Electrolytes: What are they and Why do I need them?

It seems like ever since Gatorade turned those Gators into champions, athletes and fitness fanatics have been obsessed with the idea of getting enough electrolytes during their workouts. Today, sports drinks are just one of the countless ways to get your fill. The supplement aisle is filled with hydration tablets, gummy chews, gels, and even pills.

So what are electrolytes, exactly?

Electrolytes are minerals that have an electric charge. Primarily, the ones used for hydration are sodium, potassium calcium, magnesium, and chlorine.  Once they're in your body, they have two primary jobs: They balance the amount of water in your body to help your cells function properly, and they spark nerve impulses (cramping anyone?). “These impulses allow muscles to contract, which keeps the heart beating and the body moving,” explains Allison Childress, PhD, RDN, CSSD, a professor of nutritional science at Texas Tech University.

They also help us stay hydrated. When we sweat, we lose water along with electrolytes. Without enough of these minerals in your body, you won't be able to retain the water you're chugging during workouts or on a hot day, which could lead to dehydration.

Should you be worried about getting enough electrolytes?

If you are a serious athlete, yes. Electrolytes are essential for the body to keep itself running properly, so consuming them is important. However most of the time, getting the right balance of electrolytes is kind of like getting enough oxygen: We do it without having to try.

“In healthy people, our bodies generally do an outstanding job of maintaining fluid balance,” says Ritanne Duszak, RD, a Philadelphia-based running, and triathlon coach. If you’re adequately hydrated and are eating a normal healthy diet, your electrolyte levels are probably fine. “For the vast majority of people, your regular diet is going to be the best source of electrolytes,” Duszak adds.

That said, there are a few exceptions. We lose electrolytes through sweat, so if you’re active for extended periods (an hour or longer) or are in a hot or humid climate, you might need to make more of an effort to replenish your stores, Childress says. Otherwise, you could end up dehydrated with an electrolyte imbalance, which not only makes it hard to keep working out, it could also cause dizziness, cramping and fainting. The same goes if you’ve been vomiting or have diarrhea since these unpleasantries also cause fluid loss.

The best type of electrolyte drinks you can buy

The majority of commercial sports drinks (Gatorade®, Powerade®, Brawndo®, etc.) are designed to maintain proper hydration and energy levels during a workout. Assuming that you began your workout properly hydrated, such beverages give you everything you need to continue. In other words, if you’re having a normal practice or cross-training session a sports drink can be beneficial.

The downside? These beverages tend to be loaded with sugar and are not optimized for when you are severely dehydrated, i.e. cutting weight. Rapid Rehydration is – learn how here.

Electrolyte-rich foods to eat

If you haven’t just cut weight and would rather steer clear of commercial electrolyte products altogether, you can replenish your electrolytes with a glass of water and a smart snack. For instance, bananas, spinach, milk, and yogurt are all good sources of electrolyte minerals, Childress says. (chocolate milk, anyone?) A sweet potato sprinkled with sea salt is another good option. “The potato is jam-packed with potassium, and the salt will increase the sodium content,” Duszak explains. Some other sources of electrolytes include: watermelons, avocados, beets, citrus and almonds.


Signs you might need more electrolytes

If you’re dehydrated, you’re probably low on electrolytes too. So take notice of signals that indicate you need to take in more water and electrolytes. Dark-colored pee or peeing less often are two telltale signs. Headache, fatigue, cramping, dizziness and rapid heartbeat can also be symptoms of dehydration, Duszak says.

If you want to figure out whether you need to replenish your electrolytes after a workout, hop on the scale before and after exercising. If you’ve lost 2 percent or more of your body weight, there’s a good chance you’re dehydrated and could use some H2O and electrolytes.