The Best and Worst Drinks for Young Athletes

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!

The BEST and WORST drinks for young athletes on 100 Days of #RealFood

Let’s take a look at some of the options for your young athlete:

Water

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!

Sports Drinks

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

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

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

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

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!

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26 thoughts on “The Best and Worst Drinks for Young Athletes”

  1. I have a 13yr old soccer player whose coach was pushing the Gatorade, Powerade, etc… type of sports drinks, all resulting in GI issues for him not to mention the sugar highs and lows. We did a lot of research on this topic and if you are looking for a good quality sports drink please visit http://www.generationucan.com. We started to buy this drink mix about a year ago and have had great success. My son uses it as a meal substitute before games and practices as it gives him what he needs without feeling full. The taste is not bad, Orange flavor is his favorite for sure, then Lemonade, a little chalky if not mixed the right way, but overall a great product based on our experience. Go to the website, check it out, and even call them to discuss. A very family friendly company that we are happy to have found. The best part is they are quite healthy, no sugars for the most part. Full disclosure… we do not promote or sell this product and receive no benefit if anyone chooses to buy it. Just very happy consumers that love this website and thought we could contribute to the topic.

  2. Every product mentioned, with the exception of water, is loaded with refined sweeteners. Sports drinks, fitness waters, milk, energy drinks are all loaded with sweeteners (mostly artificial) with no fiber to slow down how fast our bodies absorb it. We develop a pattern of constantly craving it and it becomes extremely hard on our bodies – not good for athletes young or old. Water supplemented with bananas or oranges is the best solution.

  3. Water is our go to drink but after an intense workout or games in hot/humid weather, I’ve been buying Body Armor for my girls (12 & 14) instead of other sports drinks. Still not perfect but far better than the others…no nasty colors,.

    1. I just bought a bottle of body armor as well. We usually just do juice or water, but I’m excited that there is a better alternative available in a bottle!

  4. Cutting out some of the beverages has been hard at games and practices. When all the other kids are drinking them your kids is relentless in trying to get a yes!

    1. I agree. I personally bring Honest Kids drinks when it’s our turn, because they are the best I’ve come across so far. But most of the soccer parents bring artificial “juice” or sports drinks. :-\ Can’t get away from it.

  5. When my son was in Middle School football he added ‘elete’ electrolyte add-in to his ice/water Cooler. In 6th grade is was fun adding the drops, by 8th grade it was habit. Nice all natural product.

  6. Thanks for your post! Since my kids have all started sports and with school back in session, your timing is impeccable! I was curious about your thoughts on Nuun Active Hydration? My 13 year old is in football and I have been recently giving him these tablets in water for practice. I thought they are a good alternative since they do not contain any artificial colors, no sugar and contain electrolytes.

  7. Instead of sports drinks, we use electrolyte water. No worries about fillers or calories! They should be mentioned as an option above.

  8. I’m LOVING Arbonne’s Plant Based (no chemicals, artificial sweeteners or dyes) Sprots Line– Phytosport.

    I personally use it during Pilates–and my husband uses it daily (as he owns a walking tour company and walks on average 8-10 miles a day).

    To Learn More:
    http://www.arbonne.com/discover/products/phytosport.shtml

    Would love to send you a sample for free– just reach out! :) Thank you for being such an advocate for Clean, Healthy Living!!

  9. I apologize if this has already been covered it what brands/types of sports drinks would you recommend? My son does practice often for over an hour and has tournaments (soccer) that I think a sporty beverage would be good for.

    1. You can get electrolyte water at the grocery store. Our store even had it available as a store brand (stop and shop). Smart Water, O2 water, etc.

  10. In the spirit of avoiding anything artificial and being green for the environment I just wanted to mention that a bit of fresh fruit infused in a pitcher with plain water overnight adds a nice flavor to water and can be put in your reusable water bottle. It’s simple, my kids love it, and sometimes simple is best:)

    1. Recharge is a natural sports drink alternative I use for hydration and electrolyte replacement before cross country races and after/during hard workouts; they use fruit juice concentrate instead of junk sweeteners/flavors/colors. And always supplement with lots of water!

  11. Please review the latest recommendations at http://journals.lww.com/cjsportsmed/Fulltext/2015/07000/Statement_of_the_Third_International.2.aspx.
    There is a consensus that OVERHYDRATION, which happens when athletes drink too much water during exercise, leads to hyponatremia, a potentially life threatening condition. Sports drinks do not replace sodium, so they are useless for preventing hyponatremia.
    The recommendation published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine says drink according to thirst. Thirst is the indicator that the athlete needs water. Forcing water in the absence of thirst leads to hyponatremia.

    1. Hyponatremia has gained media attention in the last few years, but it is important for athletes to realize that dehydration is much more common and ‘overhydration’ is a risk mostly associated with ultra-endurance sports and not sports events lasting less than 2 hours such as hockey, basketball and soccer, or shorter hikes/runs. Even in endurance sports, only approximately 1% of marathoners are hyponatremic at the finish line. In reality, it shouldn’t be a concern for most parents/athletes.

  12. My husband is a 65 year old marathoner and uses coconut water. He never suffers from leg cramps like many younger runners and we attribute that to the higher natural level of potassium in coconut water. The handful of times he has used just water he experiences cramps. When he uses sports drinks he “crashes” about 2 hours later. This does not happen with coconut water.

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