Deciding when to use a sports drink, electrolyte-infused water, or plain water is important to your athlete’s performance, but it can also be confusing. Luckily, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, has six simple tips about when and how to help your child incorporate electrolytes.
1. What your athlete needs will vary
Essentially, electrolytes are what controls your heart beating and your muscles contracting, Ziesmer explains. “If your athlete is just chugging water, they will eventually flush out their system, especially if they’re sweating out the electrolytes at the same time. Athletes need to be taking electrolytes back in so that their muscles can contract. Without a balance of electrolytes, the body just can't perform its normal functions.”
For young athletes, there are two primary determinants for deciding on water or a sports drink that contains electrolytes, says Ziesmer. First, consider practice duration. If they are training for more than an hour, even if it’s mostly easy, they will still want some electrolytes to replace those lost through sweat. Second, consider the temperature outside. Is your athlete in hot weather where they’ll be working up a sweat? If yes, they need electrolytes, though if the practice isn’t hard or long, they may not need added calories with those electrolytes.
2. Electrolytes can come in many forms
According to Ziesmer, there are three primary options when it comes to ensuring that your child has the electrolytes they need to perform at their best. A sports drink is the most common option and it will also contain sugar. The second option is electrolytes that are added to plain water, which may range from tablets that contain a range of electrolytes like sodium, magnesium, and potassium to a simple pinch of sea salt for just sodium. The final alternative is having your athlete drink plain water and eat foods that contain electrolytes, like a salty pretzel.
Your choice should depend on what kind of activity your athlete is taking part in, and how easy it will be for them to snack on a pretzel versus sip a sports drink. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that, when possible, plain water combined with regular foods like pretzels is the best option for young athletes, but it will depend on what’s easy for your athlete to ingest during practice.