Tag Archives: hydration

Electrolytes: What are they and how do I replace them?

While exercising in the heat and humidity, the importance of staying hydrated is well understood.  Water helps our body to maintain homeostasis (internal stability).  When endurance exercise last longer than 60-90 minutes, replacing electrolytes should be a priority.

Why are electrolytes important?  What specific electrolytes need to be replaced?  What are the options to replace them?  These are great questions.  Adequate hydration is critical during the hot summer months, but if our electrolytes are out of balance, we can encounter serious problems.

Electrolytes are macrominerals in the body that are very important for muscle contraction, maintaining fluid balance, and neural activity.  During exercise, electrolytes can be lost through sweating, so it’s critical to have a strategy to replace them.

Sodium and chloride are lost in high concentrations through sweat. Potassium, magnesium, and calcium are lost through sweat in low concentrations.  All electrolytes work together, so it’s important to be aware of them all and not fixate on one or two.

When we have an imbalance of electrolytes, we can experience dehydration (a state of decreased body fluid) or hyponatremia (low concentration of blood sodium).  Both of these conditions are serious and should be addressed right away.

Let’s take a look at each of these electrolytes, what their functions are, and food sources:

Sodium:  Maintains fluid volume outside of cells.  Symptoms of deficiency are muscle cramps, loss of appetite, and dizziness.  Some food sources are table salt, dill pickles, and tomato juice or soup.  Many processed foods are loaded with sodium.

Chloride:  Along with sodium, maintains fluid volume outside of cells.  Chloride is lost in sweat usually with sodium.  Symptoms of deficiency are irregular heartbeat and changes in pH.   Food sources are table salt and some fruits and vegetables (olives, tomatoes, lettuce).

Potassium:  Maintains fluid inside and outside of cells and also reduces the rise of blood pressure in response to too much sodium.  Symptoms of deficiency are muscle weakness, muscle paralysis, and mental confusion.  Food sources are potato with skin, plain yogurt, banana, and dried peas.

Magnesium:  Needed for appropriate muscle, nerve, and enzyme function.  It also helps the body use energy and is required to move other electrolytes (potassium & sodium) in and out of cells.  Symptoms of deficiency are muscle cramps, nausea, and confusion.  Food sources are pumpkin seeds, spinach, nuts, halibut, and whole grains.

Calcium:  Most abundant electrolyte in the body.  Vital for muscle contraction, nerve signaling, blood clotting, and keeping normal heart function.  Symptoms of deficiency are muscle spasms, osteoporosis, and osteopenia (reduced bone mass).  Food sources are collard greens, spinach, kale, sardines, and dairy.

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Electrolytes have such an important role in our body.  Any active person who sweats heavily or performs endurance exercise in the heat should pay attention to replacing electrolytes.

If you experience muscle cramping due to electrolyte imbalance, it’s likely from the high amounts of sodium lost thru sweat.  I thought this was maybe due to loss of potassium, but apparently the amount of potassium in sweat is probably too low for this to be the offender.

How much sweat one loses is very individual with some people being “salty” sweaters.  The intensity and length of exercise contributes to sweat rate as well as environment, clothing, and body composition.  Also, being dehydrated can increase the concentration of sodium and potassium in your sweat.

A good approach is to never start a workout thirsty or dehydrated!  If you know you’re a salty sweater, it will help to eat something salty before your exercise session.  If your exercise session is going to last longer than 60-90 minutes, then it’s important to take in carbohydrates and electrolytes.  The sodium in a sports drink helps the body take in and maintain the fluid and use the carbohydrate effectively.

Today, there are lots of products available to replace lost electrolytes.  Sports drinks, gels, gu’s, and gummies.  There are ready to drink formulas available as well as powder or tablets to mix with water.  Here is a link to 10 Best Electrolytes & Hydration Tablets.

You can even make your own electrolyte or sports drink.  I haven’t tried making my own, but I’ve always had in interest in doing so.  Here are some recipes I found:

Natural Sports Electrolyte Drink Recipe from Wellness Mama

Healthy Homemade Sports Drinks from Bicycling.com

Switchel: The Original Homemade Sports Drink from No Meat Athlete

Recently, my go to electrolyte tablet has been causing my stomach to hurt.  After my last few long runs, I tried Organic Coconut Water (not coconut milk!).  It was so refreshing and tasted really good.  Fresh coconut water is one of the “richest natural sources of electrolytes“.  But, compared to other sports drinks, it is lower in sodium and carbs so keep that in mind if you decide to try it.  I think I will stick to plain, unsweetened coconut water for now.

How do you replace lost electrolytes?

Have you ever made your own sports drink?



Hydrating for Exercise

Sixty percent of our total body weight is water.  Water carries nutrients to cells and helps maintain our body temperature through sweat.  Staying fully hydrated helps our heart and muscles work more efficiently.

With the temperatures rising and summer running approaching, I thought it would be fitting to talk about staying hydrated before, during, and after exercise.  Drinking only when you’re thirsty should not be your goal.  Thirst occurs when we have already lost 1-2 liters of fluid!   So, to stay properly hydrated, it’s important to drink fluids regularly, rather than relying on thirst.

When we lose just 2% of body weight due to dehydration, our aerobic performance suffers.  In order to perform our best and feel our best, we should be fully hydrated before, during, and after exercise!

Prior to Exercise

The majority of people begin exercise fully hydrated.  It is recommended to drink 17 to 20 ounces of water two to three hours before exercise and another 8 oz. about 20 minutes before beginning.  (If the color of your urine is dark yellow, more fluids are needed).   I always have a cup of coffee before running as I’m sure many runners do!  The good news is “caffeine intake has little effect on hydration status with exercise.” 

During Exercise

The purpose of fluid intake during exercise is to prevent dehydration (decreased body fluid) and hyponatremia (low sodium level in the blood).  Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Try to drink the same amount of fluid that you lose in sweat.  An easy way to determine this is to weigh yourself before and after exercise.  Everyone is different and has different sweat rates but it is advised to drink 8-16 oz. per hour.  (Compared to men, women have lower sweat rates and reduced electrolyte losses).
  • During exercise sessions lasting 90 minutes or longer or if heavy sweating occurs, fluids with sodium are recommended.  Sports drinks are very helpful in replenishing sodium loss.  Another alternative is to consume extra sodium with food before a long exercise session.
  • To minimize fatigue during exercise, consume a sports drink that contains carbohydrate.  Also, if you plan on exercising for longer than an hour, it is recommended to take in carbohydrate with your fluids.  Muscle glycogen stores are depleted with prolonged exercise.  To sustain performance levels and prevent tiredness, you should try to get 30-60 grams of carbs that are quickly absorbed for every hour of training.  Sports drinks come in handy during endurance exercise, as they can replace fluids, sodium, and glucose.  There are many different types of sports drinks and it’s best to use trial and error to figure out which brand you like and see that it doesn’t cause stomach issues.  Most races have a sports drink available during the event. If you plan to take advantage of this, then you should find out what brand is being used and practice with it during training to make sure it works for you.

Post Exercise

After exercising, your goal should be to make up for any fluid imbalance that occurred during your training.  This includes water to restore hydration, carbs to restock glycogen stores, and electrolytes to boost rehydration.  Symptoms of severe dehydration are nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.  If this occurs, you may need to have fluids replaced intravenously (put directly into a vein).

Most athletes can fully rehydrate with their usual meals, snacks, and fluids.  If you plan on training within 12 hours or less after your session, you should try to drink about 1.5 liters of fluid for each 2 pound lost.

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It’s important to note that the human body is able to tolerate substantial changes in fluid intake while exercising and at rest with little or no effects on health.  Because of this, most recreational exercisers will never experience hyponatremia or severe dehydration.  Prolonged or intense exercise in extreme heat does increase health risk.

To be safe, feel good, and perform your best, it is essential to drink water throughout the day and try to maintain body water stores.  Don’t just rely on thirst.  Make water easily available, bring a water bottle with you when your on the go, or even set a reminder on your phone.  Take charge, have a plan,  and drink up!

How do you make sure you’re drinking enough fluids?

Do you like sports drinks?  What is your favorite?