Sports Nutrition

Hydrating Young Athletes

We are still in the winter months, but your school-aged clients and their parents/caregivers may be gearing up for spring sports season. For my family, this means soccer matches, lacrosse practices, and flag football games, all of which require a well-fueled body and appropriate hydration.

Since kids don’t always perceive thirst as well as adults do, parents and coaches will need to remind them to take water breaks. As RDs, we should counsel parents and train coaches about the importance of hydration.

What Type of Fluids Do Athletes Need?
I can’t emphasize the answer to this question enough: water, water, and more water. Proper hydration begins in the morning, and kids should sip water throughout the day.

For younger athletes who may play only half of a game, water is sufficient to keep them hydrated. Any electrolyte losses are better replenished with food sources at the next meal.

For older kids competing in endurance events or playing in tournaments that include several games in one day, sports drinks may be beneficial. Endurance sports can include long-distance running and cycling, field or ice hockey games, distance swimming, and soccer or lacrosse games.

Sports drinks offer carbohydrates and electrolytes and can boost performance during endurance events. However, sports drinks with added vitamins aren’t necessary, as we don’t lose vitamins through sweat. As long as young athletes eat a variety of foods as part of a balanced diet, they should meet their vitamin and mineral needs.

Fruit juices and sodas have a higher carbohydrate content compared with sports drinks and can take longer to absorb. These drinks also may cause cramps, nausea, or diarrhea and thus aren’t recommended for rehydrating on the field.

Young athletes also should avoid energy drinks with added caffeine. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests avoiding caffeinated energy drinks due to the potential health risks of added stimulants, the increased risk of weight gain from empty calories, and the heightened risk of developing cavities from added sugars.

How Much Fluid Should Athletes Drink?
The amount of fluid needed depends on the intensity and duration of the workout, the outdoor temperature, and more. More fluid will be needed for longer and more vigorous workouts.

On practice and game days, young athletes should be well hydrated before the event. Even slight dehydration can cause young athletes to not feel well and negatively affect their performance. RDs should recommend young athletes to have a water bottle to drink from throughout the day and take anywhere from three to eight gulps of water every 20 minutes. Teen athletes will need more—as much as 8 oz every 15 minutes.

Measuring Fluid Intake
When properly hydrated, young athletes should urinate every four hours at minimum. The color of their urine is another indicator of their hydration status. Urine should be a very light yellow color; darker yellow urine is a sign of dehydration.

RDs can counsel patients and coaches on the consequences of not getting enough fluid while exercising. These may include feeling irritable or moody, fatigued, and weak. They also could experience nausea, muscle cramping, or headaches. Further dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion.

Whether it’s your own child out there on the field, court, or rink, or the child of a client you’re counseling, be sure to stress the importance of keeping abreast of their hydration.

— Jennifer Lefton, MS, RDN-AP, CNSC, FAND, is a freelance writer and nutrition consultant in northern Virginia. After gaining years of clinical nutrition experience in the hospital setting, she enjoys creating evidence-based content for companies, websites, and blogs. You can find Jennifer on Instagram @nutritiousknowledge.

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