As young athletes prepare to compete in warmer weather, maintaining proper nutrition and hydration becomes a top priority for parents and coaches.
With increased outdoor activity during the warmer months, avoidable heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion, can threaten an athlete’s performance.
Heat illness during practice or competition is a leading cause of death and disability among high school athletes in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Statistics from the Southwest Athletic Trainers’ Association (SWATA) show that young males make up the majority of those deaths.
Fortunately, there are a number of key foods and fluids to help keep athletes healthy, nourished and well-hydrated.
“When competing or training during summer sports, especially during prolonged practice and/or if in the heat and humid weather, you want to make sure you get the ‘Big Three’: fluid, electrolytes and carbs,” said Jason Machowsky, sports dietitian and sports performance specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS).
“In general, young athletes want to have a balanced diet of adequate calories and food including whole grains, lean protein spread throughout the day, lots of fruit and veggies – which have lots of water for hydration – and healthy fats,” said Machowsky.
“Try to make sure you're having a meal or snack when you're hungry or every three to four hours,” he said.
Machowsky said that foods including yogurt, fruit, sandwiches, trail mix or cereal with low-fat milk are good sources of carbohydrates, energy and electrolytes.
Dr. Matt Tanneberg, an Arizona-based sports chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist, recommended drinking at least half the body’s weight in ounces to maintain safe hydration levels.
For example, a 200-pound individual would require at least 100 ounces of water daily, Tanneberg said.
In hotter areas like Arizona, an athlete may need to drink up to three-quarters of their body weight in ounces in order to maintain proper hydration, according to Tanneberg.
Even mild levels of dehydration can put athletic performance in jeopardy, according to the CDC.
Experts agree that an athlete should fuel up on more carbohydrates, fluids and electrolytes as the level of activity increases.
“The best thing to have is enough water," Tanneberg said. “Added electrolytes will help to replenish your body.”
He suggested bananas as a great source of electrolytes to ward off cramping and light-headedness.
In addition, Tanneberg recommended Emergen-C packets and water as another good electrolyte source for young athletes.
Sports drinks are designed to cover all of the bases, said Machowsky, but healthy snack options can include homemade fruit drinks with minimal salt, dried fruit, squeezable fruit packets and graham crackers paired with water and a pinch of salt.
When choosing sports drinks, Machowsky suggested opting for drinks with simple ingredients such as water, sugar (like sucrose and glucose) and electrolytes including sodium and potassium.
“Specifically for training and competition, pre-training and post-training requires carbs, a bit of protein, electrolytes and fluid,” said Machowsky.
For shorter periods of training, Machowsky said that athletes will need fluid and possibly electrolytes.
During training periods lasting more than 60 minutes, particularly in hot and humid conditions, electrolytes and carbohydrates are needed, said Machowsky.
Water is the easiest source of hydration, but smoothies and a variety of fruit are also great for fluids, he said.
According to the CDC, the body won’t be able to cool itself effectively through sweat and evaporation without enough fluid intake.
Experts say that parents and coaches should also be mindful of dehydration symptoms that young athletes might miss.
These can include sore or dry throat, unusual fatigue or weakness, loss of coordination, excessive sweating, nausea, dizziness and headache, among others.
“Hydration is important for anyone during exercise in the summer, especially for kids,” said Tanneberg.
“Kids aren't going to know their bodies as well as adults, so they won't be able to recognize the early signs of dehydration," he said.
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.