Many young athletes take nutritional supplements, often without really knowing what they are or how they work. Do young athletes really need supplements? Are they likely to benefit or harm their performance? What are the possible effects on long-term health? The fact that many adult athletes take supplements does not mean they are safe or effective for children and adolescents. There exists an increased desire to win which motivates athletes to look for anything to improve performance. Supplements are currently not regulated for safety, purity, potency or efficacy. In addition, aggressive marketing of sports supplements are currently not only targeting the elite athlete, but also to the general sports enthusiast as well as the young aspiring athlete. The importance of knowing what these supplements contain, their effects and benefits are becoming increasingly necessary for the health and safety of our youth.
In this first of three articles we look at supplements that are related to increasing energy.
Claim: Energy gels are carbohydrate-rich, jelly like supplements designed to be consumed during endurance exercise to provide adequate fuel intake.
Mechanism: Energy gels consist almost entirely of simple sugars (such as fructose and glucose) and maltodextrin (made from corn starch). Some gels also contain sodium, potassium and caffeine. Most contain between 18 and 25 grams of carbohydrate per sachet. Gels are a convenient way of consuming carbohydrate during exercise lasting longer than an hour. They can easily be carried, opened and consumed. They provide enough carbohydrate to fuel between 30 and 60 minutes of exercise.
Important to remember: Gels don’t provide hydration and therefore athletes are encouraged to drink 500 ml of water over 30 minutes with every gel taken. Too little fluid intake can lead to stomach ache. Water intake would dilute the gel allowing the carbohydrate to be absorbed quickly into the bloodstream.
Energy gels provide convenient refuelling during long, hard training sessions lasting longer than an hour, but cheaper options are available, eg. diluted juice, fruit squash, jelly sweets, etc.
Claim: Sports drinks provide rapid fluid and fuel replenishment to the body during exercise. Consuming sports drinks during exercise lasting more than an hour can help improve performance, maintain blood glucose levels, provide fuel for the muscles and reduce the risk of dehydration and hyponatraemia (low blood sodium levels).
Mechanism: Sports drinks contain between 4-8 grams of carbohydrate per 100 ml, plus electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. This concentration of carbohydrate makes the drink isotonic and seems to be optimal for promoting the rapid absorption of water into the body. The carbohydrate in sports drinks includes different combinations of sugars (such as glucose, sucrose and glucose syrup) and maltodextrin (complex carbohydrates derived from corn starch). The carbohydrates speed the absorption of fluid and provide fuel for the muscles during exercise. Sodium in sports drinks stimulates drinking and helps the body to retain the fluid better.
Young athletes should avoid sports drinks with caffeine, as these may result in side-effects.
Energy drinks are essentially soft drinks with high levels of sugar and various combinations of caffeine, guarana, taurine, B vitamins and various herbs. They differ from sports drinks in that they include caffeine as well as carbohydrate. The sugar concentration is higher than that of sports drinks, around 10-12 grams per 100 grams. This concentration of sugar makes these drinks hypertonic which will decrease absorption. These drinks stay in the stomach longer than plain water or sports drinks, and so do not provide an efficient way of rehydrating the body.
Young athletes should avoid energy drinks before, during and after exercise because of the potential risk of dehydration associated with them.
Energy drinks contain about 80 mg caffeine per 250 ml, which is equivalent to a cup of coffee. Some drinks come in larger cans which mean they may provide twice this amount of caffeine. Up to 85 mg daily is generally considered safe for children but higher doses are associated with side-effects: nervousness, an upset stomach, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, dizziness and headache.
Energy drinks are not advisable for young athletes before, during or straight after exercise. The high content of sugar and caffeine makes them unsuitable for proper hydration and delivery of carbohydrate. There is also little known about the added herbs and other substances in energy drinks.
Reference: Anita Bean’s sport nutrition for Young Athletes.(2010)