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Can Education Help Keep Youth Athletes Well-Hydrated?

Studies suggest hydration education alone doesn't do the trick, more pro-active steps needed

Youth athletes tend to show up to practices and games dehydrated. They also seem to stay in a chronically dehydrated state in the days that follow.

The benefits of staying hydrated, and avoiding moderate to severe dehydration, are numerous, including optimizing sport performance, supporting efficient thermoregulation, and a decreased risk of heat illness. Youth football player drinking from a bottle

If you want your youth athlete to arrive at practices and games well-hydrated and to maintain that status during and after sports, it stands to reason that educating them about the benefits of proper hydration could make a difference? But does it?

Here's what four studies say:

  • In a 2009 study which I co-authored (1), researchers collected data on a group of 12-year-old boys participating in a five-day tackle football summer camp, the majority of whom had arrived to camp already dehydrated. Over the course of the camp, the boys participated in 2 to 3 practices each day, each lasting about 2 hours. After dinner each night, some of the campers received instruction in groups of one or two on the importance of hydration, provided information about their individual hydration status and the amount of fluid they had consumed that day, and offered hydration strategies to follow the next day. There were no other physical interventions. While children in the education group did not experience as much fluid loss during the practices as the non-educated group, there was no significant difference in hydration status, nor fluid consumed between the education and non-educated group. Conclusion: hydration education, by itself, even in a small-group setting or one-on-one, does not appear to improve hydration status.
  • A 2012 study (2) followed 13-year-old boys and girls participating in a five-day volleyball or basketball summer camp. Each camp held 2 practices per day. The children in the experimental group were given a one-hour lecture on the importance of hydration along with verbal and written tips on how to maintain hydration status. A urine color chart was posted in the bathrooms, and bottled water was placed throughout the camp facilities. Researchers found that twenty five percent of the education group improved their hydration status after the intervention, suggesting that group lectures and providing increased access to fluids at all camp facilities could improve hydration status in some of the campers. 
  • A 2006 study (3) followed varsity high school football players participating in summer pre-season two-a-day practices. After the second day of practice, players were given 2 bottles of sport drink or water, depending on their preference, and instructed to drink one after dinner and one upon waking the next morning. There was no actual education on hydration, just instruction to drink the two bottles of fluid at the specified times. Researchers found that thirty percent of the instruction group improved their hydration status after the intervention, suggesting that simply providing fluids and instruction on when to drink could improve hydration status.
  • A 2012 study (4) followed 14-year-old girls over the course of 12 practices while participating in summer club competition. The campers, parents, and coaches were given a 30-minute lecture, along with a handout. The lecture included information about recognizing dehydration symptoms, preventing dehydration, and how to use urine color to measure hydration status. Following the education session, researchers prescribed specific volumes of fluid based on the athlete's sweat rate and mandated fluid breaks every 20 minutes. They found that the educational session alone did not impact hydration status. After the intervention, however, participants consumed more fluids and their hydration status improved compared to practices in which there was no intervention. The study was unique in that the education involved not only the athletes but their parents and coaches, and that the interventions included regularly scheduled breaks, and fluid recommendations tailored to each athlete's individual needs. 

More research needed

The takeaway message from these studies is that there is no consistent message which can be gleaned from the current research. It appears that simple educational interventions that involve both individual and group informational sessions do not significantly improve hydration status, and that additional steps beyond simply providing information are needed.

The studies suggest that being pro-active in trying to ensure that youth athletes are well-hydrated before, during, and after sports, such as by mandating fluid breaks, furnishing athletes with bottles of fluids to drink on a schedule, and/or prescribing water may have the greatest positive impact on their hydration status. Even then, though, only a percentage of youth seemed to respond.

Studies suggest that fluid consumption and hydration status may be improved if athletes are offered flavored beverages, but more research is needed in this area, especially to examine how the combination of education and active intervention might lead to better hydration.

Hydration tips for parents

In the meantime, here are some tips to help your child stay well-hydrated before, during, and after sports:

  • Find out what they like to drink: If children like the type or flavor of a drink, they drink more. If the child drinks more, it is easier for them to stay hydrated before and during sports,and re-hydrate after a game or practice. Ask your child what they enjoy drinking most, whether it be water, flavored water, or a sports drink, during and after practices, and then find out what flavor they like: orange, lemon lime, fruit punch, berry, peach mango, etc. Whatever the liquid or flavor,  use it to fill your child's water bottle for every practice and game.
  • Ensure that fluids are readily available: The more accessible a fluid is to the child, the more likely they are to drink from it. If the child's water bottle is across the field from where their break is occurring, a child may not be willing to go get it. The closer a child's source of fluid is to their practice area and break area, the more likely they are to drink from it. Additionally, the closer the refill area is, the more likely they will be to refill it. If the water bottle runs out and a source to refill it is not readily accessible, the child may leave the bottle empty.  It is also easier for children to drink from containers that they do not share (paper cups or personal water bottles), than those they do (water fountains and water bottle that the team provides). Send your children to practices and games with their own personal water bottle. This allows the child to drink directly from the bottle and have a chance to drink more fluids (as compared to a paper cup)
  • Schedule frequent hydration breaks: Parents and coaches influence a child's hydration behaviors through verbal encouragement and practice modification. Because children won't stop practicing to drink fluids if a formal break is not given because they want to impress and win their coaches' approval, coaches should break regularly during youth sport practices to encourage hydration. By giving regular breaks coaches encourage regular hydration and therefore, hopefully, to avoid dehydration. Verbal encouragement to drink fluids before, during, and after practice is important. Remind your child to drink fluids before practice, and then again after practice to replace fluids lost during sports. Ask questions and take other steps to determine your child's hydration status and how much fluid he needs to drink to fully rehydrate.

1. McDermott BP, Casa DJ, Yeargin SW, Ganio MS, Lopez RM, Mooradian EA. Hydration status, sweat rates, and rehydration education of youth football campers. J Sport Rehabil 2009;18(4):535-552.

2. Kavouras SA, Arnaoutis G, Makrillos M, et al. Educational intervention on water intake improves hydration status and enhances exercise performance in athletic youth. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2012;22(5):684-689.

3. Stover EA, Zachwieja J, Stofan J, Murray R, Horswill CA. Consistently high urine specific gravity in adolescent American football players and the impact of an acute drinking strategy. Int J Sports Med. 2006;27(4):330-335.

4. Cleary MA, Hetzler RK, Wasson D, Wages JJ, Stickley C, Kimura IF. Hydration behaviors before and after an educational and prescribed hydration intervention in adolescent athletes. J Athl Train. 2012;47(3):273-281.

Posted July 15, 2013   UPDATED April 20, 2017