Sports drinks - do kids really need them?

Sports drinks have become as integral a part of youth athletics as bats, balls, gloves, racquets and sneakers. However, many dietitians and educated coaches don’t recommend these nutritionals as often as parents think, saying as long as your child eats properly before and after games and matches and drink plenty of water during competition, they should be fine.

Knowing when and what types of sports drinks to give kids will help you make sure you’re not filling your child with unnecessary calories and sugars.

What’s their purpose?

The primary purpose of sports drinks is to help your child maintain energy and replenish the nutrients (primarily electrolytes) she loses when she sweats. Sports drinks can also provide an important function of providing fuel a child needs when she’s active.

The main electrolyte athletes lose during intense competition is sodium. Back in the day, athletes took salt tablets before or during competition to help prevent cramping. However, putting a salt tablet in your stomach makes it more difficult for liquids to quickly get to your muscles. “You can add a pinch of sea salt to water to provide minerals the body needs to stay hydrated, especially if your child gets muscle cramps,” says holistic sports nutritionist, Julie Burns, MS, RD, CCN, owner of Chicago-based SportFuel.

How often?

Kids can benefits from sports drinks (or some form of hydration and nutrition) whenever they work hard and sweat for 60 minutes or longer, recommends sports dietitian Page Love, MS, RD, CSSD, owner of Nutrifit Sport Therapy, Atlanta. If kids are playing softball on a cool day and aren’t sweating, they might be fine drinking water and eating a light snack such as a banana. If kids are running hard and sweating for more than an hour, even when they’re in an air-conditioned gym or it’s overcast outdoors, they might need to replenish lost nutrients.

Use your judgment based on how hard kids are playing and how much they’re sweating as to how often and how much sports drink you serve. You can dilute a sports drink by adding water, or give kids small sips between plays, innings or changeovers.

What temperature?

One of the purposes of drinking during sports is to regulate an athlete’s body temperature. However, the colder the drink the longer it can take the liquid to get out of an athlete’s stomach and into his muscles. If your kids are competing indoors and they are not hot, you can serve sports drinks or water without ice to help the liquid hydrate them quicker. If your kids are playing in the hot sun and you can see they are getting hot, served chilled (not iced) drinks.

Put the drink containers in a chest of ice rather than pouring the drinks into cups filled with ice. If you’re using a cooler to serve water or drinks, don’t put all of your ice in at once. Put enough ice in the cooler so that it chills the drinks (the ice will float on the top), and keep replenishing the ice during the game, rather than dumping all the ice in at once.

What kinds of drinks?

If kids are playing at a high intensity for an hour or longer, serve carb-type sports drinks with sodium and other electrolytes, such as potassium. Protein is not a performance fuel, so low-carb sports drinks often only provide electrolytes.

Check the nutrition label for sugar and calories and avoid those with artificial additives, advises Burns. The best-tasting drinks might be the sweetest and defeat some of your weight-management goals for kids. Diluting sports drinks and serving bananas or salty snacks, such as pretzels, can reduce the amount of high-calorie, high-sugar drinks kids will guzzle during a match or game, says Love.

Avoid high-caffeine “energy drinks,” which are stimulants that give kids a buzz, but not fuel for performance or nutrient replenishment. These are loaded with natural stimulants and caffeine, as well as other additives. Regular consumption of energy drinks can lead to sleep problems, anxiety, gastro-intestinal issues, elevated heart rates and dehydration.

Bottom line

Your kids don’t need sports drinks if they eat properly before competitions, their heart rates aren’t elevated for prolonged periods and they’re not sweating. Sports drinks can do more harm than good if they’re consumed on a regular basis because of the calories and sugars they contain.

Sports drinks can be helpful for kids who need to stay hydrated, need fuel for intense, prolonged physical activity and need to replace sodium and potassium they lose through profuse sweating. Even under the optimal conditions for serving a sports drink, consider supplementing them with chilled water and healthy snacks that contain sodium and carbs.

Don’t have sports drinks around the house as a substitute for water, milk or other healthy drinks.

What are your thoughts? Share your opinions in the comment section below or on our Facebook page.

MORE: Sports Drinks - Basic Science and Practical Aspects (a book on Amazon)

Steve Milano

Steve Milano has been writing and lecturing on youth sports for more than 25 years. He ... View Full Bio

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