Exercise Hydration: What is the Right Beverage for my Child?

With so many sports beverage and enhanced water products on the market, it’s good to know when they are actually useful. Many of these products have an ingredient list quite similar to soda, which is not something you typically would give your child or athlete after a workout. However, there are circumstances where nutrient and electrolyte replacement is very important for children and teens.

Child drinking a glass of water

Carbohydrates are an important nutrient to replenish because glycogen is the fuel which gets used up from muscle and liver stores during physical activity. Electrolytes, specifically sodium, potassium, and bicarbonate are important for nerve conduction and respiration. Some amounts are expired through sweat and given off with heavy breathing that comes with intense physical activity. For these reasons, carbohydrates and electrolytes need to be “replaced” after intense, continuous workouts lasting longer than 60 minutes, and can be achieved with electrolyte replacement beverages. This would apply to long distance runners, college or elite athletes in training, and swimmers, soccer, or basketball players who are doing continuous intense cardio training for more than an hour during workouts.

However, for most people hitting the gym for an hour or so, or kids playing in team sports or outside at the playground, nutrient and electrolyte replacement can be achieved from eating a normal, well-rounded diet. Eating a balanced meal or snack within an hour after physical activity is sufficient in this case. Drinking additional sports drinks will only provide extra calories and sugar (or diet sweeteners), and often artificial food coloring.

Use this table as a guide:

Commercial (or homemade*) electrolyte replacement beverage

  • Intense continuous physical activity lasting an hour or more such as running; drink 16-32 ounces of electrolyte replacement beverage. 30 grams of carb should be consumed for every 60 minutes of intense continuous cardio, within 30 minutes of activity. Electrolyte replacement is important if intense physical activity is in extreme heat, when sweating is excessive.

Chocolate milk (carb + pro + electrolytes)

  • College or elite athletes in training for several hours per day who need a quick, small meal + electrolyte replacement during or after long workouts lasting several hours. These athletes should consult with a dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition.

Coconut water

  • Natural electrolyte replacement beverage; high in potassium and lower in sodium and sugar than commercial electrolyte replacement beverages. Appropriate for moderate-high physical activity with sweating, such as spinning class, kickboxing, “boot camps”, outdoor sports in heat with continuous cardio 30-60 minutes, etc.

Water + well-rounded diet

  • As needed during and after any level of physical activity. This is all that is necessary for low or moderate physical activity such as playing outside, playing team sports, hitting the gym for 30-60 minutes, etc. A rule of thumb is 1 oz water for every 2 lbs body wt (50 oz/day for 100 lb person) daily. Increase as needed in heat or more strenuous activity.

*Recipe for homemade electrolyte replacement beverage, from Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup orange juice (not concentrate) plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 1/2 cups cold water

  1. In the bottom of a pitcher, dissolve the sugar and salt in the hot water.
  2. Add the juice and the remaining water; chill.

Recipe makes 1 quart.
Per 8 ounce serving, recipe provides: 50 calories, 12 grams carbohydrate, 110 mg sodium, 43 mg potassium.
Compared to original Gatorade per 8 ounce serving: 50 calories, 14 g carbohydrate, 110 mg sodium, 30 mg potassium.

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