Electrolyte Drinks: Separating the Health from the Hype

We all know it’s important to stay hydrated before, during, and after exercise, but what is the best way to do that? Is water sufficient or do you need one of the many colorful sports drinks that line the shelves of grocery stores? That depends on your exercise program and how much you sweat. Turns out, electrolyte replacement is not a one-size-fits-all formula.

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are substances that are present in the human body that are essential to the normal function of our cells and organs. They help maintain proper fluid balance and nerve and muscle functioning. The most commonly measured electrolytes are sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate. We lose electrolytes when we sweat. Maintaining a health balance of these electrolytes in the body is critical, which is why some experts recommend electrolyte replacement during and after exercise.

Understanding Fluid Replacement

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, it’s important to drink approximately 17 ounces of fluid about two hours before exercise. This not only promotes adequate hydration, but also allows time for the body to excrete any excess water. They also recommend consuming fluids at regular intervals during exercise—prior to growing thirsty—in order to replace fluids lost as a result of sweating.

Most people hydrate with water, which is usually sufficient for hydration needs during moderate exercise. Fluid replacement needs vary depending on several factors: duration of exercise; intensity level of exercise; size; climate; and the type and degree of sweating.

Individuals who exercise at higher intensity levels, are heavier, and/or exercise in warmer climates may need more fluids than their counterparts who are smaller or live in cooler climates; however, it is unclear whether these individuals also need more electrolytes.

Know Your Individual Needs

There is a big difference between the professional endurance athlete and the average weekend warrior. Professional athletes have hydration and replenishment down to a science—it’s their job. Typically professional athletes exercise for longer periods of time and at higher intensity levels than the average exerciser. As a result, their electrolyte replacement needs can be vastly different from yours.

The general rule of thumb is that if you are exercising for three hours or more, you may need an electrolyte replacement; less than that and water is probably sufficient. That said, individual bodies react differently to exertion. There are several questions to consider when choosing a fluid replacement:

  • Are you well hydrated prior to exercise?
  • How much do you sweat?
  • What is the outdoor temperature?
  • How long and at what intensity level do you plan to exercise?

More often than not, the average exerciser really only needs water. However, if you’re training for a marathon or other endurance event and your workouts start growing longer (3 hours or more) and/or you’re exercising in warm temperatures, you may want to consider adding an electrolyte replacement drink to the mix.

The Pros and Cons of Electrolyte Drinks

Electrolyte drinks sound like a good idea on paper—they contain sodium, potassium, and other essential electrolytes that we lose when we sweat. However, most sports drinks or electrolyte drinks are also loaded with sugar and slurping down these sugary concoctions may do more harm than good. Furthermore, they contain unhealthy additives and food colorings.

However, one benefit to sports drinks is that they do encourage people to stay hydrated. Many exercisers won’t drink plain water, so the sports drink is a way of encouraging hydration—electrolytes or not. In addition, many of these sports drinks contain carbohydrates, which act as fuel for the body and can delay the onset of fatigue.

Choose a Drink Wisely

Not all sports drinks are created equally—in fact, some would be better classified as sugar water. If you choose to use a sports or electrolyte drink during or after exercise, examine the ingredient label carefully.

Several companies are now bottling young coconut water, which is considered by many to be nature’s electrolyte replacement drink. Young coconut water contains a perfect blend of electrolytes and has a very mild taste.

Finally, you can make your own sports drink:

In the blender, combine:

  • 32 ounces water
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon high quality sea salt
  • 1-2 cups of fresh fruit
  • Sweetener of your choice (optional) (maple syrup, honey, agave)
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