Children's Hospital Colorado

Water vs. Sports Drinks: What Is the Best Choice for Young Athletes?

My five-year-old daughter’s first soccer game went something like this: five minutes of chasing the ball, five minutes of rest, a long half-time complete with fresh orange wedges, another five minutes on the field, another five minute rest, and plenty of butterfly and airplane viewing. Oh, and all of it took place on a field the size of a small living room. So, when a 12 oz sports drink was handed to her at the end of this “competition” I thought, does she really need this?

Fast forward eight years. Her soccer games last 70 minutes and take place on a full-sized field. If the team is short on players, she might play all 70 minutes with only five minutes of rest at half-time. She’s too grown up for chasing butterflies and now I’m wondering if water will be enough to get her through this kind of competition.

Water vs. sports drinks – how do you decide what to give your growing athlete?

Ask yourself these questions to help determine if water or a sports drink is more appropriate:

How long will the activity last?

If practice or competition lasts less than one hour, water is the best choice to stay hydrated. If the activity will last longer than one hour or is very intense, a sports drink will help your child stay hydrated, but it will also provide something that water cannot – fuel for his or her working muscles.

What are the climate conditions?

Children are more susceptible to dehydration than adults, especially in hot, humid conditions and also at high altitude. Even during an activity that lasts less than one hour, if your child will be sweating profusely, a sports drink will again provide something that water cannot – electrolytes that are lost in sweat.

Your child can get too much of a good thing.

  • Sports drinks are helpful immediately before, during, and after exercise but they should only be used for training and competition.
  • Sports drinks contain calories and drinking too much can take away from balanced eating. Don’t let sports drinks replace other nutritious drinks throughout the day.
  • Water is the best choice if your athlete is thirsty between meals. Milk is a great drink choice at meals to provide much needed protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Learn more about sports nutrition.

Written by: Laura Watne, MS, RD, Clinical Nutrition, Children’s Hospital Colorado.