Cramping mid run? This is your sign to start taking electrolytes

Your complete guide to electrolytes bojanstory

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when we workout we sweat, and when we sweat we lose electrolytes (mostly, sodium).

While all of us lose fluid and electrolytes through everyday bodily processes – such as breathing, digestion, and perspiration – most of us replenish them through the fluids we drink and the food we eat without much thought.

But, if you’re training for something (think: marathon, triathlon or hyrox) or consistently working out hard, then you’ll likely need to supplement with electrolytes.

Not quite sure what electrolytes are and how they help? Here’s everything you need to know about staying on top of your hydration.

What are electrolytes?

‘Electrolytes are essential minerals that play a large range of key roles in our body,’ explains Vlad Sabou, performance nutritionist at Science in Sport. ‘Given that an adult body is around 60 per cent water, almost every fluid and cell in our body contains electrolytes. Some of the key electrolytes for supporting optimal health and physical performance are sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium and chloride – these are required in different amounts depending on our age, lifestyle and physical activity levels.’

The four main electrolytes lost through sweat are sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.

What do electrolytes do?

Put simply, electrolytes help to keep us hydrated by regulating fluid levels throughout the body.

‘On top of this, electrolytes are also important for helping our muscles contract, are involved in transmitting nerve impulses from our nervous system to the rest of our body and help regulate our blood pressure,’ says Sabou.

For athletes, adequate electrolytes help to sustain blood flow/volume to the heart, distribute nutrients to cells, and enhance their metabolism, explains Alex Larson, registered dietitian for sports athletes. ‘If athletes do not maintain a proper fluid balance, it can lead to a decrease in performance ability.’

What are electrolyte drinks?

Electrolyte drinks are drinks that contain essential minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride – ‘they’re designed to help us hydrate more effectively,’ says Sabou.

It is worth mentioning that the electrolytes drinks available on the market will differ in terms of the concentration of electrolytes they contain, he adds; ‘it is important to choose one that provides these in a quantity that is sufficient to promote effective hydration. Here, the most relevant electrolyte that we should pay attention to is sodium, which helps to stimulate thirst and promote the absorption and retention of fluids in our body.’

Current research suggests athletes can lose around 3500-7000 mg of sodium daily.

What are the best electrolyte tablets?

Benefits of electrolytes

  • Better muscle performance

  • Faster recovery period

  • Increased cardiovascular health

  • Less cramps/spasms

  • Improved endurance

So, do you need electrolytes if you work out and sweat a lot?

During moderate to intense exercise, we can lose between 1-2 litres of sweat per hour of exercise, depending on the environmental conditions in which we are (ie the hotter it is, the more we sweat). Alongside the body water lost through sweat, we are also losing essential electrolytes, most noticeably sodium, says Sabou.

Sodium plays a key role in how our bodies function. According to a 2015 study from the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports which looked at the effect of oral salt supplementation on physical performance during a half-ironman, athletes who added a salt supplement to their usual hydration routines during an IRONMAN 70.3 triathlon took an average of 26 minutes less to complete the course than those who only used sports drinks.

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

‘If fluids and electrolyte losses are not replaced, dehydration occurs and represents an important mechanism of fatigue that negatively affects our performance. Consuming electrolytes during workouts where a high amount of sweat is lost can help replace some of the electrolytes lost, stimulate thirst, increase fluid intake, and therefore help prevent dehydration,’ adds Sabou.

Common symptoms related to lack of electrolytes

So how do you know if you’re deficient?

‘Since athletes deplete electrolytes faster, they are at a greater risk of developing imbalances and deficiencies,’ says Larson. ‘Because of this, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of electrolyte imbalances.’

Signs of electrolyte imbalances to look out for:

  • Chronic cramping or muscle spasms

  • Frequent urination

  • Headaches

  • Confusion/irritability

  • Nausea/vomiting

‘If you find yourself experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, try to focus on increasing your electrolyte consumption. This will hopefully help alleviate your symptoms and subsequently improve your performance and overall health,’ she adds.

When should you take electrolytes?

When you need to take electrolytes will very much depend on your training routine.

‘Some athletes find that consuming an electrolyte powder or drink 60 minutes before their workout helps them perform better and prevent dehydration. This is especially true if you are someone who sweats a ton while they work out,’ says Larson.

‘When it comes to intra-workout, if your workout is going to be longer than 90 minutes, it is recommended to take electrolytes in some form during your workout. Consider carrying an electrolyte drink or a single-serve powder mix packet or electrolyte tab that you can add to your water bottle,’ she adds.

But not only is it important to stay hydrated when exercising, but rehydrating afterwards is just as key.

‘Post-workout is the most popular time to take electrolytes and will help replenish any electrolytes you lost through sweat during your session. If you don’t take any pre or intra-workout, then I encourage you to add them to your post-training regimen. Your post-workout meal is also a great time to include whole-food sources of electrolytes,’ says Larson.

Her top tip? Take them when it is most convenient for you and what feels best for your training; ‘Experiment with different timing and products and reflect on how you perform during that run or bike, then adjust accordingly.’

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