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The Best Way to Rehydrate Young Athletes

Learn the best way to rehydrate young athletes, the different rehydration beverages available and how to navigate the options.

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

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.

Part of the reason is that over 25% of parents perceive sports drinks to be a healthy option for their kids.

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 using a rehydration drink.

Is Gatorade for kids healthy? What about energy drinks for kids? What’s the best way to rehydrate after sports?

Here’s what you should consider when choosing whether to use a sports drink for your child or not, and how to decide which options would work best.

best way to rehydrate - rehydration drinks 101

What’s the Difference Between Rehydration Drinks?

The body loses fluids and electrolytes through normal daily activity, although most of the time water and a balanced diet are enough to replenish what’s lost.

When your child takes part in intense physical activity for over 60 minutes or an activity in high temperatures, he may need to replace the fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrates with a rehydration drink.

Here are the common rehydration drinks available.

Electrolyte Drinks

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

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

However, the best way to get electrolytes isn’t necessarily from an electrolyte drink, which may have added sugar. Coconut water and milk are options for electrolyte drinks without sugar added.

Coconut water contains sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium. And milk contains potassium, magnesium, protein and carbohydrates (lactose) making it one of the most efficient recovery drinks after physical activity.

Energy Drinks

Energy drinks for kids? They’re not recommended.

Energy drinks contain caffeine or other stimulants such as Guarana, which has caffeine properties, and other additives. Energy drinks may also contain the amino acid, taurine.

Excessive consumption of energy drinks containing caffeine by kids and teenagers may have adverse effects on the developing brain.

Sports Drinks

What About Gatorade for kids?

Unlike energy drinks, Gatorade does not contain caffeine, according to the website.

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

This is beneficial to athletic performance.

However, there’s a risk for unhealthy weight gain when kids regularly consume sports drinks.

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 consume a bottle (12 ounces) each day.

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

Water

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, water may be the best way to rehydrate.

When my kids were very little, they ran around on the soccer field for 30 minutes, picked dandelions while playing baseball, and bounced around on the trampoline in gymnastics.

Water was all they needed for hydration.

When my swimmer started double practices and was in the pool for 3 hours a day, I introduced a rehydration drink.

My rower takes a sports drink when on open water in the sun and on hot days. For both swimmers and rowers, it’s hard to notice sweat when you’re swimming in water, and sweat evaporates quickly on the water.

Grab my mini-training on athlete hydration!

What to Consider Before Choosing a Rehydration Drink

If you’ve gotten into the habit of offering a rehydration drink, each time your child or teen heads off to practice or a game, it might be time to rethink your child’s drink.

There are several factors to consider before choosing a rehydration drink. Here are a few:

1.   Look at physical activity duration

Most American children and teens are physically active for less than an hour at a time. One hour is the cut-off I use as an indicator for using a rehydration drink or not.

Athletic practices and games for many American children aren’t long enough, nor sweaty enough to warrant the need for them.

A recent study shows that parents may overestimate the amount of activity their child is getting.

Elite and high school athletes are, however, more likely to exercise for more than an hour. They may benefit from a rehydration drink during or after exercise to help them replace electrolytes lost from sweat.

Rehydration drinks also help them refuel with a small amount of easily absorbable carbohydrate.

2.   Consider the weather

Children and teens who play in high temperatures and/or humidity may benefit from the use of a rehydration drink (e.g., a small 12-ounce bottle) to encourage good eating habits and prevent dehydration.

Other times when your young athlete may need a sports drink is during pre-season training camp, 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.

3.   Consider 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 caries and crowd out essential nutrients for growth and health.

4.   Watch out for marketing hype

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

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.

If used inappropriately, a rehydration drink can have a similar impact as other sugar-sweetened beverages.

They can give an athlete a little boost after extended exercise because of 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.

So what’s the best way to rehydrate for your young athlete?

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!

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

Rehydration is only one component of sports nutrition. Young athletes need a daily diet that supports performance, energy and growth.

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