Kids are back in school, playing sports — and it’s hot out there! Playing hard in hot, humid weather can be dangerous for anyone, but kids are particularly vulnerable to dehydration and heat-related illnesses. Local experts agree that proper hydration, with water, begins hours, if not days before a hot-weather practice or event. Their message to young athletes: hydration keeps you healthy and competitive!

Compared to adults, kids have higher water needs relative to their body size. Children are also less likely to recognize the early signs of thirst, especially when they are playing hard in the heat. Even mild dehydration can cause fatigue, headache, muscle cramping, and lack of concentration, all of which can affect athletic (and academic) performance. If left untreated, mild dehydration might deteriorate into more serious heat related illnesses, like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which requires emergency treatment, and can even be fatal.

Experts agree that water is the best primary beverage for healthy hydration.  They also stress the importance of being well hydrated before arriving at an event. Sports medicine professionals recommend that kids drink about 20 ounces of water two hours before a practice or game and 48 – 64 ounces throughout the day. Jeanne Gibian, CPNP, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner at Ponderosa Pediatrics, encourages active kids to fill up on water throughout the day, long before an event begins. Darrin Blake, MS, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer and Sports Medicine and GeoScience Teacher at Bradshaw Mountain High School, offers some additional advice. Blake states, “First, I tell my kids that they cannot hydrate during practice; that they have to hydrate primarily at home. Drinking during a practice or game will keep hydration levels up a little, but the kids won’t gain anything if they are dehydrated from the start. Kids need to get a belly full of water during the day, not iced tea, milk or juice. Also, at least a few days before the start of the season, I want them to wake up every night at least once to use the bathroom. That means that they have excess water in their body: that’s a good sign of hydration”.

Click here to watch Keeping Your Young Athlete Hydrated on YouTube.

Replacing electrolytes (calcium, sodium, magnesium and potassium) during intense, prolonged exercise in the heat is also important. Electrolytes maintain water balance in the body while also keeping the heart and other muscles working optimally. Opinions vary, however, regarding the best timing and use of electrolyte replacing sports drinks. Jeanne Gibian reminds parents that, “Sports drinks, like many Gatorade products, can contain more than half the sugar of soda, or about 7 teaspoons in a 16-ounce bottle”.  Because of their high sugar content, Gibian does not recommend using sports drinks unless kids are participating in intense, sustained exercise of more than one hour, in high temperatures. Chloe Woodruff, local professional off-road cyclist, and Founder of the Stans-Pivot Pro Team Powered By Maxxis, agrees. “I think sugary drinks are overused and simply unnecessary most of the time. For kiddos with short practice sessions of an hour or less, I think water and a bar or a few pieces of fruit, will do the trick”. Sabrina Carlson, Northern Arizona Youth Outreach and Education Coordinator, and leader of Gear Girls, an all-girl mountain bike club sponsored by the Arizona Trails Association adds, “If an electrolyte drink is needed to keep kids hydrated after or during a hard ride of an hour or more, I prefer a lower sugar, higher salt product like Skratch or Drip Drop. These have a profile similar to hydration salts. In some cases, the high sugar content of some sports drinks can trigger an upset stomach and brightly colored vomit, especially if altitude is involved!”

For long duration exercise in hot weather, Darrin Blake suggests replacing electrolytes during the day with fruit and Gatorade or another sports drink. He adds, “Drinking water is obviously essential, but replacing electrolytes is just as important. I tell my athletes to drink Gatorade at meals when they are working extra hard, taking water throughout the day, and water again before they go to bed. Kids should take short drinks of water during an event to maintain hydration. I’ve had kids drink too much water during play and feel just as bad as they would have if they were dehydrated”.

Cooling off during a practice or event will also reduce the risk of heat related illnesses. To keep athletes at Bradshaw High School cool, Blake purchased a water horse, which emits a continuous supply of cold water through several nozzles. He encourages his kids to douse themselves with water to prevent overheating. Sabrina Carlson recommends riding with a lightweight, long sleeved cotton shirt. “These can be doused with water (or sweat), and will help pull heat away from the body”.

For fuel, Blake recommends eating fruits like melons and berries throughout the day. “Fruit is high in water and some of those electrolytes, and it also contains healthy carbs that kids use for energy during sporting events”. Carlson encourages her team of girls to lightly snack on salty trail mix, with something sweet, like dried fruit, during long rides. Chloe Woodruff recommends a well-balanced breakfast before a practice, ride, or game, like some overnight oatmeal sweetened with dates and a banana. Her favorite recovery food after a hard ride is a simple smoothie blended with protein powder, almond milk, a banana, dates and a handful of spinach.

Experts agree that kids need to fill up on water long before they play in the heat and use electrolyte replacement beverages only when they will be engaged in intense activity for an hour or more. Because opinions vary regarding the best electrolyte replacement products to use, be sure to ask your child’s pediatrician and coach about their recommendations. In addition, fueling up with healthy carbohydrates like fruit, whole grains, and nuts instead of sugary candies and snacks will keep kids energized, healthy, and competitive throughout a practice or game.