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The Informed Parent

Fluids And The Athlete

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jan. 01, 2000

Summer is here, and our children are racing around in the hot sun participating on various sports teams. Preventing dehydration must be a goal for parents and coaches on the sidelines. Having served as a high school team physician for 18 years I have heard all the myths and have seen all the fads come and go. It is time to clear the record and inform our readers on this important subject.

In many sports programs, the archaic concept that water should be used with reservation during practice and games is still promulgated by a few coaches. In the last few years, most coaches, aware of sports physiology, no longer support this dangerous idea. It is essential that players of all ages get unlimited fluid replacement during and after practice, particularly in hot, humid weather. An adolescent athlete may lose the equivalent of several liters of water while participating in a sporting event. If this fluid is not replaced, his physical strength, agility, endurance and ability to concentrate diminish greatly. All participants have to be told they need fluids and they must be allowed, and even encouraged, to drink frequently during the play period. When the athletes finish a hard game, feeling good because they took enough fluids, you'll never have to remind them again. A good way to demonstrate the fluid need is to weigh them before and after the game or practice. The weight loss is essentially all body water.

What should a player replace this fluid with? Simple cold water is best. One need not use fancy commercial "sports drinks", carbonated sodas, fruit punches, fruit drinks or secret home formulas. If you feel compelled to use special sports drinks I would suggest diluting them half and half with cool water.

Although splashing water on the players feels good to them, it does not help replenish the body water deficit. It is not harmful to spray "tap-water" temperature water on the players during a game or practice session. Keep the ice water for internal use.

A practice I have seen more and more, at pre-high school age levels, is eating or sucking on fruit at half time. The players need water. If they want to suck on an orange, that's fine, but not at the expense of water. Salt tablets are not needed. Players do not get salt depleted if they have a routine American diet and are free of diseases like cystic fibrosis. If, for some reason, your family is on a significantly restricted salt diet, your athlete may need a regular diet during the season. Under these situations, consult the physician who prescribed the restricted sodium diet. If you are concerned that the athlete has a medical condition that predisposes to a salt losing state, discuss the matter with your child's physician.

I have seen coaches pass out vitamin C tablets before and during a game. This is not harmful unless excessive amounts are used. Is it helpful? There is no documented evidence that vitamin C intake on this basis does anything more than increase the ascorbic content of the player's urine.

Not only is dehydration dangerous, it impairs the young athlete's performance. It reduces his ability to concentrate, diminishes muscle strength, coordination and stamina. This, is turn, makes him a less productive player and more prone to injury. This is true for athletes of all ages. Dehydration can be caused by not only sports activates but hard physical labor.

Prevent dehydration by encouraging your players to satisfy their fluid needs with water. They will not over-hydrate themselves. The human body knows what it needs and, if given the chance, will maintain balance.

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