Additional electrolytes for the runner, cyclist and triathlete can play a crucial role in their physical condition or, conversely, can be completely excessive. And just as badly as not enough will affect health. As usual, everything has to be in moderation, so let’s take a closer look at the issue to find out where that moderation lies.
We need more than just calories and water for long distances. With sweat we lose not only precious liquid. With each drop we lose important electrolytes – ionic solutions (salts) that participate in all electrochemical reactions of the body. In nature they exist in the form of minerals.
Need for electrolytes
Electrolytes are necessary to maintain fluid balance and perform functions related to muscle contraction and relaxation. Without them, the brain and nervous system (read: the whole body) cannot function properly, because the ability to transmit electrical impulses is impeded.
We can’t drink distilled water (at least athletes) because it completely lacks all electrolytes and you can get hyponatremia at any time.
When electrolyte levels drop too low, our performance in a long workout or marathon can be severely affected. The main signs are severe muscle fatigue and pain, cramps and impaired thermoregulation. All this in the heat leads to quite dangerous situations and it can go as far as disorientation and loss of consciousness. And sometimes, to the same hyponatremia, when the level of sodium salt in the blood is close to critically low.
The electrolytes lost in the highest concentrations through sweat are sodium and chloride. Their balance is of particular importance for proper functioning of the body during peak physical activity. Their usual main source is table salt.
Potassium, magnesium and calcium are also lost through sweating, although in much smaller amounts, so they are not a concern during training and can be easily obtained in the daily diet. Some experts believe that in ultramarathon mode, their loss is more perceptible and can affect condition and results. However, the relevance of supplementing them with some special nutrition is not supported by all.
The importance of maintaining water-salt balance was proven in practice many years ago by the Scandinavian Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. On average, long-distance athletes perform 8% better when they include isotonic drinks containing sodium and chloride. They also showed less weight loss and fuller hydration because of the sodium salt, which prompts them to drink more often.
Other studies have shown that taking electrolytic drinks before a race promotes fluid retention, which improves rehydration. But it is not entirely clear how useful this effect can be in hot and sunny conditions.
When to Drink Electrolytes
There is no need for additional salt intake when running for up to 1 hour at a low pace. However, after crossing this time threshold, with heavy sweating on a hot day, supplementing them is more relevant. This is the opinion of most experts.
However, most athletes, especially amateurs, run for two hours and get by with plain water and the necessary micronutrients at a subsequent full meal.
Many factors, ranging from environmental conditions to genetics, influence the processes associated with sweating and electrolyte loss. Therefore, it is impossible to lump everyone together. Because of this, personal salt loss can only be known under laboratory conditions. There is a more advanced system. Simply send a sweat sample to a sports clinic for analysis.
Most amateur runners won’t do this for a variety of reasons, so average zants are used.
Average rates of electrolyte loss
Along with 300ml of sweat is lost:
- Sodium 210 mg
- Potassium 55 mg
- Calcium 15 mg
- Magnesium 8 mg
Most sports drinks contain no more than 200 mg of sodium salts. We lose a lot more on long runs, not to mention ultra-trails. That’s why salt tablets and even saltine cracker chips are often used. But you have to be careful here, because all this requires a lot of water in parallel.
If the water-salt balance is in favor of electrolyte salts, it can cause bloating of the abdomen. Because water will have to move out of the tissues and blood to reduce the concentration of sodium. However, this discomfort can also be caused by an increase in the amount of water you drink, provoked by thirst from the same salts. This is another confirmation of the fact that in everything you need to know a measure.
The most common natural product that can safely restore potassium levels in the body is bananas. It’s certainly a gorgeous fruit by any measure for the runner. But according to sports physiologists and nutritionists, the role of potassium in preventing muscle cramps is largely overblown.
Making an isotonic according to a recipe
Often runners prepare their own electrolyte drinks (isotonics) at home for training. This is primarily due to the cost of branded cocktails and some undesirable elements in their composition, such as flavor enhancers, dyes, and preservatives.
In homemade sports drinks, 1/2 tablespoon of salt is added to the water base (1 liter). And, in fact, this is already the electrolyte we need. However, in order to be able to consume this solution, we have to smooth out its salinity with sweet components. For example, honey, orange or lime juice, or even simple sugar, and you get a carbohydrate boost as well.