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Why Are Electrolytes Important For Athletes?

Greenletes / Sports Nutrition / Hydration / Why Are Electrolytes Important For Athletes?

Learn how to replenish electrolytes naturally (without a sports drink) with this list of 10+ food & drink.

An electrolyte imbalance can seriously affect your hydration and overall athletic performance. But let’s be honest, the term “electrolytes” is confusing. Do everyday athletes even need to worry about electrolytes?

If you’ve ever looked at a bottle of Gatorade, you’ve likely seen the term “electrolytes”. If you’re how to get electrolytes or what they even do, you’re not alone. You may be wondering:

woman drinking water
  • What the heck are electrolytes and why are they important?
  • Do you need to replenish electrolytes after every workout?
  • Should I be taking in a certain amount of electrolytes?
  • How do I get electrolytes?
  • Can I ditch the sports drink and get electrolytes naturally through food?

This post is going to give you all the info you need to know about electrolytes, so you can master your hydration, no matter your sport.

What are electrolytes?

Quite simply, electrolytes are minerals that have an electrical charge and play a central role in many bodily functions, specifically fluid balance. The important electrolytes for athletes are sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium.

Electrolytes are necessary  for a variety of things, like hydration, muscle contraction and blood pressure. Certain electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, are lost in sweat and need to be replaced to maintain the proper fluid balance in the body. As a matter of fact, electrolytes help with fluid absorption during exercise.

The body tightly regulates its electrolyte balance. Certain electrolytes stay in the cell, while others stay outside the cell. If electrolytes become imbalanced, you may experience fatigue, dehydration, cramping, weakness, tingling, or confusion–none of which are pleasant during your workout!

That’s why sports drinks always contain electrolytes– to replace those lost in sweat and help with fluid intake.

sports drinks in a bucket

When do you need electrolytes?

If you workout for an hour or less, chances are that your electrolyte losses are minimal. In other words, you can probably just drink water for hydration during these types of workouts.

The same goes for a longer workout that doesn’t make you sweat much, such as strength training, walking or yoga. And of course, electrolytes do not need to be replenished on rest days. In these situations, water should be enough to keep you properly hydrated.

That said, you will need to think about electrolyte replenishment in these situations:

  • you perform endurance exercise for longer than an hour
  • you exercise a really hot climate, which causes profuse sweating
  • you are a heavy sweater (you sweat through your clothes or have chalky white spots on your skin after exercise)

If any of these conditions apply and you don’t replenish electrolytes, you may experience dehydration and fatigue. In the end, your performance will suffer from an electrolyte imbalance.

Do they help performance?

Taking in electrolytes when you don’t need them will not increase performance. But ensuring that you have adequate stores of electrolytes in the body will ensure that you can perform at your best.

Since athletes lose electrolytes in sweat, having a negative electrolyte balance can negatively affect hydration status. Dehydration is associated with fatigue, increase perceptions of exertion and a decrease in performance. That’s why it’s important to replace any electrolytes that are lost during exercise.

How much do you need?

This is a question I get asked often… “If I’m sweating heavily during a workout, how many electrolytes do I need to take in to replace those lost in sweat?” Unfortunately there is no good answer to this question because people are so incredibly varied in their sweat rates.

Some people may lose a pound of sweat when exercising in the heat for an hour, while others may sweat minimal amounts. Plus, the conditions (climate, duration, activity level) for every workout are different. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to say how many electrolytes you need to replenish during a workout.

That said, you can calculate your sweat rate to determine how much sweat you’re losing during a workout. This will help you determine how much fluid you need to take in during exercise.

Some estimates say that you lose 500 milligrams of sodium for every pound of sweat, but that is a VERY rough estimate. When thinking about electrolyte replenishment, pay attention to your body and how you feel rather than the exact measurement.

A good way to assess hydration is to take a look at the color of your urine. If it’s pale yellow, you are properly hydrated. If it’s darker yellow, you’re dehydrated. You can also tell if you’re dehydrated if you get a headache, dizziness, extreme fatigue or muscle cramps during a workout.

Foods with electrolytes

While sports drinks contain the electrolytes you need to stay hydrated and fueled during an intense workout, you can also find electrolytes in whole foods. Let’s dive into the essential electrolytes and how to eat and drink natural sources of each.

Sodium

This mineral aids in fluid retention and plays a role in nerve and muscle function, as well as blood volume and blood pressure control. Without enough sodium, blood pressure may drop or you can become dehydrated.

It’s true that most Americans meet (and exceed) their daily sodium recommendations (2300 milligrams per day). But if you’re an athlete who loses a lot of sodium from sweat, taking in more than the 2300 milligrams per day likely won’t have any negative side effects.

Pretzels contain the electrolyte sodium

For those who workout intensely or sweat profusely, it may be necessary to add an extra pinch of table salt to your meals. Sodium is found in your favorite salty snacks and most canned and packaged foods.

If you meet any of the criteria listed in the bullet points above, try adding some of these salty foods to your diet:

Calcium

Everyone knows calcium as the mineral responsible for bone health. Although 99% of calcium is stored in our bones, the rest functions as an electrolyte in the in the the body.

Calcium helps with nerve signaling, blood clotting, hormone secretion, muscle contraction, and normal heart function. Without ample calcium consumption, the body pulls calcium from the bones, causing them to weaken overtime.

Milk is full of the electrolyte calcium

Most adults need 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, and these foods provide at least 10% of that recommendation in one serving. They make a great addition to any athlete’s diet:

  • Dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese)
  • Tahini (Maple Oat Tahini Bites)
  • Dried Figs
  • Chia Seeds
  • Leafy Greens
  • Soy Products (Tempeh Stir Fry)
  • Fortified Oatmeal
  • Fortified Orange Juice
  • Enriched Milk Alternatives
  • Canned Fish with soft edible bones

Magnesium

While calcium helps muscles contract, magnesium causes them relax. Magnesium also allows muscles to take in oxygen and plays a role in maintaining a normal heartbeat and muscle function.

Leafy greens are a natural source of magnesium

Women needs 310 to 320 milligrams of calcium per day, while men need 400 to 420 milligrams. Not eating enough magnesium may negatively affect athletic performance and can cause weakness and even muscle spasms.

Great sources of magnesium include:

Potassium

A vital part of hydration and muscle contraction (including heart muscles, digestive muscles, etc.), potassium plays a major role in proper heart function. Similar to the other electrolytes, a potassium deficiency can cause muscle weakness, cramping, and abnormal heart rhythms.

Bananas contain tons of potassium, a natural way to replenish electrolytes

You need 3500 to 4700 milligrams of potassium in a day. You can find potassium in:

By incorporating whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean sources of protein, and adequate water, most of us can meet our electrolyte needs. Be sure to drink water before, during, and after your workouts to ensure proper hydration, energy, and muscle function. A balanced post-workout meal or snack can easily replace lost electrolytes and aid in recovery.

5 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Shaw

    What a great, informative post! I always forget that tahini has calcium, bring on the hummus!

    Reply
  2. nutritioulicious

    This is such a great resource for athletes!

    Reply
  3. becky

    This is amazing, I love the information

    Reply

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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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