Nutrition

Electrolytes: Everything You Need To Know And Why They Matter

Electrolytes is a term we see a lot in the sports nutrition world. Beyond a vague sense that they have to do with sweat and salt, the details of electrolytes can be hard to understand. We caught up with Kayla Martin, Assistant AD for Performance Nutrition Services at Penn State, to learn more about what electrolytes are and why they matter. Kayla has been a dietitian for ten years at the collegiate level and was formerly the Nutrition Director at Notre Dame and University of Louisville.

Electrolytes are lost through sweat

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals that are required for baseline body functioning.  They have positive or negative charged ions which conduct electric currency through our body.  They help the body absorb fluids and play a critical role in neurological activity and muscle contraction.

Sodium, chloride, and potassium are the electrolytes lost in copious amounts when you sweat.

Magnesium and calcium are also lost in sweat and have a key role in energy metabolism and muscle contraction.

We consume electrolytes in the foods we eat and beverages we drink.

What are the benefits of electrolytes for active individuals?

Electrolytes are critical for optimal performance.   They are key components to our body’s control center, for fluid balance, blood pressure regulation, muscle contraction, nervous system, and cellular function.  Athletes need all systems firing, with just one little glitch or twitch… a second is lost, a ball is dropped, or an injury is flaring.

When someone has a deficiency in electrolytes they often experience a cramp—I like to think of it as a ‘short circuit,’ just like electrical currency!

If athletes do not consume electrolytes, but consume a lot of water during extreme exertion, they are at risk for a serious condition called exercise-associated hyponatremia or water intoxication.  Hyponatremia is an imbalance of water to sodium, or low blood sodium.  The group of exercisers who are at greatest risk for this condition are endurance athletes.

When is it best to consume electrolytes during exercise?

Electrolyte needs vary from person to person because we all have different sweat rates.  Sweat rate refers to the amount of fluid and the electrolyte concentration a person loses during activity (specific time).  It is important to note that age, gender, overall fitness level, length of exercise, the type of training, the intensity, the environment (humidity, altitude, etc), and daily dietary intake of electrolytes– all need to be factored into an athlete’s needs.

That said, some people require electrolyte consumption during activity and others don’t.

For activities lasting longer than 60 minutes, both carbohydrates and electrolytes are recommended.  Sodium helps the body absorb and retain fluid encouraging optimal muscle function.  The average athlete benefits from 150-200mg of sodium per training hour.

So, if you are consuming something like Honey Stinger PLUS+ Performance Chews which provide carbohydrates and sodium, wash them down with about 20 ounces of water!

Athlete working out

How often should you consume electrolytes during exercise?

For those who are ‘salty sweaters’ or in extreme environments (humidity, heat, altitude) it is most beneficial to consume electrolytes pre-activity and then compliment your ‘salt’ routine with top off salts during activity.

For activity > 90 minutes it is best to have a hydration strategy to implement.

This includes: how much fluid to drink and how many electrolytes and carbohydrates.

You will also need to map out how frequently to consume them. Aim for starting your consumption 30-45 minutes into activity and then every 15 minutes thereafter depending on your activity, gastrointestinal tolerance and opportunity to consume.

What are good sources of electrolytes?

Try a product like Honey Stinger PLUS+ Performance Chews.  They contain carbohydrates for energy, sodium and potassium for electrolytes, and caffeine for a kick. Be sure to wash them down with some good ole H20!  Simple, pure ingredients that have a timed release to allow for a smooth flowing electrical current (ie: anti-cramp!) and boost of energy.

Not only that, honey is the ultimate source of energy.  It contains two types of carbohydrates, glucose and fructose.  Glucose is a quick energy and fructose is slower; but both are easy for your body to digest and absorb (this is critical for athletes with sensitive stomachs!).  CLEAN FUEL FAST!

Eating a wide variety of foods throughout the day will help you top off your electrolyte stores.
Below are a few whole food options that are high in electrolytes.

1 – Dairy Foods (milk, yogurt, cheese) – calcium

2 – Green Foods ( Kale, Spinach) – potassium and magnesium

3 – Coconut water – phosphorus

4 – Nuts/Seeds – Magnesium

5 – Bananas/Apricots – Potassium

What are cues to know if you need to replenish your electrolytes?

You first need to check your overall fluid consumption; is your urine clear?

If Yes and you are experiencing any of the below, then likely the symptoms you are experiencing are from an electrolyte deficiency.

If No – then you may simply need more fluids (water).

When you hydrate with water alone and don’t consume a lot of salt or don’t have a diverse diet, you could be at risk for deficiency or at least insufficiency as an active individual.

Symptoms include lightheadedness, muscle spasms, weakness, fatigue, labored activity sensation, poor recovery from activity, and delirium.

Athlete working out

What are cues to know if you are taking in too many electrolytes?

There is no magic pill to enhance athletic performance, so you should never do anything in excess.  It is important to note that electrolytes are important for baseline function and athletes tax their bodies, which generally warrants a greater intake of salt and its electrolyte friends!

Although hard for a serious exerciser to overdo, hypernatremia is when the body has an excess of sodium. It can cause dizziness, diarrhea, and vomiting (due to your fluid balance being off and your body trying to rid excess).  Excessive potassium is called hyperkalemia. It can affect the kidneys and lead to nausea and heart arrhythmia.

What’s a good best practice when consuming electrolytes?

Knowing that the average athlete loses 1-3 liters of sweat per hour.  Sodium and chloride (salt!) as well as magnesium, potassium, and calcium primarily make up sweat. The average loss of sodium per liter of sweat is about 200mg.  If you are exercising for >60 minutes, at 45 minutes into exercise try eating a packet of Honey Stinger PLUS+ Performance Chews and downing ~ 20oz. of fluids.

I like to tell my athletes that when they are sitting around at home or at work, drink water. When they lace up their spikes and put on their swim cap; consume a combination of sports drinks and water.  The exact amount varies per athlete, and without doing sweat tests on every single athlete, it is hard to know. So, until I learn the needs of my athlete, I typically start with a ratio of 3:1 water to sports drink.  For example, for every 3 cups of water, drink 1 cup of sports drink during practice. I tweak based on needs.  If the athlete doesn’t like to consume a sports drink then we look to alternatives forms like electrolyte chews, gels, or a shot of electrolytes.