When mountain biking, do you intentionally puncture your tire? Or when trail running, do you cut a shoelace? Or better yet, when hiking – do you sleep next to the bear canister..? If you're NOT into self sabotage, find an electrolyte mix that you like and bring it along for the ride!
Sports nutrition – what you eat and drink before, during, or after an activity – is highly personalized. The amount of electrolytes you choose to consume can be dictated by a host of variables: weather, elevation, activity duration, your level of intensity, your bodily sweat rate, and the type of activity at hand (mountain biking vs fencing).
Now, you likely aren't going through this exhaustive list of considerations every time you're embarking on some sweaty fun. But, having a basic framework for electrolyte replenishment will help you feel more energized during your activity and long after. And if you decide to layer on more sophistication to your fueling strategy, then all the power to you!
Having a basic framework for electrolyte replenishment will help you feel more energized.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential minerals that create an electrical charge when dissolved in water. These electrical charges are called ions, and ions are vital for your body to properly function. Salt is a common catch-all phrase for electrolytes, and it's made of Sodium and Chloride. Sodium and chloride are the most abundant electrolytes in sweat with potassium, magnesium, and calcium present in trace amounts.
Why is replacing lost electrolytes important?
When you're active, you lose electrolytes through the natural process of sweating, which is how your body controls its core temperature. By replenishing electrolytes during exercise, you're supporting healthy muscle and cognitive function, regulating blood pressure, and controlling fluid balance in your cells.
Improved Muscle Function: your muscles rely on the electrical conductivity of electrolytes to contract. Similarly, electrolytes help your muscles relax. An electrolyte deficiency or imbalance may cause muscle cramps, which occur when muscles fail to relax after contraction. Calcium and magnesium are the two minerals most responsible for your body’s ability to trigger muscle contractions.
Electrolytes help your muscles relax. An imbalance may cause muscle cramps.
Improved Cognitive Function: by staying hydrated you can fend off cognitive deterioration. If hydration is inadequate, your mind (cognition) is negatively impacted. The physical stress due to dehydration has been shown to cause significant psychological strain. If you're participating in a skill-based sport, or just enjoy being able to hold a conversation, replenishing electrolytes is the way to go.
Regulate Blood Pressure: electrolytes play a role in your heart’s ability to contract and pump blood, which impacts your blood pressure. The primary health concern related to dehydration is a drop in plasma volume within blood. When the body notices a decrease in water levels, the kidneys will tell the blood to retain more water. As water levels continue to drop due to sweating, the plasma volume will also continue to drop, leading to even thicker blood. When blood contains less water, it is more viscous or "thick." Thicker blood has a hard time traveling throughout the body, which adversely impacts blood pressure and the heart.
Controlled Fluid Balance in Cells: by replenishing ions lost through sweating, you're helping water move throughout your body efficiently. More specifically, water is able to easily pass through cells to deliver nutrients to your organs and tissues. If you have an electrolyte or ion imbalance, you could end up retaining fluid because water is slowly and inefficiently passing through your cells. If your body retains fluids, you may feel symptoms of dehydration and appear bloated.
When should I consume electrolytes?
For activities longer than 60 minutes, aim to consume 1-2 servings of hydration mix every 60 minutes. One serving is typically equal to 1 scoop of hydration mix and 12-16 fl oz (350-500 ml) of water.
In the hour or two before your long activity, try to pad your electrolyte and hydration levels by consuming 12-16 fl oz (350-500 ml) of water + hydration mix.
During your activity, you'll feel more energized if you frequently sip your hydration mix instead of just guzzling when you feel thirsty. Try drinking 3-8 fl oz every 10-20 minutes to match your electrolyte inflow and outflow.
Frequently sip your hydration mix instead of just guzzling when you feel thirsty.
After your activity, it is recommended that 150% of your weight loss is replaced with fluid. This means drinking 1.5 liters of fluid for every kg of weight lost. You can easily determine your weight loss by weighing yourself before and after your activity.
Sweat rates can range from 0.5-3.5 liters/hour and this can be even higher (up to 8.8 liters/hour) if you're wearing protective clothing. In 1 liter of sweat, you lose around 460-1840 mg of sodium, 710-2840 mg of chloride, 160-390 mg of potassium, 0-36 mg of magnesium, and 0-120 mg of calcium. So, the amount of electrolytes you lose will depend on a number of variables, but the important thing is that you listen to your body and have fuel on-hand.
For general direction, the American College of Sports (see study) recommends consuming 500-700 mg of sodium per hour of activity. However, this can increase to +2000 mg of sodium if you’re in heat / humidity or you're a salty sweater. So, know thyself!