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Do Youth Athletes Tolerate Sports Drinks Less Well Than Adults?

Volume of liquid consumed and workout intensity, not drink composition, determine tolerance

African-American youth football player with sports drink


In response to a recent MomsTeam article reporting on the American Academy of Pediatrics' clinical report on sports and energy drinks, a high school cross-country coach sent us an email suggesting that, in his experience, youth athletes tolerated sports drinks less well than water. We wondered whether he was right. MomsTeam's youth sports hydration expert, Dr. Susan Yeargin, says no: tolerance is a question of liquid volume and workout intensity, not drink composition. 

A reader writes ...

"Although research shows that sports drinks such as Gatorade are a viable means for hydration for youth athletes, there is a huge difference between a 12 year old baseball player who actually "plays" for less than 20 minutes in an 1 1/2 hour game and a youth distance runner.  The youth distance runner's digestive system will not accommodate sports drink during a workout ... I can't even begin to tell you the number of athletes that puke due to use of sports drinks pre-workout or during a workout.  Just like a youth's bone structure is still developing and doing adult style dynamic jumping can lead to growth plate injuries, etc. ... the use of sports drinks during workouts that contain long periods of elevated heart rate and a pounding of the digestive system ... is a very poor choice.  My youth runners use G2 single serving size post-workout as part of their recovery.

It is strictly water pre-workout and during workouts.

I think making the blanket statement that sports drinks are more effective than water in hydrating during youth sport competition is really sending an incorrect message.  Even in the more sedentary sports where there is walking or little running at various times during the game, it will still come down to what the individual athlete's body will tolerate.  There was no mention of this very important element in their research findings."

... Dr. Susan Yeargin responds

"Here are my thoughts:

  • A youth's gastrointestinal track is not "underdeveloped". You cannot make the comparison of their bones to their GI tract. Their GI tract might be smaller, but it's not undeveloped
  • Sports drinks have been shown time and time again through research to actually empty from the GI track into the body to be used faster and more easily then water because of the carbs, sugars, and electrolytes. Therefore it is considered a more superior hydration fluid for active/athlete youth.
  • The coaches' runner might be vomiting for two reasons: 1) the intensity of workout he is giving them and 2) the individual's ability to tolerate fluid volume.
  • Some individuals, no matter youth or adult, tolerate different amounts of fluid at different levels of intensity. It could be the volume of sport drink that is not being tolerated at the intensity of the run for these youth. It is not the sports drink itself. Most likely, water would cause them to vomit in the exact same volume at the exact same intensity. Most likely they are consuming less water (as has been shown in research) than sports drink.  Maybe if they backed off the volume to a more tolerable volume for that individual, the vomiting might not occur. 
  • In any event, encouraging the consumption of water before and during practice is a good thing. I would just want parents to know it's probably volume-related and not related to the composition of the sports drink that is at the root of this particular situation.
  • If a child prefers a sport drink instead of water before or during sports, it should not be withheld for fear of vomiting. Instead, a tolerable volume should be encouraged."

Thanks, Dr. Susan, for weighing in on this issue!