When Are Sports Drinks Necessary?

I love youth sports.

Young kids getting outside, learning how to work as a team, having fun, and learning new skills. What could be better? The reason I volunteered to coach youth wrestling is that I wanted to give back to a sport that had such a major influence on me growing up and hopefully be a positive mentor to kids like the mentors I was fortunate enough to have had in my coaches growing up.

There is one thing that I don't enjoy about youth sports, however, and that is the ubiquitous branding of certain sports beverages everywhere I look at youth competitions. I'm sure you know which ones I am talking about so I won't mention them by name. I'm sure you would even recognize the slogans and commercials.

The advertising of these drinks show high level athletes performing hard, sweating profusely, and requiring a sports drink in order to adequately refuel. Is there a time and place for that? Likely, yes, but I will get to that in a bit. First, let's talk about where we see these beverages primarily being consumed.

Our wrestling practices are only two hours long, three times a week, and we don't push the kids at an extremely high level. At the conclusion of each practice I see well meaning and well intentioned parents purchasing sports beverages from vending machines and concession stands because after all, that is what we were conditioned to do. I was too. I remember hitting the sports drink vending machine outside my locker room in high school and college at the conclusion of practices and games. That's the purpose of effective advertising, to get us to make unconscious purchasing decisions. The algorithm in our brain is simple: I worked out, I sweat a lot, I need a sports drink. Advertising genius. The major name brand sport drinks have been able to effectively position themselves as being superior to water, but are they?

According to commercials and billboards, those young wrestlers MUST rehydrate with a sports drink right?

At a youth baseball game several weeks back (on a not very incredibly hot day) I saw numerous young kids consuming sports drinks as well. Once again, isn't that what we were taught was the right thing to do? Years of conditioning from advertising has us convinced that is the right way to hydrate, right?

Not exactly.

We are told that during and after exercise we have to rehydrate and replenish electrolytes. What is an electrolyte? Just like their name implies, electrolytes conduct electricity when dissolved in water. Without giving a chemistry 101 class, just understand that an electrolyte is a metal salt. Potassium, sodium, magnesium, bicarbonate, phosphate, and chloride are all examples of electrolytes. They are both classified as metals and salts. They are essential for many functions in the body, and YES we do lose a great deal of electrolytes when we sweat and sports drinks do have electrolytes in them. BUT, sports drinks also contain other ingredients that we should be aware of. The one in particular that should most concern us is sugar.

A popular 20 OZ sports drink that I see consumed regularly by youth and recreational athletes has 34 grams of sugar in it and 140 calories. One gram of sugar contains 4 calories, meaning that this particular 20 oz sports drink contains 136 calories from sugar alone. To put that in context, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories PER DAY of added sugar for adult females and 150 calories of added sugar for adult males.

Now, you might be thinking, don't we burn a good deal of sugar (glucose and glycogen) during exercise? The answer is yes we do.....during intense exercise for a prolonged duration. An endurance athlete, cross fitter, or high level athlete in training utilizes a great deal of glucose and glycogen; a 7 year old playing youth baseball or softball does not utilize a high amount of glycogen. Even endurance athletes are moving away from sugary sports drinks in favor of lower glycemic carbohydrate replacement drinks and gels due to the gastric distress that many athletes experience from pouring that much sugar into their body.

So, am I saying to avoid all sports drinks in every form? No. There is a time and place for those beverages, namely for endurance athletes who have made it their drink of choice. What I am saying is that they are unnecessary for young athletes, and dare I even say that there are more downsides to beverages like that for young athletes when you take into account the spike in blood sugar and subsequent rise in insulin they will cause.

So what should kids drink instead.

First and foremost, if they are outside playing or participating in a low impact team sport, water will work just fine (as long as it isn't distilled). Lost in all the sports drink marketing is that water itself contains electrolytes (as long as it isn't distilled). Quick chemistry lesson. Water conducts electricity right???? Wrong. H2O does not conduct electricity by itself. Water is made up of 2 hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecules. These two molecules alone do not conduct electricity. Distilled water is pure H2O. You could put a live electrical wire into pure distilled H2O and nothing will happen. However, the water we drink has electrolytes dissolved in it (sodium, magnesium, etc). If you take regular water that has electrolytes in it something will happen when you put that same electrical wire into it (we do not recommend doing this).

Not only can we get electrolytes from your everyday run of the mill bottled water, we get it from our food as well. Not to mention we get sufficient carbohydrate to replenish glycogen stores that we use during exercise too. As a coach of youth sports I can promise you that MOST kids are not training hard enough in their practices or games to justify 140 calories of rapidly dissolving sugar water (I say most kids because there are programs out there that train puberty age and high school age kids very hard).

What do I recommend for the kids that are training at a higher level with more intensity or competing numerous times on a very hot day like the previous weekend we just had? NUUN. NUUN is a company that makes electrolyte replacement tablets and powders for endurance and high level athletes competing in intense sports. I take NUUN after long runs on hot days, I bring them with me to the field in the Army, and I share bottles of them with the other soldiers on my team. These have worked for me numerous times when I am in the field doing training missions carrying 40-50 pounds of equipment and wearing an additional 15 pounds on my body on a 90 plus degree day. I promise they will help your kid get through the doubleheader baseball and softball games on a hot day. On the front page of the NUUN website I linked above, their slogan reads: "that much sugar belongs in your ice cream, not your sports drink."

Makes you think.

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