Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or a curious beginner, you’ve probably heard about electrolytes. Sports commercials constantly tout them, with images of fit, attractive people taking refreshing drinks of a brightly colored liquid (Gatorade and Vitamin Water, just to name a couple). But what exactly are electrolytes? What’s the concrete science behind them? And most importantly, are they necessary to help you work out?
What are electrolytes?
Ions are atoms with charges. Electrolytes are positively and negatively charged ions that play several different roles throughout your body. Examples of this include sodium (Na+), chloride (Cl-), calcium (Ca2+), potassium (K+), magnesium (Mg2+), and more. You’ve probably heard of at least a couple of these before (Remember the chemical formula for salt that you learned way back when? NaCl?). Sports drinks are usually high in them. For more information on sports drinks and electrolytes specifically, visit guardianathletic.com.
Electrolytes are responsible for every action that your body takes, and they do this both by helping to signal cellular processes and by creating electrical charge differences that lead to action. This includes muscle contraction, neuron firing, nutrient movement, and more. With all of these roles, you can see how they would be important for every part of your daily life and especially important for exercise.
What does sweat have to do with it?
It’s not the most glamorous part of working out, but sweat is incredibly important during exercising. When your body gets hot, electrolytes get transferred into your sweat glands. Because of the high concentration of the ions, also known as salts, water also travels into your sweat glands to help dilute the concentration in a process known as osmosis. Where high salts are, water will follow.
When you sweat, your sweat glands will then secrete the mix of water and salts onto your skin. The water parts of your sweat evaporate, and because this change of state from liquid to gas requires energy, the water will use some of the heat energy from your skin. This helps to cool you down. Incidentally, this also helps explain why your sweat tastes salty (Remember what was said about NaCl?) and why your skin is still salty after the sweat evaporates—the salts are left behind.
All of the electrolytes that were listed above are examples of what you lose with water when you sweat, but sweating isn’t the only way to lose electrolytes. Vomiting and diarrhea are also known to cause large losses. Best case scenario, the loss of electrolytes begins to affect your performance. Dizziness, lightheadedness, and cramping are all symptoms of this. In the worst-case scenario, the electrolyte imbalance can even lead to death.
Do athletes sweat more?
The short answer is sort of. It’s more accurate to say that athletes begin to sweat faster and sweat more effectively. Exercise leads to a heating of the body, and heating the body leads to sweating. Athletes are people who exercise regularly and therefore have trained their bodies to sweat efficiently. Research has shown that athletes begin to sweat earlier as their bodies anticipate the heating and initiate cool-down mechanisms faster. They’re less likely to over-sweat as well.
People who aren’t trained athletes and who might be newer to exercise can over-sweat because their bodies are less accustomed to maintaining that electrolyte balance. Many factors play into the amount you sweat besides athleticism; genetics, natural body temperature and heat regulation, diet, and more are also factors. At the end of the day, everyone sweats, and if you exercise, you’re sweating more. Because of that, everyone needs to keep an eye on their electrolyte levels.
How do I maintain a good electrolyte balance when I want to workout?
Make sure to replenish your electrolytes before, during, and after the workout. Drink something with high levels of electrolytes or eat a salty snack at least 30 minutes before the workout. During the workout, try liquids with electrolytes. This will both replenish the water your body is losing as well as the electrolytes. Carbs are helpful as well since your body has to use a lot of sugars to perform strenuous activities. For more information, feel free to Google glycogen breakdown and the Krebbs Cycle. Finally, after the workout, make sure to drink lots of water and also consume those salts! It’ll help with rehydration.
You’ll also want to customize your electrolyte intake depending on the type of exercise you’re doing. People in endurance sports, for example, like runners generally lose more electrolytes. If you exercise outdoors and it’s a hotter day, you’ll need to replenish more as well.
How do I get electrolytes?
Foods naturally high in electrolytes include whole milk (or soymilk if you’re lactose intolerant), yogurt, squash, spinach, celery, and coconut water. Salty foods do contain electrolytes but keep in mind you still want to stay healthy. Foods high in sodium can lead to high blood pressure, so be careful. You also want to watch your sugar intake, as too much sugar can lead to kidney damage, so try to stick to natural sweeteners and drinks with less added sugar.
Watching your diet while staying healthy and replenished in water, nutrients, and electrolytes can be difficult, so a lot of people will opt for sports drinks. These are usually designed by companies to not only keep you healthy and in balance, but also to provide additional nutrients and antioxidants. This method has become more and more popular, as it reduces a lot of the time and energy involved in ensuring that you’re not hurting yourself while trying to maintain electrolytes.
Now that you know all about the science behind sweating, electrolyte loss, and exercise, you can approach your workouts in a more informed way and better tailor your nutrient intake. When considering sources of electrolytes, remember to keep in mind your type of exercise, your preexisting health conditions, and the additional nutrients found in your electrolyte source. Happy (and healthy) exercising!