Electrolytes - Part 1: Why do we need electrolytes?

We've all been inundated with the message that we should be consuming electrolytes, but the reality is that very few of us know much about them. Companies understand this and, as a result, wrap myriad products in electrolyte branding and packaging to help drive consumption. 

Unfortunately, many of electrolyte products are woefully underthought and simply don't deliver the electrolytes required to sustain an athletic performance. I believe it is absolutely essential for people to have a strong working knowledge of what electrolytes are and what electrolytes do in order to effectively use them in training and recovery.

It should be noted that the single most impactful (and cost-effective) way to improve your performance is to stay hydrated before, during, and after strenuous activity.

First, I think it’s helpful to understand that, for our purposes, the words electrolyte and mineral are interchangeable--they represent an element or compound that generates a positive or negative charge when in a solution. For example, sodium has a positive charge and chloride has a negative charge.

The charge allows electrolytes to play essential roles in everything from the firing of synapses in the brain and nerves throughout the body to the regulation of blood pressure and the contraction of muscle cells. In fact, electrolytes are so integral to the proper functioning of the human body that a severe electrolyte imbalance can be fatal. While electrolytes play many vital roles, our focus is primarily on the ways they work to keep the body properly hydrated and prepared for the rigors of intense training and competition.

During strenuous exercise, your body works to regulate its internal temperature by leveraging the cooling effect of perspiration (sweat) evaporating off the skin. This is a critical function because when your muscles overheat, your ability to control contractions becomes limited leading to both reduced power and eventually cramping.

Electrolytes, particularly sodium, play a key role in ensuring your muscles continue to preform as your body fatigues. While sweat is primarily water – over 99% – electrolyte loss during exercise is still substantial. If you don't replace both the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat, you will become dehydrated and your performance will suffer.

While sweating plays a critical role in cooling your muscles, the loss of fluid and electrolytes causes your blood volume to fall. Your blood is transporting the oxygen to your muscles and the reduced volume forces your heart to work harder to pump a diminishing volume of blood to active muscles and skin.The limited blood flow to your muscles reduces the delivery of oxygen and fuel, and hampers your ability to maintain exercise intensity. In addition, your skin receives less blood--along with the heat that blood carries to be dissipated--and that results in overheating.

Fortunately, dehydration is relatively easy to reverse--or prevent entirely. By drinking enough to maintain adequate fluid and electrolyte levels during exercise, you can stave off dehydration, maintain blood volume and all the good things that accomplishes, and continue to work your body hard.

Now that you understand the importance of hydration, let’s turn our attention to the role that electrolytes play in ensuring proper hydration.

Before diving into the individual electrolytes (which we do in Electrolytes - Part 2), there's one last fascinating point about why drinking just plain water can actually be a negative. Water has an incredible power to quench our thirst. Electrolyte beverages on the other hand taste salty leaving us a little bit thirsty. When we're trying to drink enough water over a long period of time, most people actually need the help from the saltiness of electrolytes to consume enough liquids.  Your body also knows the difference, and when you drink a lot of water, it will increase excretion - both from sweat and urination. If the liquid is electrolyte heavy, your body naturally slows excretion helping us maintain hydration levels longer. 

When we look at different approaches to improving performance – think about buying the hottest new running shoes or outfitting your bike with those sleek new carbon fiber wheels – by far the most effective way to improve your performance is to properly hydrate replacing the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat. The gains you can experience by maintaining proper hydration show up in all areas of performance, too: cardiovascular endurance, muscle endurance, overall strength, explosive power, quickness, metabolic performance, and mental clarity.

In short, a consistent focus on staying hydrated will allow you to work longer, harder, and with less perceived effort. Whether you are the best athlete in the world or the worst athlete in your neighborhood, replacing the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat will go a long way towards protecting your physical and mental performance.