Sports water bottle containing recovery drink.

What are Electrolytes and do we Need to Replace them After Exercise?

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Athletes, coaches and sport scientists have had an understanding of electrolytes for decades.  They know what they are, what they do and why we need them.  However, a recent surge in the marketing of specially made sports drinks, waters, tablets and teas has ensured the term ‘electrolyte’ has become increasingly visible to everyone.

Regardless of the increased awareness, there still remains much uncertainty as to what they do, how they benefit health and performance and if we even need to be concerned about electrolytes at all.

What are Electrolytes?

You can think of electrolytes like you think of oil in a car, they don’t make the engine run but they’re indispensable to keep things running smoothly.

Electrolytes are positively (+) and negatively (-) balanced charged minerals (ions).  These ions dissolve and separate in water enabling it to become electrically conductive.  This allows us to carry electrical impulses around the body i.e. messages.

During exercise, electrolytes play a vital role in nerve transmission and muscle contraction.  In addition to this, electrolytes assist with maintaining water balance and distribution between cells (osmosis) along with maintaining an optimal pH balance.

Some important Electrolytes and their functions

Magnesium: is essential for energy conversion, muscle function, nerve conduction, over 300 different enzyme reactions, bone and tooth formation, and pH balance.

Potassium: is abundant inside the cells and essential for muscle function, nerve conduction, water balance, and pH balance.

Sodium: is essential for thirst response, heat tolerance, muscle contraction, nerve conduction, water balance, and pH balance.

Calcium: is essential for nerve conduction, muscle contraction, blood clotting, bone and tooth formation, and heart function.

Chloride: is the most abundant negatively charged electrolyte in the body and is essential for oxygen exchange, digestion, water balance, and pH balance.

Electrolyte replenishment for athletes and exercisers

As mentioned, the role of electrolytes in the body serve a vital importance.  This is especially true for the athlete and fitness enthusiast.

During exercise, particularly intense exercise, sweat rates can become high and electrolytes are lost.  This means imbalances can occur quickly and deficiencies can become common amongst athletes and exercisers.  These imbalances can lead to muscle cramps, fatigue, nausea, and mental confusion.

Sodium and potassium are lost in the highest amounts when we sweat, while magnesium and chloride are lost in smaller amounts.

If athletes and fitness enthusiasts fail to replenish lost electrolytes post workout then performance can be hindered in future workouts – both physically and mentally.

If you have worked hard enough and sweating has been high it will be necessary to replenish electrolytes to help return the balance back to its desired environment.

Electrolyte replenishment for everybody

Unless you participate in exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes (e.g. getting on the mountain bike for 2-3 hours), work extremely hard for shorter periods (e.g. HIIT), or you work in a very hot environment for long amounts of time (e.g. chef) or any other activity that causes you to sweat excessively then there is no need to be concerned about replenishing electrolytes.

The body does a great job at maintaining electrolyte balance under normal circumstances.

Most healthy individuals who get a good diet consisting of a wide variety of foods don’t need worry about replenishing electrolytes through the use of electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks, as seen in the media and supermarkets.  They are of no benefit and may even put you at risk of getting too much of the minerals, which can cause problems similar to those if we develop deficiencies.

What is the best way to replenish Electrolytes?

Remember, our diets generally provide more than enough of the electrolytes needed to execute the biological functions that require them.  Therefore, we don’t need to be concerned with replenishing electrolytes before an exercise session.

Post-exercise is the most important time to consider electrolyte replenishment, particularly if you’re unable to take in enough fluid during a workout – it’s not always so easy to drink and workout at the same time.

Electrolytes can be replaced by consuming a variety of food or drink choices. Specially made sports drinks (enhanced with electrolytes) are now commonly available and are very useful and convenient.

Despite this, it is essential to be aware that some brands claim to be helpful in replenishing electrolytes, yet they are filled with sugars and additives – adding unnecessary calories and strain to the body.

Drinks that provide approximately 3-10% carbohydrates and 120-170 mg of sodium per 8 ounces of fluid are best suited for replenishment.

It is always recommended to find a product that provides minimal sugar and a good supply of electrolytes.  Although we need sugar post workout, we can do better than processed crap.

Sports drinks are clearly the convenient option and can be great if short of time to cook or prepare foods.

Although this is the case, sports drinks are not the only way to replenish electrolytes, and arguably nor are they the best.

Good old natural and fresh foods are a solid and reliable way to replenish electrolytes in the hours post exercise, if it is necessary.

Which foods best replace Electrolytes?

There is a selection of foods that can help to replace lost electrolytes after a hard or long exercise session.

Here is a list of the best foods you could eat to achieve this, they can be eaten as a snack or included in post workout meals:

Leafy Greens   Tomatoes  |  Celery  |  Bananas   Blueberries   Yogurt  |  Oranges  |  Nuts   Coconut Water   Dried Apricots  |  Raisins   Sea Salt  |  Sweet Potato   Avocado  |  Spinach

Homemade Electrolyte Replenishment Drink Ideas

2 bananas, 1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen), 2 celery stalks, 2 cups water – mix altogether in a blender.

2 bananas, 2 cups water, 2 celery stalk – mix altogether in a blender.

½ fresh orange juice, half water, pinch sea salt.

Simply 1 cup coconut water with ice.

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