An electrolyte imbalance can seriously affect your hydration and overall athletic performance. Learn how to replenish electrolytes naturally (without a sports drink) this list of 10+ food & drink.
If you’ve ever looked at a bottle of Gatorade, you’ve likely seen the term “electrolytes”. If you’re confused about electrolytes, you’re not alone. You may be wondering
- What the heck are electrolytes?
- Do you need to replenish electrolytes after every workout?
- How many electrolytes do I need?
- Can I get electrolytes from something other than a sports drink?
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Although the term “electrolytes” seems complicated, it’s actually really simple. I’m going to give you the 101 on electrolytes so that you’re a hydration master by the end of this post.
What are electrolytes?
Quite simply, electrolytes are minerals that have an electrical charge and play a central role in many bodily functions, specifically fluid balance. The important electrolytes for athletes are sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium.
What do electrolytes do?
Electrolytes are necessary for a variety of things, like hydration, muscle contraction and blood pressure. Certain electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, are lost in sweat and need to be replaced to maintain the proper fluid balance in the body.
Unfortunately, a deficiency in electrolytes can cause muscle cramping, fatigue, weakness, tingling, or confusion–none of which are pleasant during your workout! That’s why sports drinks always contain electrolytes. Not only are they meant to provide fuel after you use up your glycogen stores, but sports drinks also replenish electrolytes lost in sweat.
How to replenish electrolytes
If you workout for an hour or less, chances are that your electrolyte losses are minimal. The same goes for a workout that lasts longer than an hour but doesn’t result in much sweating, such as strength training, walking or yoga.
During these types of workouts, water should be enough to keep you properly hydrated. The same goes for rest days or low intensity workouts.
You need to replace the electrolytes lost in sweat in these situations:
- you exercise for longer than an hour
- you live in a really hot climate, which causes profuse sweating
- you are a heavy sweater (you sweat through your clothes or have chalky white spots on your skin after exercise)
How many electrolytes do you need?
This is a question I get asked often… “If I’m sweating heavily during a workout, how many electrolytes do I need to take in to replace those lost in sweat?” Unfortunately there is no good answer to this question because people are so incredibly varied in their sweat rates.
Some people may lose a pound of sweat when exercising in the heat for an hour, while others may sweat minimal amounts. Plus, the conditions (climate, duration, activity level) for every workout are different. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to say how many electrolytes you need to replenish during a workout.
Some estimates say that you lose 500 milligrams of sodium for every pound of sweat, but that is a VERY rough estimate. When thinking about electrolyte replenishment, pay attention to how you feel rather than the exact measurement.
If you feel like you’re hydrated thoroughly during and after a workout, you’re likely getting enough electrolytes. A good way to know this is to take a look at the color of your urine. If it’s pale yellow, you are properly hydrated. If it’s darker yellow, you’re dehydrated. You can also tell if you’re dehydrated if you get a headache, dizziness, extreme fatigue or muscle cramps during a workout.
Good sources of electrolytes
Sports drinks contain the electrolytes you need to stay hydrated and fueled during an intense workout, but you can also find electrolytes in whole foods. Let’s dive into the essential electrolytes and where to find natural sources of each.
This mineral aids in fluid retention 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 (2300 milligrams per day). But if you’re an athlete who loses a lot of sodium from sweat, taking in more than the 2300 milligrams per day likely won’t have any negative side effects.
For those who workout intensely or sweat profusely, it may be necessary to add an extra pinch of table salt to your meals. Sodium is found in your favorite salty snacks and most canned and packaged foods.
If you meet any of the criteria listed in the bullet points above, try adding some of these salty foods to your diet:
- olives (Try them in this Mediterranean Bulgur Salad)
- pretzels (these Pretzel Date Balls are a delicious pre-workout snack)
- table salt
- saltine crackers
- beans (add beans to this Southwestern Quinoa Bowl)
- bread (make a post-workout Egg Sandwich)
- soup (Moroccan Lentil Soup)
Everyone knows 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 ample calcium consumption, the body pulls calcium from the bones, causing them to weaken overtime.
Most adults need 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, and these foods provide at least 10% of that recommendation in one serving. They make a great addition to any athlete’s diet:
- Dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese)
- Tahini (Maple Oat Tahini Bites)
- Dried Figs
- Chia Seeds
- Leafy Greens
- Soy Products (Tempeh Stir Fry)
- Fortified Oatmeal
- Fortified Orange Juice
- Enriched Milk Alternatives
- Canned Fish with soft edible bones
While calcium helps muscles contract, magnesium causes them relax. Magnesium also allows muscles to take in oxygen and plays a role in maintaining a normal heartbeat and muscle function.
Women needs 310 to 320 milligrams of calcium per day, while men need 400 to 420 milligrams. Not eating enough magnesium may negatively affect athletic performance and can cause weakness and even muscle spasms.
Great sources of magnesium include:
- Spinach (try this gorgeous Spring Strawberry Salad)
- Edamame/soy (Vegan Sushi Bowl)
- Quinoa (Quinoa Salad with Honey-Lime Vinaigrette)
- Lentils (Greek Lentil Power Bowl)
- Nuts & Seeds – pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds/butter, almonds, flax seeds, cashews, chia seeds
A vital part of hydration and muscle contraction (including heart muscles, digestive muscles, etc.), potassium plays a major role in proper heart function. Similar to the other electrolytes, a potassium deficiency can cause muscle weakness, cramping, and abnormal heart rhythms.
You need 3500 to 4700 milligrams of potassium in a day. You can find potassium in:
- Bananas (Banana Chia Oat Cups)
- Winter Squash (Butternut Squash Risotto)
- Orange Juice
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.