What are electrolytes and how do they impact you? We’re glad you asked! At a high level, electrolytes are minerals involved in many bodily processes. They can be found in our blood, urine and body fluids, as well as play a role in nerve function, muscle contraction, hydration, pH regulation and more.
The main electrolytes found in our bodies include:
So, now that you have the basics, let's explore them further, below.
While you can get electrolytes from supplements, like sports drinks, tablets and sports gels and chews, you can also get them from natural food sources, too.
Electrolyte-rich foods that are high in sodium include bread, soup, chili, cheese and mixed dishes. Potassium-rich options feature potatoes, bananas, tomatoes, squash and avocado. Additionally, dairy and soy products, almonds, canned fish with bones and chia seeds are all high in calcium, while magnesium-rich foods include leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, avocados, dark chocolate and legumes.
Since electrolytes are involved in several body processes that are necessary in physical activity, it's important to take them in and replace them as needed.
The main electrolytes lost in sweat are sodium, chloride, magnesium and potassium. Among these, sodium makes up the majority. Sodium helps maintain fluid balance in the body and aids in hydration, which improves exercise performance, capacity and focus. While we’re often told to drink water to stay hydrated, our bodies won’t efficiently absorb water without sufficient sodium replenishment.
While you probably don’t need electrolytes for shorter workouts, longer workouts and more intense exercise (especially in the heat) will likely warrant electrolyte replacement. “The general rule of thumb is to supplement with electrolytes for any exercise over 60-90 minutes, in a hot/humid environment, or if the exercise is very difficult or strenuous,” says Lizzie Kasparek, a certified sports dietitian.
“Wearing additional apparel or equipment compared to normal during exercise can also increase the energy cost of exercise and therefore increase sweat and electrolyte losses that need to be replaced for longer workouts,” adds certified sports dietitian, Kelly Jones.
If you’re a salty sweater (you can tell this if you constantly have white residues on your clothing or a gritty feeling on your skin from dried salt), you likely need to take in more sodium as well. You can plan for this before long or sweaty sessions by adding a pinch of salt to your water before exercise or taking supplements, salt pills or sports drinks throughout it.
Sodium losses typically range from 460-1,840 mg per liter of sweat, depending on the individual, weather and exercise. Therefore, it’s important to know the electrolyte concentration of different beverages to ensure adequate electrolyte replenishment and for rehydration.
“The sodium concentration of coconut water, or sports drinks made of coconut water, may not contain enough sodium to replenish what you lose during a hard workout, game, long run or race,” adds Kasparek. Instead, Jones recommends looking for high-salt electrolyte formulas, salt tablets, salty foods or even pickle juice.
Certain individuals, like salty sweaters, military professionals and those losing upwards of 4 liters of sweat per day, may also benefit from small amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium through supplementation. That said, additional amounts of those minerals are not necessary for the general active population and are likely achieved through eating a balanced diet.
If you’re involved in longer training sessions, or training sessions in hot, dry environments, don’t forget about your electrolyte needs. Electrolyte losses can hinder performance and lead to over-hydration, while sufficient electrolyte replacement can lead to better hydration, and increased performance, focus and concentration.