Mitzi Dulan – America's Nutrition Expert
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Sports Drinks vs Water for Young Athletes
by Mitzi Dulan, RD, America’s Nutrition Expert®
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sports drinks vs waterShould my kid be drinking a sports drink or water during competition and practice? Which sports drink should I choose for them? Isn’t there too much sugar in sports drinks? These are all very common questions that I hear and as a sports nutritionist for over 19 years for athletes ranging from professional hall of fame football and baseball players to young athletes. The good news is I have the answers for you just in time for the youth spring sports season!

Let me start out by answering a different question…what is a sports drink? Sports drinks are a combination of water, carbohydrates, and electrolytes (e.g. sodium and potassium). Not only do sports drinks provide the necessary fluids an active child needs but sports drinks also help maintain energy levels in practices and games whether your kid plays soccer, volleyball, baseball, softball, basketball, football or another sport.

Sports drinks have a benefit over water by providing a small amount of carbohydrate to the working muscles which gives kids a constant amount of fuel and helps to delay fatigue. Sports drinks actually enhance fluid absorption in the small intestine due to the glucose and sodium content. Therefore, sport drinks can have a positive effect on performance and I recommend for kids to drink during their sporting activities. They also taste good so that increases intake which will help keep your kid hydrated and research supports this point. This is especially important during tournaments when a young athlete can have limited time to eat enough food (calories) to support the energy they are expending between games or matches.


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Most practices and games do last longer than 45 minutes which can be used as another guide as to when to use a sports drink. If your young athlete has an intense training session or sports lesson a sports drink can help them push through it while also helping to maintain hydration status. For example, when my daughter does an hour-long volleyball lesson she always takes her sports drink.

However, if the training session is less than 45 minutes and you know that your kid does not like water and will not drink much then you would be better off giving them a sports drink for the simple fact of fulfilling fluid replacement needs.

As a registered dietitian, I also encourage “clean eating” and avoiding artificial ingredients as much as possible and I’ve always wanted a great tasting sports drink for my kids that didn’t use artificial colors or preservatives. I don’t recommend sports drinks with artificial sweeteners, either, for two reasons. First, I don’t promote artificial sweeteners in any foods, but second, that defeats a big part of the reason to use a sports drink in the first place which is to help provide a constant source of energy to the muscles via carbohydrates.

I am excited about a new natural sports drink called BODYARMOR which does NOT have artificial colors, preservatives, flavors or sweeteners and tastes great. In fact, I love the drink so much I am now working with the company to help spread the word. Both of my daughters, who are 10 and 13 years-old, play high level volleyball and will go to Nationals absolutely love BODYARMOR and every person (kid and adult) who has tried it that I know love it as well. As a mom, I know the feeling of wanting to put the best fuel in your kid that you feel good about and will also help them perform their best.

My 10 year-old daughter at a volleyball national qualifier hydrating with her BODYARMOR!

My 10 year-old daughter at a volleyball national qualifier hydrating with her BODYARMOR!

Here are some of the other questions that I am asked about a lot!

Question: Isn’t sugar bad for my kid?  

Answer: This is a very common question these days with all the “sugar talk” but I need to be very clear here. For young athletes, sugar is the source of carbohydrates (energy) for the muscles and has a real benefit to athletes in general as it is readily absorbed by the muscles to work as fuel. If your kid is sitting on the couch watching tv they don’t need a sports drink. If they are playing sports, there is a very good chance they do! I always prefer natural sweeteners such as pure cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.

Question: How do I pick out the best sports drink my kid?

Answer: Choose a sports drink that is 5-8% carbohydrates or 50-80 calories per 8 oz with sodium and potassium. Beverages with higher carbohydrate content (e.g. sodas, orange juice) are too concentrated and delay absorption. As you evaluate different sports drinks you should look for a sports drinks that replaces body water losses, provides fuel, tastes good, supports your values, and does not give you any GI discomfort.

Question: How do I know if my young athlete is drinking enough fluid during the day?

Answer: First of all, you want to make sure their urine is clear and pale yellow like lemonade instead of dark like apple juice. This can vary depending on use of vitamin and mineral supplements. Secondly, if your kid is thirsty, then he/she is already dehydrated so don’t use thirst as an indicator for fluid needs. Make sure they drink regularly throughout the entire day. Some signs to look for if you think your kid might be dehydrated include fatigue, dark urine, headaches, loss of appetite, flushed skin, and light-headedness. So, make sure you tell them to not wait until they are thirsty to drink!

Sports Drinks

Beverage(Per 8 oz serving) Calories Carbohydrates (CHO gms) CHO(%) Sodium(mg) Potassium(mg) Carbohydrate Ingredient
AllSport® 70 19 8 55 55 High fructose corn syrup
BODYARMOR 70 18 7.5 15 310 Sucrose (pure cane sugar)
Gatorade® 50 14 6 110 30 Sucrose, dextrose
Powerade® 70 19 8 55 30 High fructose corn syrup,glucose polymers
Cytomax® 66 13 5 53 100 Corn starch, fructose, glucose
Coca-Cola® 103 27 11 6 0 High fructose corn syrup, sucrose
Orange Juice 104 25 10 6 436 Fructose, sucrose, glucose

Orange juice and Coca-Cola also included to show the carbohydrate concentration in these drinks are too high during activity.


Disclosure: I am compensated for my time by the folks at BODYARMOR. Opinions are my own.

2 thoughts on “Sports Drinks vs Water for Young Athletes

  1. Excellent post full of valuable tips. The main benefits of sports drinks is the fact that they assist in keeping the ion balance within the body. By sweating and urinating we lose lots of sodium and other minerals, which our body needs to work properly. Sports drinks allow us to re-fill the body with minerals and nutrients we lost and restore the ion balance within the body. These ion imbalances frequently manifest as “cramps” and sports drinks may help us deal with the problem. As you featured in the post, they contain some carbohydrates but if consumed with moderation they have more benefits than drawbacks.

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