Electrolytes: What are and why you need them
Everything You Need to Know About Electrolytes Including the Best Electrolyte Sources
You've probably heard you need to refuel with electrolytes post-workout — but why? Here, learn more about the benefits of electrolytes.
From watching professional athletes chug a sports drink to seeing ad after ad for the latest supplement powder, chances are, you've heard of electrolytes — especially in relation to working out. After all, you've heard all the suggestions to recharge with electrolytes after exercise, especially when it's an intense workout. But what are electrolytes, exactly — and why are they so darn important to your post-workout recovery? Read on to discover more about electrolytes, what they do in the body, and how to add electrolytes to your post-workout nutrition plan.
What Are Electrolytes?
Remember middle school science when you learned all about ions — atoms with electrical charges? Electrolytes are minerals that, when dissolved in water, produce ions, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Electrolytes facilitate the flow of electrical signals throughout the body (but without giving you an actual shock, thankfully). Since your body is about 60 percent water, electrolytes are found almost everywhere in your body, such as in your blood and fluids in and around your cells — i.e., intracellular fluids. Plus, they're required for nearly every biological function in the body, says Maddie Pasquariello, M.S., R.D., registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition with Maddie. For example, muscle movement and nerve signaling (both major functions in your workouts) require electrolytes in order to occur.
The most important types of electrolytes
While there are several types of electrolytes in the body, six are widely considered to be the most important electrolytes. They are:
Benefits of Electrolytes
To reiterate, electrolytes are required for basic functions. They're essential for good health, whether or not you regularly work out. Without the proper intake of electrolytes, you could experience an electrolyte imbalance, which occurs when your cells have too many or too few electrolytes, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And that's a situation you want to avoid: Electrolyte imbalances can lead to diarrhea, fatigue, headaches, irregular or fast heart rate, nausea, muscle spasms or cramps, nausea, or vomiting — even a coma or seizure in extreme cases if left untreated.
However, exercise emphasizes the importance of electrolytes, and that's because of all that sweating. Remember, electrolytes are water-soluble, meaning they're able to be dissolved in water. So when you sweat excessively during a challenging workout, you're also losing electrolytes, according to Pasquariello. This is especially true if you're working out in hot weather, which increases sweating even more. Basically, the more you sweat, the more electrolytes you lose.
It's no secret that hydration is key to a solid workout routine. After all, water is required for lubricating your joints and regulating your body temp via sweating, both of which are vital during exercise, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But as it turns out, staying hydrated isn't just about drinking actual water; proper hydration relies on electrolytes, too. Electrolytes (especially sodium and chloride) regulate how fluids move in and out of your cells, ultimately affecting the amount of water in your body and overall hydration status, according to a 2018 article. Translation? Without enough electrolytes in your system, it's impossible to stay optimally hydrated.
Healthy Nerve Function
Electrolytes (most notably, potassium, sodium, and chloride) directly contribute to the action of nerve cells, aka neurons, according to a 2021 scientific article. Nerve cells are in charge of sending signals throughout the body, and they control a variety of processes, including those that affect how you think, feel, act, and move, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Electrolyte imbalances can potentially damage nerve cells, leading to issues such as headache, confusion, irritability, and muscle cramps, according to a 2020 study.
Regulates Healthy Muscle Function
Whether you're squatting during barre or sprinting up a hill, your muscles contract each time you move. These contractions rely on electrolytes such as magnesium and calcium, according to the NLM. Without them, your muscles won't be able to properly function and relax. This may lead to issues such as muscle cramps and twitching, making it difficult to exercise and recover.
When You Need Electrolytes After a Workout
To avoid electrolyte imbalances, you can get electrolytes from foods and fluids. However, not all sources are created equal, and whether or not you should take electrolyte supplements depends on the type and intensity of your workouts.
If you're doing casual, low-key workouts, there usually isn't a need to add electrolyte supplements to your diet, says Pasquariello. "If you're only mildly dehydrated — [which] may be the case if you work out for an hour or go a little while without drinking water — drinking plain water will be enough to rehydrate you," she explains. That's because lighter workouts are unlikely to cause electrolyte losses that are high enough to warrant significant replenishment, she notes.
But if you've done an extensive workout (think: 90 minutes or more),you worked out in hot weather, or your intense workout left you dripping in sweat, you might be moderate to severely dehydrated. In those scenarios, consider sipping on electrolyte-containing fluids instead of water, suggests Pasquariello. While the exact amount of electrolytes needed will vary depending on your body, your sweat content, and the weather, a good rule of thumb is to aim to replace the amount of sweat lost during the workout (and FYI, you can lose anywhere from 0.5 to 1.5 liters of sweat per hour of exercise, according to the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism).This will ensure you're replenishing the electrolytes you lost during the workout and preventing electrolyte imbalances.
Best Sources of Electrolytes
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get your necessary dose of electrolytes:
Most folks can get all of their electrolytes through food sources alone, says Pasquariello. Fruits and veggies — such as bananas, avocado, watermelon, and leafy greens — are especially great sources, she says.
Coconut water is a natural source of electrolytes, says Pasquariello. It also includes naturally occurring sugars, which are excellent for providing a bit of quick energy as well, she adds.
Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, are flavored drinks that contain carbs, vitamins, electrolytes, and other minerals. But these beverages tend to be high in sugar and calories, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That high sugar content may not be ideal, depending on your personal health goals. With that in mind, a sports drink may be helpful for replenishing electrolytes if you've vigorously exercised for more than 60 minutes, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. But otherwise, you can just stick with water.
Your Complete Guide to Sports Drinks
Electrolyte tablets or powder
If intense workouts (such as marathon training) are part of your usual routine, consider electrolyte tablets, such as Nuun, or powders. These are designed to be dissolved in water, so they're travel-friendly.
Here are some tips for getting enough electrolytes before, during, and after exercise, according to Pasquariello:
Plan ahead. If you've got a strenuous workout on the agenda, prefill your water bottle with electrolyte powder. You can also use a running waistband that holds a water bottle so you can hydrate and avoid electrolyte imbalances on the go.
Fuel up. "Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables as part of your diet, especially [in] pre- and post-workout meals, is a good way to ensure you're consuming electrolytes [every day]," says Pasquariello.
Timing. "There isn't a ton of evidence to suggest exactly how soon you should try to [replenish] electrolytes, but you want to make sure you're getting them in fairly soon after any strenuous workout," she recommends.
Go the DIY route. Short on time? Make a DIY electrolyte beverage by combining water with lemon juice and a pinch of salt. "Lemon contains potassium, calcium, and magnesium, and you'll get sodium and chloride from the salt," notes Pasquariello.