Electrolytes: What are they and do I need them?

Electrolytes basically help charge many functions in the body. When consumed through a typical isotonic sports drink or supplement, electrolytes are turned into ions to help send electrical signals to the body. These electrolytes helps regulate the amount of water that’s in and around your cells. It helps the efficient contraction of your muscles and balance of water within your cells, not to mention it prevents cramping. Most common electrolytes that we’ve all heard of are sodium and potassium (or items, you may associate them with, as ‘salt’ and ‘bananas’).  Another great natural source of electrolytes – coconut water!!

Electrolytes are chemicals that conduct electricity when mixed with water. They regulate nerve and muscle function, hydrate the body, balance blood acidity and pressure, and help rebuild damaged tissue. The muscles and neurons are sometimes referred to as ‘electrical tissues’ of the body.

– Medical news today

Why do we need electrolytes?

When you sweat your body is losing fluid, along with those electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium and chloride among others. If you exercise a lot and if you sweat a lot during exercise your body is getting rid of a lot of electrolytes and water via the sweat. Now, typically you are told to drink water to replace all fluids lost however, some physicians and coaches are recommending drinking not only to thirst, when we are placed into these high sweat/heavy activity sessions, but to also add in electrolytes for optimum performance. The Mayo Clinic recommends drinking approximately half of your needs via water and the other with added electrolytes – such as a sports drink or supplement (i.e. Lucozade, Gatorade, Powerade etc. although, FYI, these drinks will have calories – so best to account for this). This doesn’t mean we should not drink water, it’s merely suggesting that we re-hydrate AND replenish our nutrients lost with some well needed electrolytes. (If you would like to know more about Isotonic , hypotonic and Hpertonic drinks and their effects for exercise check out this great blog post here.)

So what does a lack of electrolytes mean to me?

According to a 2008 study, 3% loss of water via sweat can result in a loss of strength by up to 19%! That’s mad!! Nearly 1/5th of our performance. This tells us that optimal hydration and electrolyte balance is crucial for maximum performance for out training and strength. We can prevent this with proper fluid intake and electrolyte balance that will aid in performance and results.

If we are exercising for long periods with just only water, and we are not eating appropriately to performance needs, we may actually cause problems such as exercise-induced low sodium (or hyponatremia which is Low sodium and high water intake).

Sports drinks are ideally suited to high intensity ‘stop-go’

and endurance sports.

Sports Dieticians Australia Here

How can I ensure optimum performance?

Before I get into any supplements or drinks I think food needs to be the first call to action. We want to ensure we are getting a well-rounded and balanced meal outside of exercise that provides multiple nutrients – especially multi-coloured fruit and vegetables and natural salt in controlled amounts, this is very important. Whole foods are not only great at keeping calories intake lower they generally provide higher nutrients. I am a big advocate for Organic food (though science has shown a relatively minute difference between organic and non-organic produce in terms of vitamins and minerals), I still believe the better quality and availability of nutrients come from organic. Salt is another addition that most people tend to cut out, especially during a health kick. Natural/ coloured salt is your friend (Black, Himalayan Pink salt, white, unfortunately, is not a colour and it may be bleached). Natural salt holds many more minerals than your classic white table salt.

Second, timing of exercise will depend on your electrolyte balance. Are you exercising for 30 minutes or two hours, have you ate before your workout, are you expected to sweat a lot? Timing is important for optimum performance I would look to judge your recent food intake in regards to exercise intensity and duration. If you eat a light but very nutritious meal an hour before exercise you probably don’t require any additional electrolyte supplements/drinks. But, with the same example, if you are going for a 10 mile run I would take an electrolyte drink/ supplement with you due to the time of exercise. I would ideally take an isotonic drink or electrolyte supplement during an hour or more of exercise. I do not believe that an electrolyte drink/ supplement can deter your performance when used sparingly unless there is an excess intake i.e. you took an overdose which could be life threatening depending on the electrolyte – which I really hope you don’t do. Basically, I’m of the position that its best used only for longer bouts of exercise, and in recommended amounts. I do not believe it will negatively affect performance even if I don’t necessarily feel like I need it (although the supplement powder in a drink is enough to make you gag!!). Please consult with your doctor, or other qualified health care professional before using any supplement or product discussed on this post.

Third, Make sure you are getting enough water, not an excess but enough. If you want to perform like a machine you need to make sure you treat your body like a machine and ensure that you are well hydrated. Drink to thirst but also aim for at least 2 litres of water throughout the day. If you exercise and sweat, you will need more. You may want to add in an isotonic drink before, during or after your workout to ensure we don’t encounter any deficiencies mentioned above.

Fourth, give electrolytes a try during your next workout. I try to take 1g of a powder electrolyte mix to help ensure no deficiency during my workouts. No word of a lie, it’s tough. It’s a water salt taste and this takes an iron stomach lol…. am I selling it? The isotonic drinks are good however, I have one issue with them – the high sugar. This sugar may deter the uptake of electrolytes and the quantity of electrolytes are generally low to help favour taste and replenish lost glycogen. Some people enjoy the flavoured gels (you will see marathon runners taking these). I would say find what works for you, again it’s not necessary if we have a well-balanced diet during and after workouts.

I hope this has helped you or at least informed you a little. If you have any comments please leave them below – I don’t claim to know everything and I’m open for discussion and I do enjoy learning!

Check out the following for more content on electrolytes

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