So any runner, fitness person or I think any person at this point has heard of electrolytes. These magical things that turn regular juices and water into sports drinks/fuel. But do you know what they really are? Do you know what they do to help you?
So first the disclaimers - I'm not a medical professional, I'm not recommending any specific treatment and you should ALWAYS consult your doctor before starting any medical treatment or change to diet and exercise.
Okay now let's dive in and talk about electrolytes, specifically...
What they are
The different types
When you get the full benefit
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes in the most simplistic terms are genrally salt derived ions. Ions are atoms with a charge, either positive or negative. When we talk about electrolytes though we are usually talking Sodium (Na), Potassium (K), Magniesium (Mg), and Calcium (Ca) which all have a +1 or +2 charge.
Most commonly sodium is the main ingredient to help replenish your electrolytes but potassium is also really important too! If you are drinking Gatorade or taking salt tabs you are getting sodium and electrolytes are the key to keeping your cells happy!
Okay we are going to get all biology up in here. You know those charges I told you about, they are super important to everything in your body! All cells work off of either concentration differences or charges across cell membranes. Sodium and potassium play a key role in maintaining these charge differences due to the sodium potassium pump which is an active transport process. This process needs both sodium and potassium to help keep the charge across the membrane different and help other cell processes happen.
Without sodium and potassium our nerves, cells and internal processes would not work very well and well your performance will suffer!
What are the different types?
Sodium is the most important because it helps our blood to stay at the appropriate saturation level. With too little sodium and too much water, our blood plasma will become diluted. Too little water and too much salt, we dehydrate and our blood becomes thick. Salt helps the right amount of water is in your cells and not outside the cell and this happens through the process I described above. If there is too much salt floating around in the plasma and not in the cell then water will be sucked out of the cell to maintain the same concentration level inside and outside the cell. If the saturation of salt in the plasma is low (too much water or hyponatremia), then the cells will swell and cause other problems.
Potassium is the next most important electrolyte because it is the other half of the sodium potassium pump. Potassium is key in cardiovascular and nerve health. It helps to prevent blood from clotting and is a key component to helping your muscles not cramp. By keeping potassium levels higher in the muscles cells help to keep the atomic charges working in your favor! It’s important to intake potassium too because we don’t store much. About 70% is stored in our blood plasma and other fluids and our kidneys will actively filter it out of our system.
Magnesium also plays a role in muscles working properly. It helps with heartbeat regulation and keeps muscles and nerves properly functioning. Generally our body stores magnesium in bones and muscles tissue but when we exercise, our body starts secreting it from our muscles and it moves into the plasma and is flushed out of the system.
We all know calcium is important to bone health but it’s also important to our muscle health too! It helps maintain all the systems that other electrolytes help with and is mostly stored in bones and teeth. Calcium is REALLY important to muscle contraction, once an electrical impulse is sent calcium is released to interact with the muscle fibers, specifically it binds to the actin filament. Once the muscle contracts the calcium is released and the muscle relaxes.
When to take electrolytes?
You'll want to make sure that your muscles aren't depleted of electrolytes by drinking some electrolyte drinks the day before working out but most of the benefit of electrolytes will come from consuming them during exercise. Comsuming too many before might mean your body is flushing them out too fast when you need them most and afterwards is a good time to replenish to rebalacne but again you miss out on the real benefit. Remeber, everyone's sweat rate and composition is different so what works for your friend is probably not what will work for you. Play around and test it out while your training. If it’s hot and you’re sweating a lot you should probably up your intake too. Make sure to get a balance of all the electrolytes to make sure your muscles, nerves and cells can all work properly!
You can do a test to see if you are a heavy sweater too! By weighing yourself sans clothes before and after your run you can figure out how much your body sweats to figure out what you need to replace. Check out the full details here: Calculate Your Sweat Rate - IRONMAN
So what is your favorite way to get your electrolytes when on the run? Do you find a certain combination works best? Let me know if in the comments!
Salt and athletes: Shake it or leave it? - Active.com
Movement Through the Plasma Membrane - PennState BIO 011
Potassium: Don’t Sweat It! - Inside Tracker
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_fatigue - LiveStrong
Magnesium basics - Clinical Kidney Journal
How Muscles Work - How Stuff Works
Calculate Your Sweat Rate - IRONMAN