You’ve heard of them. Gatorade won’t shut up about them. But what exactly are electrolytes? And how should we replenish them after a workout?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, electrolytes are minerals in your blood and other body fluids that carry an electric charge. They affect the amount of water in your body; the acidity, or pH, of your blood; your muscle function; and other important processes.
Sodium and chloride are the primary electrolytes lost during exercise, as well as potassium, magnesium and calcium. When you sweat, you lose these electrolytes — 4 liters of sweat contains 3 to 7 grams of sodium. The more you sweat, the more you need to replenish electrolytes to avoid dehydration. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine says that it is crucial to replace your electrolytes if you are exercising at a high rate for longer than an hour (and/or in high temperatures).
According to Dr. David Gee, professor of Food Science and Nutrition at Central Washington University, just 2% to 4% of water weight lost can lead to reduced muscular endurance time; 4% to 6% water weight lost reduces muscular strength and endurance, and you can get heat cramps; 6% or more of water weight lost can lead to severe heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, coma and even death.
The only way to replace your electrolytes is by drinking fluids and eating certain foods.
According to Livestrong.com, replacing electrolytes before your exercise session helps enhance fluid absorption while you exercise. Fluid replacement during exercise helps you manage your electrolyte intake without causing your athletic performance to suffer. Finally, electrolyte replacement after your exercise session helps rehydrate you and replace your lost electrolyte stores.
Sports drinks offer a quick electrolyte fix when you’re starting or finishing an intense workout. There are so many sport drink choices on the market; how do you choose? Level-four performance coach and coach tutor/assessor with the United Kingdom's National Governing body for Track and Field Athletics Brian Mackenzie offers great advice on this subject. Check out his website, Brianmac.co.uk.
The Los Angeles Times’ Ashley Dunn says make your own to save money and sugar intake. His DIY recipe makes about 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of powder, enough for 17 24-oz. water bottles. See his video here.
“Drinking electrolytes is your best bet for fastest absorption and replenishment of fluids and electrolytes lost during exercise,” said Terrah Setteducato, registered dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. “Young coconut water and low-fat milk are both natural sources of sugar, water and electrolytes, so they make for a great choice during and following exercise routines.”
If you want to eat your electrolytes, Setteducato recommends the following whole-food choices to include in your pre- or post-exercise snacks:
Potassium-rich foods: Bananas, cantaloupe, chicken, dates, figs, tuna, grapefruit or oranges, kiwi, mango, raisins and spinach.
Magnesium-rich foods: Avocados, beans, bran cereals (add some low-fat milk and you’ll be set), nuts and nut butters (lightly salted are OK here to replace sodium), and oatmeal.