Allie Stoeffler, RD
Why You Shouldn't Take Your Lytes Lightly
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
In the heat and humidity of summer, chances are you’ve noticed an increase in your sweat rate and may turn to plain water during and after a tough workout to quench your seemingly endless thirst. Replacing fluids is a top priority during and after a sweaty bout of exercise, but water is not the only thing lost in sweat, meaning there is more than just water to be replaced in rehydration practices.
What Are Electrolytes?
You’ve heard about electrolytes before, and you probably know that they play some sort of role in your athletic performance. But what exactly are they? Electrolytes are charged particles that circulate in the body to keep nerves and muscles (including the heart) running properly while keeping fluid balance in check. As an added perk, they also contribute to offsetting cramping! Sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium perform these functions in everyday life but also clearly contribute to endurance performance.
Although the concentration of electrolytes lost in sweat depend on an individual’s sweat rate, genetics, and acclimation to the environment, loses can be recovered from typical post-exercise foods and fluids.
As you can see, sodium is the most abundant electrolyte lost in sweat. Even a heat-acclimated athlete with a lower sweat rate can lose over 2,000 mg of sodium in a two-hour training session. If your normal diet consists of mostly unprocessed foods, adding some salt to your meal, especially after a sweaty training session, can promote enhanced recovery.
During and after exercise, pay attention to signs of undue fatigue, bloating, swelling, nausea, and disorientation. These are early signs of hyponatremia, which essentially means the body is becoming waterlogged from not having enough sodium in its bloodstream. Although this can be easily avoided, untreated hyponatremia can have severe consequences.
Since the body is a wonderful thing, the more you train in the heat, the more acclimated your body will become to the circumstances, and the more sodium you will conserve instead of sweating out. Keep pushing through your heat training sessions!
What should you do?
If you know that you will be exercising for an extended period of time in the heat, eat salted foods and fluids about 90 minutes before exercise. Limit overhydrating with plain water.
It is suggested to replenish sodium in longer endurance events at a rate of 250-500 mg of sodium per hour, which can be hard to do though your typical sports drinks alone. Alternatives include gels with added electrolytes, salty snacks, salt tablets, or endurance specific sports drinks.
For rehydration purposes, consuming electrolyte-rich foods and fluids after a sweaty workout will stimulate thirst and enhance your ability to properly retain fluids. If broths, soups, V8 juices, pretzels, etc. are not appealing to you after a run, there are also electrolyte tablets, such as Nuun and Hammer Fizz, that you can add to water. A wholesome diet will be able to adequately restore your electrolytes for your next workout!