Young athletes have busy lives. In addition to fulfilling the regular expectations for young people – school and schoolwork, social life, family time, going to summer camp, and resting – they also spend a significant proportion of their life training, preparing for training, and recuperating from training.
With busy lives comes a greater energy demand. This results from normal acceleration in growth and development during the pre-adolescent and adolescent years, in addition to the increased energy and nutrient demands of active bodies.
High energy demands are a given, but we want to ensure we are supporting our overall health, not just satisfying cravings with high-energy food and drinks.
Commercial energy drinks are not recommended for young athletes because of the risks to their health and because they may contain components that could result in suspension and expulsion.
So, what are some alternatives? Suitable beverages can help provide you with a steady supply of satisfying energy while also providing other nutrients your body needs during different points of the day.
This article provides you with information on why you should avoid commercial energy drinks and instead suggests four homemade and ready-made energy drinks for before, during, and after practice.
Not Worth the Risk: Commercial Energy Drinks for Athletes
Just as there are high-energy times, it is also important to honor times when our body needs rest and relaxation. Our energy needs change throughout the day. At the same time, however, it can be frustrating when our energy levels don’t meet the demands of upcoming activities. When young athletes’ lifestyle doesn’t keep up with energy needs, it is easy to turn to energy drinks as a quick fix. It is no wonder that about 70% of young athletes consume commercial energy drinks.
Should young athletes be consuming energy drinks? The short answer is no, for three main reasons. First, it can put athletes at risk for expulsion. Second, they may result in debilitating side effects. And third, for long-term athletic success and ideal energy levels, it is crucial to focus on overall nutrition, hydration, rest, and stress management, not just quick fixes.
Most commercial energy drinks contain:
- High levels of sugar
- Herbs and naturally-derived components (ginseng, guarana, ginkgo, kola nut, etc.)
- B vitamins
- Taurine (an amino acid)
- Glucorunolactone (a component that speeds up glucose metabolism)
- Other proprietary ingredients that are not recognizable
Even if they may improve energy and performance in the short term, these components come with many health risks. For athletes, some of these components may even cause suspension or expulsion if they are required to be tested for doping.
It may seem extreme that an energy drink could get a young athlete suspended or expelled for doping; a research article in the Contemporary Sports Medicine Journal put it best:
“Energy drinks have the potential to expose athletes governed by anti-doping rules to inadvertent positive doping tests (25). The primary concern is not caffeine, but rather products that contain proprietary blends, herbals and unrecognizable ingredients that may be banned. The labelling of such dietary supplement ingredients is often unclear and inaccurate.”
In addition to the risk of not being able to play, young athletes who regularly consume energy drinks report some of the following symptoms:
- Tachycardia (fast heartbeat when at rest)
When energy drinks are consumed with alcohol, which at least one in ten young athletes do regularly, the consequences include:
- Abdominal pain
- Amnesia (forgetting key events)
For Ideal Energy Levels, Focus on Nutrition, Hydration, and Lifestyle
The healthiest, safest, and most sustainable way to have steady energy levels is to meet your body’s demands with a balanced lifestyle. Over time, you can achieve this by paying careful attention to your sleep and rest needs, especially to your dietary patterns and food and drink choices.
If you choose to make energy drinks part of your day, whether they are the ones below or commercial energy drinks, remember that they are only one component to supporting an active lifestyle. Water consumption, sleep, rest, stress levels, health, and overall nutrition are all elements that go hand in hand with meeting immediate energy needs.
3 Healthy Energy Drinks for Young Athletes
Ideal energy levels, naturally, are the result of balanced nutrition and nutrient timing, getting enough rest and sleep, hydration, and stress management levels. If you cannot meet your body’s energy needs during training, it may be a red flag to examine these components in your life rather than turn to energy drinks.
Below we’ve suggested five beverages to help meet energy demands and replenish the body throughout the day.
1. Before Early Morning Training: Banana Peanut Butter Smoothie
Many young athletes with early morning training will often go out the door without breakfast in their stomachs. Having a heavy meal can make them feel weighed down or nauseous before training.
However, providing your body with a steady source of nutritious energy before practice is essential to set you up for success during training and for the rest of the day.
This peanut butter banana smoothie contains natural sugar and fiber for quick and slow energy release and complete protein to support your muscles and hormones. It is filling but well-balanced, so you don’t feel weighed down. You can make it the day before and put it in the fridge so you can grab it and go the following day.
Ideally, you’ll drink this between 20 minutes and an hour before training to allow your body time to digest and absorb the nutrients.
- 1 frozen banana
- 2 tbsp peanut butter
- 1 cup milk of your choice
- 2 tbsp oats
- 1 tbsp honey (optional)
- 1 tbsp cacao powder (optional)
- 1 tbsp ground chia seeds (optional)
Directions: Put the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Enjoy.
2. For Right Before and During Practice: a High Electrolyte Drink with Glucose
For right before and during practice, the key to keeping your muscles awake and active is hydration and glucose. When you are dehydrated, your muscles lag because of the lack of water and electrolytes, which are minerals that help to impulse muscle signals. Nutrient-rich drinks are generally not recommended during practice as they can make you feel nauseous.
Glucose is the body’s primary source of energy. When your body has used up glucose in the bloodstream, it moves to glucose stores in the muscle and liver. Depending on the type of physical activity you are doing, how long you plan to exercise or train, and what your body is accustomed to, you may begin to feel tired.
To avoid getting to the point of exhaustion during your training, you can consume a drink with some honey or sugar, which can be quickly broken down into glucose, to provide your muscles with quick energy that will last up to one hour.
Recipe for a Homemade Electrolyte Sports Drink
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¼ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
- 1 cup coconut water or plain water
- 1/8 teaspoon of sea salt (not needed if using coconut water)
- 2 tablespoons honey
Directions: Put all the ingredients into a sports bottle and stir vigorously until the honey is dissolved.
If you don’t have time to make your own high-electrolyte drink, you can choose a commercial sports drink, like Gatorade or Powerade, keeping in mind that these are recommended only when you are planning to exercise for at least an hour.
3. For Post Practice: Water
After training, you must focus on drinking water to adequately hydrate yourself. As we mentioned above, a dehydrated body is a lethargic body.
At this point, the energy and the other nutrients you need should come from a balanced meal rather than an energy or sports drink. Once your heart rate is at rest, aim to nourish your post-training body with food. Your post-training meal should have:
- protein to rebuild and maintain muscle
- carbohydrates from whole-grain foods for slow energy release to carry on the rest of the day’s activities
- plenty of fruits and vegetables for vitamins, minerals, and fiber your body needs to function and repair muscle and support a healthy metabolism
Young athletes, and athletes in general, should not consume commercial energy drinks. First, they do not support the body’s natural metabolic processes to promote energy provision. Second, they work as a band-aid for lack of a healthy lifestyle. And third, many commercial energy drinks may contain components that are red flags for doping tests for competitive athletes.
Instead of consuming commercial energy drinks, focus on nourishing your body with balanced meals, water, sleep and rest in the times before and after practice. During practice, make sure you stay hydrated and provide your body with electrolytes for longer practices.