What Every Athlete Needs To Know About Electrolytes

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By Jenna Gorham, RD, LN

If you’ve ever looked at a bottle of Gatorade, you’ve likely seen the term “electrolytes”. But why is this scientific term so important to athletes, when do you need electrolytes, and can you get them without drinking sugar-filled sports drinks?

Important information about electrolytes for athletes

Electrolytes are minerals that have an electrical charge and play a central role in the body’s fluid balance. They’re necessary  for proper hydration, acid-base balance and preventing muscle cramps. They’re especially important during exercise because electrolytes like sodium and potassium are  easily lost in sweat. Unfortunately, a deficiency in electrolytes can cause muscle cramping, fatigue, weakness, tingling, or confusion–none of which are pleasant during your workout!

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With that being said, it makes sense that beverage companies have developed a drink to replace lost electrolytes, but when do you actually need to drink them? It depends on how much you sweat. The more you sweat, the higher the need for electrolyte replacement (especially sodium). For the average recreational athlete, electrolyte losses are usually minimal and water should be enough to keep you properly hydrated. However, you may benefit from an electrolyte replacement drink if you’re workout is longer than an hour, is really high intensity, or if you live in a hot environment. But rather than adding a sugary drink to your repertoire, you can get plenty of electrolytes, like  sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, from foods. Here are some ways to up your electrolyte intake.

Sodium

Sodium retains fluid in the body and plays a role in nerve and muscle function, as well as blood volume and blood pressure control. Without enough sodium, blood pressure may drop or you can become dehydrated.

It’s true that most Americans  meet (and exceed) their daily sodium recommendations. For those who workout intensely or sweat profusely, it may be necessary to add a pinch of table salt to your meals. Sodium is found in your favorite salty snacks and most canned and packaged foods. It’s also found naturally in meat, seafood, dairy, and even small amounts in some veggies.

Calcium

We all know calcium as the mineral responsible for bone health. Although 99% of calcium is stored in our bones, the rest functions as an electrolyte in the in the the body. Calcium helps with nerve signaling, blood clotting, hormone secretion, muscle contraction, and normal heart function. Without proper calcium consumption, the body pulls calcium from the bones, causing them to weaken overtime.

In addition to milk and dairy, these foods are also rich in calcium:

  • Tahini
  • Dried Figs
  • Chia Seeds
  • Leafy Greens
  • Soy Products
  • Fortified Oatmeal
  • Fortified Orange Juice
  • Enriched Milk Alternatives
  • Canned Fish with soft edible bones

Magnesium

While calcium helps muscles contract, magnesium causes them relax. Magnesium also helps muscles take up oxygen and plays a role in maintaining a normal heartbeat and muscle function. Being low in magnesium may negatively affect athletic performance and can cause weakness and even muscle spasms.

Great sources of magnesium include:

  • Spinach
  • Chard
  • Edamame/soy
  • Quinoa
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Salmon
  • Nuts & Seeds – pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds/butter, almonds, flax seeds, cashews, chia seeds

Potassium

Potassium is vital for hydration. Like calcium, potassium also helps muscles to contract (including heart muscles, digestive muscles, etc.) and plays a role in proper heart function. Similar to the other electrolytes, a potassium deficiency can cause muscle weakness, cramping, and abnormal heart rhythms.

You can find potassium in:

  • Dairy
  • Meat
  • Winter Squash
  • Potatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Orange Juice
  • Lentils
  • Halibut
  • Salmon

By incorporating whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean sources of protein, and adequate water, most of us can meet our electrolyte needs. Be sure to drink water before, during, and after your workouts to ensure proper hydration, energy, and muscle function. A balanced post-workout meal or snack can easily replace lost electrolytes and aid in recovery.

Jenna Gorham, RD, LN is a registered dietitian and nutrition communications expert based in Bozeman, MT.  She specializes in women’s health and nutrition for millennials. Jenna provides virtual nutrition coaching and consulting services for clients across the country. Learn more about Jenna and what she offers on her website or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest.

 

 

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