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Q: Do I need to be taking in electrolytes? Especially sodium?
I get questions about electrolyte supplements a lot lately – there has been an uptick of new products on the market recently, and sweaty summer runs and workouts are in full swing. Electrolytes in general (especially sodium) are also a hot topic on social media, and as with most nutrition-related hot topics on social media, there is a healthy dose of confusing and conflicting (mis)information. Hopefully I can help clear things up a bit.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are substances in the body that help regulate fluid balance, muscle contraction, support the nervous system, and help regulate our pH levels. The electrolytes I’m going to be talking about here are the biggest players in hydration status and muscle contraction: sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Where do we get electrolytes from?
The electrolytes I mentioned above probably sound familiar to you, and that’s because they’re also minerals found in food. For the majority of healthy people, it is entirely possible to get all of the electrolytes your body needs through foods:
Sodium: table salt, sea salt, pickles, cheese, chips, pretzels, packaged foods, takeout, restaurant foods, etc.
Potassium: potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, orange juice, leafy greens, avocado, other fruit and veggies
Magnesium: nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, whole grains, dark chocolate
Calcium: dairy products, soy foods, canned fish with bones, almonds
Wait, isn’t sodium “bad” for you?
It’s true that the standard American diet is high in sodium from things like processed and fast foods, and that a high sodium diet can contribute to high blood pressure and make kidney issues worse. However, we do need *some* sodium in the diet (see above for all important functions!), and also should be taking into account individual needs. I often find that my endurance athlete clients are afraid to consume sodium because these messages – “sodium is bad!” – are hammered into our heads from every angle. However, endurance athletes have very different sodium needs, and they’re usually higher than the general recommendation of 2,000mg or less per day. Sidenote: if you are an endurance athlete with high blood pressure or kidney issues, this is a great reason to see a dietitian for more individualized support.
Electrolyte loss in endurance activity
We lose electrolytes, especially sodium, through sweat. You may have heard the term “salty sweater” before, or have a “salt halo” around your head after longer runs (or seen friends who do). That’s because the amount of salt we lose through sweat is very particular to the individual. For example, some folks may lose around 200mg of sodium per 1 liter of sweat, and others may lose up to 2,000mg of sodium per that same 1 liter of sweat. That’s a HUGE difference! The more sodium lost in sweat during activity, the more important it is to replenish that sodium to maintain fluid balance in the body and allow for optimal hydration. Since sodium helps our cells take up water, drinking only water to rehydrate during and after a sweaty run isn’t going to rehydrate as efficiently as taking in that water with some sodium.
Let’s talk replenishment
While there are more advanced and expensive tests to measure sodium lost in sweat to know just how much we need to replenish, most of us don’t have access to them and that’s ok. Experimentation and learning your body is just as helpful a way to fine tune your hydration and electrolyte strategy (and when in doubt, see a dietitian!). As with protein and carbs, timing in which you take in electrolytes, especially sodium, can have an impact on performance. Before, during and after activity are the targets here – taking in extra salt before a long run to help offset the anticipated loss, taking some in during a run to optimize hydration, and replenishing afterwards to help the body absorb fluids and rehydrate. Figuring out just how much sodium to take in is more of the experimentation part. Here are a few tips that can help guide you in the right direction.
Before activity – a good place to start is by taking in an electrolyte beverage with a moderate amount of sodium (e.g., 300-500mg) before your run or other activity that you know will be sufficiently sweaty. Examples of this are Nuun sport, Liquid IV, UCAN Hydrate.
If you’re a saltier sweater or your runs aren’t feeling great with this strategy, trying a higher sodium beverage mix before a run is also an option (e.g., 1,000-1,500+mg). Examples of these would be LMNT, Skratch High Sodium Hydration, Gatorade Gatorlytes).
During activity – for endurance activity lasting more than an hour, I’d recommend taking in carbs and electrolytes. Some forms of nutrition, like Maurten, do not contain sodium, so that should be replenished separately via a hydration mix (like any of the brands I mentioned above), or salt tabs if you need them.
After activity – it’s important to replenish electrolytes after a sweaty run or activity, and how much you should be replenishing is also based on how much salt you lose. Here is where an electrolyte mix with a moderate amount of sodium is fine for some people, and others feel better having a higher sodium mix. Experimentation is key here too!
Let’s not forget food!
These electrolyte mixes are convenient, but also expensive! It’s also possible to replenish sodium and other electrolytes lost in sweat with regular foods. For example, a post-run burger and fries contains at least 1,000mg of sodium. A large pickle can have as much as 500mg of sodium, and an ounce of cheese about 200mg. If you’re a salty sweater and you’re training every day, say for a marathon in the fall, it could be helpful to consume some higher sodium foods on a regular basis to help support your training this summer.
Do non-endurance athletes need high sodium electrolyte drinks?
Nope! Unless you’re sweating a ton and losing a lot of salt in your sweat, high sodium electrolyte beverages aren’t really necessary. In the warm summer months, electrolyte mixes with a moderate amount of sodium may be helpful if you’re outside for prolonged periods of time in the heat, like at the beach or gardening. Otherwise, though there are always exceptions to the rule, you’ll likely get all of the sodium and electrolytes you need if you’re consuming a variety of foods.
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*note this post is meant for educational purposes, not to serve as individual nutrition advice.
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