This is a guest post by Jill Castle, MS, RDN, a childhood nutrition expert and author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. You can find out more about her at www.JillCastle.com.
If you walk down the aisles of the grocery store you’ll find many sports-inspired beverages. From power-infused aides to vitamin-fortified waters, and everything in between, choosing the best drink for your young athlete is no easy feat. In fact, it can be quite confusing and difficult!
Let’s take a look at some of the options for your young athlete:
Hands down the best option for all young athletes, water has been researched and proven to be best for hydrating most young athletes in most sporting situations. In fact, if an athlete is under 13 years old, you can make it a policy to stick with water. Even if the day is hot and humid, water can do the job, especially if exercise lasts less than an hour. Of course, there’s always the outlier: the child or teen who is a heavy sweater or who loses more salt in his sweat than usual. These athletes may need to use a sports drink or an additional salty snack with water.
Experts have shown that young athletes need frequent reminders to drink because they don’t always hydrate themselves enough when they need to. They don’t recognize thirst as readily and may be easily distracted from drinking fluids.
Bottom Line: Send plenty of water to cover your young athlete before, during and after practices or competitions, and remind them to drink!
Designed for the endurance athlete, sports drinks are meant for the young athlete who is exercising consistently for more than an hour at a time, such as the runner or the swimmer. Sports drinks can also be beneficial when it’s hot and humid because they are salty (they contain sodium, potassium and chloride, the elements lost when sweating), which helps young athletes drink more and prevent dehydration.
The downside of sports drinks is the presence of artificial colors and potentially other additives, such as vitamins or minerals that claim to improve athletic performance. They also contain calories, and when overused, may contribute to unwanted weight gain in young athletes.
Bottom Line: Use sports drinks wisely, such as for the young athlete who is involved in long practices and competitions that last longer than an hour, or in back-to-back events. To avoid artificial ingredients, try making your own homemade sports drinks.
Enhanced, Premium, or Fitness Waters
Vitamin or antioxidant–infused water, coconut water, and other enhanced or flavored waters promise athletic benefits, though the proof of this does not exist. Mostly, these waters will help hydrate your young athlete because they offer a nice flavorful alternative to plain water, but functionally, they behave like water. For those that have a bit of sugar and promise athletic performance benefits, there isn’t enough carbohydrate present to sustain endurance activities, so in this case, a clean sports drink may be better.
Bottom Line: You may pay a hefty price for these waters but may not see a significant performance difference.
Milk is a fluid, so it can contribute to the young athlete’s hydration status, however, milk can cause an upset stomach or other stomach issues when exercising.
Bottom Line: For exercise recovery, there are better choices.
Juice, when it is 100% fruit juice, provides a concentrated source of fructose (natural fruit sugar). This can cause tummy discomfort if consumed in large quantities. Watered down juice can help the athlete stay hydrated during practice and competition, especially if he or she prefers flavored beverages.
Bottom Line: Certainly an option for hydration, but there are better choices.
Soda is never a good option for the young athlete. The presence of refined sugar, artificial colors, caffeine, and other additives outweigh the hydration they could provide.
Bottom Line: Avoid soda.
Energy drinks are quite popular amongst middle school and teenage athletes, despite their safety and efficacy being a big question. Energy drinks are problematic when it comes to the young athlete. First, they contain caffeine and other stimulant ingredients (like herbals) that may contribute to health problems such as an irregular or rapid heartbeat, agitation, and difficulty sleeping.
Secondly, energy drinks aren’t adequately regulated because they fall under the category of dietary supplements, which means the manufacturer bears the burden of testing for safety, labeling the product correctly, and self-reporting adverse events. This leaves too much room for contamination with banned substances, inaccurate ingredient labeling, and errant performance claims.
Bottom Line: Steer clear of energy drinks for young athletes–they can be dangerous for growing kids and teens.
For most young athletes, water is the best option. Among the array of other available hydration options, choose them based on your young athlete’s needs, be it extra electrolytes, recovery nutrition, or flavor to drink adequately. In the end, the most important aspect for athletic performance and health is that your young athlete stays hydrated!