Exactly What Do Electrolytes Do in Your Body? Two Experts Explain
When you think of electrolytes, you probably think about minerals like sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium which are often added to sports drinks, gels, powders, and chews for athletes to consume during or after a workout. But electrolytes are much more than an ingredient listed on the nutrition label of your favourite sports products.
For starters there are several different kinds of electrolytes; sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium are the ones you hear about most often, but chloride, phosphate, and bicarbonate also fall into the electrolyte category. All of these help us complete multiple body functions, including movement, and you can find electrolytes in whole foods like bananas and almonds.
Here, we answer all of your questions surrounding these key nutrients, including what do electrolytes do and how much you need so you can ride strong. Plus, a full list of the best sources.
What do electrolytes do in the body?
As a cyclist, you know you need protein to help repair muscle damage, carbs to restore glycogen, and electrolytes to help aid hydration post-workout. But what exactly do electrolytes do?
“Electrolytes are minerals required for many body processes, such as conducting nerve impulses, contracting muscles, regulating fluid and pH balance, and moving nutrients inside and outside of the cell,” says Brittany Michels, MS, RDN, CPT, a member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council.
If you don’t have enough electrolytes in your system or there’s an imbalance, you could fatigue faster, or your muscles might involuntarily contract into a cramp, which can disrupt your workout, says David Chesworth, NASM-CEP, wellness program director at Hilton Head Health in South Carolina.
Which electrolyte is the most important?
All electrolytes are important because they aid multiple body functions, but some are also lost through sweat in various amounts.
“The main electrolyte lost in sweat is sodium and losses vary between 30 milligrams to 500 milligrams per cup of sweat lost,” Michel explains. This is why sodium is most important, followed by chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium which are also lost in sweat, just in lesser amounts, she explains.
If you notice your sweat is very salty, this means you’re losing lots of sodium, so you might want to make sure its in your postride beverage or even meal, says Chesworth.
How do you know when your body is low on electrolytes?
If you exercise for less than an hour each day, regularly drink water so you stay hydrated, and eat three to five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, then you likely don’t have to worry about low electrolyte levels, says Chesworth. However, if you plan to workout for more than an hour, you likely need to replenish those lost through sweat, he adds.
Daily recommendations for electrolytes for adults 19 and older, based on a 2 000- to 2 400-calorie diet:
- Sodium: 2 300mg for both men and women
- Potassium: 2 600mg for women and 3 400mg for men
- Magnesium: 310mg to 320mg for women; 400mg to 420mg for men
- Calcium: 1 000mg for women ages 19 to 50, 1 200 for women 51 and up; and 1 000mg for men of all ages
Low electrolyte levels really become a risk for cyclists who are consuming only water while training for or competing in ultra endurance events, says Chesworth. “If you’re drinking only water and not replacing electrolytes, you can dilute your blood to the point where your body is not able to get those electrolytes and use them,” which Chesworth explains can cause hyponatremia, a condition where there’s too much water in your body and too little sodium and though rare, it can be fatal.
Because electrolytes are responsible for drawing fluids into and out of cells, an imbalance of electrolytes and fluids can lead to extreme inflammation of an organ like the brain or heart, and subsequent organ failure, Chesworth says. This condition can also lead to a seizure, coma, or death, he adds. (Again serious, so it’s worth knowing, but it’s rare so don’t freak out!)
On the flip side, you can consume too many electrolytes. “Water is the vehicle in which electrolytes travel around the body. If water is not begin replenished, electrolytes will draw water where it can and further dehydrate the body,” Chesworth says. “With less water in the blood stream, the blood thickens and can’t travel as quickly. The cells then have a tougher time getting oxygen and other essential nutrients.”
This can obviously slow down your rides—in fact even 2 to 3 percent dehydration can impair performance—but serious hypernatremia (too many electrolytes and not enough water) can also lead to health issues if left unchecked.
When it comes to replenishment, there’s no one-size-fits all solution. Michel says if you want to pinpoint your specific needs after a tough workout, factor in your training regime, weather conditions such as temperature and humidity, your sweat rate, which varies from athlete to athlete, as well as how you feel.
A good place to start figuring out the amount of fluids you need postride is by calculating your sweat rate, Michel says. To do that, weigh yourself before a ride and after a ride. Subtract your postride weight from your preride weight and convert to ounces. Add to that number the ounces of liquid you consumed on your ride. This will give you an estimate for how much water to drink during and after a workout, which is important to make sure you have a fluid balance.
As for how many electrolytes to consume with that water during your workouts, experts typically recommend about 400 to 800 milligrams per hour for rides lasting an hour or longer. But figuring out how many electrolytes you need mid- and postride really comes down to how you feel, says Michel. If you’re low on electrolytes you might experience muscle cramping, involuntary muscle twitches, lightheadedness, dizziness, mental fog, fatigue, and headaches, according to Michel and Chesworth. If you experience these symptoms on your longer rides, consider upping your electrolyte intake.
How does the heat affect your electrolyte levels?
When temperatures rise, your body sweats to cool you down which will cause you to lose electrolytes. Internally, your body sends blood closer to the skin so that we sweat more, and therefore, less blood goes to your working muscles, which might cause your muscles to fatigue quicker when it’s hotter, explains Chesworth.
This coupled with the fact that you lose electrolytes from sweat, and you sweat when you exercise, especially in hot conditions, makes getting enough electrolytes in your system even more important to fight fatigue. Consider taking in more electrolytes when riding in the heat, compared to when it’s cooler outside.
“It’s kind of a two for one, especially if you’re not used to training in the heat. You might get tired a lot faster,” Chesworth explains.
What are the best sources of electrolytes?
Whole foods are the best sources of electrolytes. Here’s a complete list of electrolyte-rich options, according to Michel.
*Electrolyte numbers based on the USDA FoodData Central
- 1 medium baked sweet potato: 542 mg
- 1 cup cantaloupe, cubed: 427 mg
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut water: 404 mg
- 1 banana: 375 mg
- ½ avocado: 345 mg
- 1 oz roasted pumpkin seeds without salt: 156 mg
- 1 cup black beans: 120 mg
- 1 oz almonds: 77 mg
- 1 cup plain low-fat yogurt: 42 mg
- 1 cup raw spinach: 24 mg