Physical function may hang in the balance if electrolytes aren’t replaced after working out. By choosing the right food or sports drink, getting those electrolytes back in the body is no sweat, but when and how much to eat or drink depends on a few factors like exercise intensity, weather, and individual differences in sweating.
The Threat of Sweat
As long as electrolyte levels stay in balance the body works A-OK. But, when exercise and sweat are added to the equation, the balance can begin to shift. As the body loses electrolytes through sweat, it may start to feel not so OK with muscle cramps, fatigue, nausea, mental confusion, and even kidney problems. And without proper replenishment, muscles may continue to feel weak during the next workout session.
Electrolytes are minerals that break into small, electrically charged particles called ions when dissolved in water. They are present wherever there’s water in the body (think blood, and cells), and by regulating the body’s fluids, they are essential to physical activity. Sodium and chloride (a.k.a. salt) may be the most well-known electrolytes, which maintain normal blood pressure and support nerve and muscle function, but there are a few others to round out the list, including calcium which aids muscle contraction, magnesium which aids healthy cell function, and potassium and phosphate which help to regulate energy and pH balance.
The body loses water faster than electrolytes, so it may not be as important to replace minerals during shorter workouts (less than one hour). But, drinking water to re-hydrate is important no matter how long the exercise routine. Since everyone is different and every exercise session is different, there is not a one-size-fits-all plan for electrolyte replacement. Worth its salt as a general guideline, replenishing electrolytes becomes important when a workout session goes longer than 60 minutes.
More specifically for the endurance athletes, the amount to drink after exercise must be greater in volume than has been sweated out. So to get a more accurate number, get the calculators out. Athletes should weigh in before and after exercise, consuming 16-24 ounces of fluid for every pound of body weight lost after exercise.
There are several food and drink choices when it comes to replenishing electrolytes. One common way is swigging on a sports drink or even milk. But watch out for drinks with added sugar. Look for drinks that have 5-8% carbohydrates, 50-80 calories per 8 ounces, with 120-170 mg sodium. Chowing on a quick snack is another good way. Salty foods should top the list (peanut butter, pickles, tomato juice) as sodium is lost in higher amounts. Leafy greens, tomatoes, celery, bananas, yogurt, nuts, and beans are a few of the choices to strike a balance with the rest of the electrolyte team to get the body back on track and ready for its next challenge.