty enough to warrant the need for them.

Although practices may be scheduled for an hour or two, kids typically aren’t active for that long. They take breaks to listen to the coach or stand around waiting for a turn.

One study of soccer, baseball and softball players aged 7 to 14 found that in an average 1 ½ hour practice, athletes were only active for about 45 minutes.

This is far less activity than what many parents believe the young athletes is getting.

Too Many Sports Drinks: Is It Bad for Kids?

Research has identified a risk for unhealthy weight gain when kids consume sports drinks regularly. 

Allison Field, a Harvard researcher, found that young athletes gained about 3.5# per year (equalling a 0.3 increase in the BMI index) when they consumed a bottle (12 ounces) each day.

She concluded they may be worse than soda when it comes to kids’ health.

Football player squirting sports drinks into his mouth

Rethink Your Sports Drink

If you’ve gotten into the habit of offering a sports drink each time your child or teen heads off to practice or a game, you may want to rethink your drink.

There are several reasons why it’s good to be thoughtful about the decision to offer them to your child. Here are a few:

Kids aren’t as physically active as they used to be

Most American children and teens are physically active for less than an hour at a time. One hour is the cut-off I use for whether young athletes should use a sports drink or not.

Elite and high school athletes are, however, more likely to exercise for more than an hour. As such, they may benefit from using one during or after exercise to help them replace electrolytes lost from sweat and refuel with a small amount of easily absorbable carbohydrate.

When are sports drinks appropriate?

Children and teens engaged in exercise for longer than one hour, or who play in high temperatures and/or humidity may benefit from the use of sports drinks (a small 12-ounce bottle) to encourage good eating habits and prevent dehydration. 

A great time for a sports drink? Pre-season training camp.

Other good times for this are: football training during the summer, marathon training and races, back-to-back competitive soccer and tennis matches, swimming, rowing on open water, and long cycling races.

Sports drinks are a source of calories and sugar

As mentioned above, consuming a sports drink may result in the consumption of extra calories, sodium and sugar, above and beyond your athlete’s needs.

Used inappropriately, they may contribute to unwanted or unhealthy weight gain.

They may also place children at higher risk for dental carries and may crowd out essential nutrients for growth and health.

Don’t be lured by marketing messages

Marketing and advertising efforts directed at children and teens entice them to purchase and consume sports drinks. Some common messages kids may hear include:

Sports drinks are a healthy alternative to soda;

They help improve athletic performance;

A sports drink may increase energy levels;

They are a healthy thirst quencher.

The truth is, if used inappropriately, sports drinks can have a similar impact to other sugar-sweetened beverages. They can give an athlete a little boost after extended exercise due to the small amount of carbohydrate present, however, you can get the same effect from a piece of fruit.

Sports drinks have not been proven to increase energy levels.

 

Is Water Good Enough for Athletes?

In the presence of a balanced diet, drinking water before, during and after exercise may be enough to prevent dehydration, even with prolonged exercise.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that if children and teens are engaged in normal physical activity for three hours or less a day, plain water may be adequate.

So, if plain water can cover hydration needs without the potential negative side effects, doesn’t it make sense to rethink your sports drink?

What about Electrolyte Drinks?

The addition of salt, as well as other electrolytes like potassium or magnesium, to water makes up what is known as an electrolyte drink.

These are also known as “rehydration drinks” or “sports drinks” because they replace the electrolytes that are lost through sweating with physical activity.

Is Gatorade an Energy Drink?

No, Gatorade is not an energy drink.

Energy drinks tend to contain caffeine. They may also contain Guarana which has caffeine properties, and other additives. 

Gatorade contains two to three different forms of carbohydrate to maximize the uptake of carbs by the muscles.

This is beneficial to performance. 

It also contains electrolytes but no caffeine according to the website.

Choosing the Best Hydration Drink

My kids have played sports since they were very little. Little soccer players who ran around for 30 minutes, baseball players who picked dandelions, and gymnasts who bounced around on the trampoline. They drank water for hydration.

It wasn’t until my swimmer started double practices and was in the pool for 3 hours a day that I introduced sports drinks. My rower, when on open water in the sunshine and in warm temperatures, takes a sports drink.

It’s hard to notice sweat when you’re swimming in water and sweat evaporates quickly on the water.

When you know your child needs a sports drink, then choose wisely. My advice is to opt for the flavor, taste and brand your athlete will drink!

Need More Help?

Got an athlete? Check out my sports nutrition program designed to teach and train the young athlete and his or her parents how to fuel for sports performance.

Eat Like a Champion is a sports nutrition program for young athletes and their parents to learn how to fuel the growing body for a competitive edge.

 

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