When we think about the word electrolyte, many people think of sports drinks. Sports drinks are marketed towards athletes to help replenish the electrolytes endurance athletes will lose through sweat. However, there is much more to electrolytes and their importance than just refueling with a sports drink after training. Not only that, but there are also some healthy alternatives to traditional sports drinks.

Let’s take a look at what electrolytes are and why they are so important. We will also explore four different ways endurance athletes can replenish the electrolytes they lose during training.

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes play essential roles in the human body, and they help to regulate nerve as well as muscle function. They also help hydrate the body and help to balance blood pressure. Scientifically speaking, they are chemicals that when mixed with water, conduct electricity. Our muscles, as well as neurons, rely heavily on proper electrolyte balance.

The following are the electrolytes present in our body:

  • Sodium
  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Bicarbonate
  • Phosphate
  • Chloride

How are Electrolytes Balanced in the Body?

Electrolytes are kept in balance by our kidney as well as specific hormones. The kidneys help to filter electrolytes that may be in excess, and certain hormones will work to balance out the levels present in the body. We run into problems when these electrolyte concentrations are just too high for our kidneys and hormones to balance. This is when we can start to experience symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance.

The Importance of Electrolytes for Endurance Athletes

Electrolytes play such an important role when it comes to the health of the endurance athlete. If we go back to talking about how our muscles and neurons rely on electrolyte balance, it makes sense that we would experience muscle cramping if one of these electrolytes become out of balance. Not only that, but an electrolyte imbalance can also cause muscle weakness and issues with blood pressure.

While all electrolytes play an important role in the endurance athletes health, sodium, as well as potassium, happen to be the two that athletes tend to experience imbalances with most often.

Electrolyte Imbalance Symptoms

So, what exactly does an electrolyte imbalance look like? Here are some of the classic symptoms to watch out for.

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Muscle cramping
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

Four Ways to Replenish Your Electrolytes

While we know how important proper electrolyte balance is, it’s important to understand how to balance these electrolytes. Let’s take a look at four ways to do that that doesn’t involve drinking any artificially flavored sports drinks.

#1 Homemade Electrolyte Drink: Skip the artificial sugar-filled sports drink, and make your own electrolyte drink to refuel your body after training to help nourish your body with exactly what it needs. You can whip together a healthy sports drink like this one using one quart of unsweetened coconut water, ⅛ tsp. pink himalayan sea salt, a teaspoon of calcium magnesium powder, ¼ cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, and two tablespoon of a natural sweetener like raw honey.

#2 Coconut Water: Many endurance athletes turn to coconut water instead of sugary sports drinks as it acts as an excellent all-natural electrolyte replacer. Coconut water contains sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. One of the great things about coconut water is that it is super rich in potassium which can help support rehydration after intense exercise. Coconut water makes a great electrolyte replenishing beverage so long as you stick to unsweetened, and choose a natural option that doesn’t contain any added colors or artificial ingredients. Make sure you’re reading the food labels closely!

#3 Diet Counts: While we often think about beverages when it comes to replacing lost electrolytes, you can also replace some of what you lost through the foods you eat as well. Before and after training, strive to consume lots of dark leafy greens, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, as well as bananas and avocados. All of these foods are rich in magnesium as well as potassium which can help bring these electrolytes up after intense training. Not only are they a great source of potassium and magnesium, but they are overall very healthy foods to add to a nutrient-dense diet to help support endurance training.

You will also want to make sure you are consuming enough hydrating foods to help prevent dehydration while restoring electrolytes. Some excellent options include cucumbers, celery, watermelon, bell peppers, and kiwis.

#4 Make an Electrolyte Replenishing Post Training Shake: Another way to help replenish your electrolytes after intense training is to blend up an electrolyte-boosting post training shake. Try blending together one cup of unsweetened almond milk, a frozen banana, one handful of dark leafy greens, a tablespoon of raw unsweetened cocoa powder, a tablespoon of chia seeds, and a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt. You will get plenty of potassium and magnesium in this shake, and you can add a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt to help replenish your sodium levels. You also don’t need to use pink Himalayan sea salt, but it usually contains higher levels of minerals compared to ‘table salt’.

The Takeaway

As a breakdown of everything we talked about when it comes to the importance of electrolytes and endurance athletes, here are some key point to remember.

  • During intense training, the body loses sodium and potassium fairly quickly which means we have to be mindful of how we replenish these electrolytes during and after training.
  • Fatigue, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting are all common symptoms of an electrolyte deficiency.
  • Ditch the sports drinks, and try making your own using coconut water as your base.
  • Focus on foods to help boost your electrolytes.
  • Make an electrolyte replenishing post-training shake to help replenish lost electrolytes.

The best way to prevent an electrolyte imbalance is to keep on top of your electrolytes both before, during, and after training. Sip on a homemade sports drink during training, consume an electrolyte-boosting shake after training, and add a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt to things like dark leafy greens, and starchy vegetables. The better you keep up with your electrolyte intake, the better chance you will have at preventing the unwanted symptoms that come along with an electrolyte imbalance and feeling your best throughout your training.

If you want to make life really easy, just use what GC Coaching recommends and show our friends at Skratch Labs some ❤️

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Resources

  1. Nancy Choi, MD. Everything you Need to Know About Electrolytes. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/153188.php  
  2. American Heart Association. How Potassium Can Help Control Blood Pressure. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure/how-potassium-can-help-control-high-blood-pressure
  3. Kimberly Holland. All About Electrolyte Disorders. https://www.healthline.com/health/electrolyte-disorders#symptoms
  4. Katie Wells. Natural Sports Electrolyte Drink Recipe. https://wellnessmama.com/2575/natural-sports-drink/
  5. Kyle Levers, M.S. CSCS. Nature’s Gatorade: Effectiveness of Coconut Water on Electrolyte and Carbohydrate Replacement. https://www.huffinesinstitute.org/Resources/Articles/ArticleID/413/NATURES-GATORADE-Effectiveness-of-Coconut-Water-on-Electrolyte-and-Carbohydrate-Replacement

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About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in Health Science in Professional Development and Advanced Patient Care, is a USA Cycling Level 1 (expert level) Certified Coach, a level 2 certified Training Peaks coach, a USA Cycling certified power based training coach, USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport Certified, and a licensed physical therapist assistant. He is also the creator of Zwift's "Build Me Up" Flexible Training Plan. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com for any cycling or training related questions.

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