You’ve undoubtedly seen the commercials for sports drinks where a sweaty athlete chugs down a beverage after finishing a tough play, but those commercials don’t paint a complete picture of the proper use of electrolyte drinks. If you find yourself wondering if you should drink electrolytes before or after your workout, the answer might surprise you.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals in the body that dissolve in water, carry either a positive or negative charge, and conduct electricity. Electrolytes can be found naturally in fruits and vegetables as well as drinks like milk and coconut water, but some people need to use electrolyte supplements in order to keep their electrolytes at the right levels. Electrolytes are critical for maintaining proper function of the body and keeping the fluids balanced, and they are primarily found in your sweat, blood and urine. The body counts on electrolytes to perform a number of significant functions, including:
- Proper hydration
- Muscle function
- Nervous system function
- Balancing internal pH levels
There are seven different electrolytes found in the human body, including sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate; however, sodium, potassium, and magnesium are considered the three major electrolytes.
Sodium is one of the most important electrolytes in the body, as it plays a major role in balancing the internal fluid levels by helping the body to retain fluid. Sodium is needed not only for the maintenance of proper hydration levels; it is also vital for the maintenance of proper function of the muscles and nerves. Most people receive plenty of sodium from their daily diets, as Western diets are often high in sodium from processed foods. Therefore, supplements containing large amounts of sodium are generally not needed. The body loses sodium through urine and sweat and relies on the kidneys to adjust the amount of sodium that is expelled through the urine based on fluid levels in the body.
Approximately 80 percent of the body’s potassium can be found in the cells of the muscles, while the remaining 20 percent is kept in the cells of the liver, bones, and red blood cells. Potassium and sodium work in tandem to maintain the proper balance of fluids in the cells and the body, and magnesium is also used to regulate muscle contractions and help the nerves send and receive signals. The vast majority of Americans - about 98 percent - do not take in enough potassium from their daily diets, but imbalances most commonly occur as a result of chronic vomiting or diarrhea.
The body uses magnesium to perform more than 600 cellular reactions, making it one of the most common minerals in the body. Despite the importance of magnesium, more than two thirds of Americans do not consume enough magnesium to meet the recommended guidelines as part of their daily diets. Magnesium is used by the body to support a healthy, regular heartbeat, help make DNA, regulate muscle contractions, maintain healthy brain function, and perform many other functions.
What are the signs of dehydration?
Dehydration occurs when the levels of fluids in the body become depleted because more fluid is lost than taken in, which can result in the body being unable to perform certain functions. The age groups most likely to experience dehydration include older adults and young children, but dehydration can happen to anyone regardless of age. Most people believe they only need to drink water when they feel thirsty, but thirst is actually a sign of significant dehydration instead of early dehydration. Therefore, you’ll need to stay hydrated by drinking water and other fluids before you start feeling thirsty. Common signs of dehydration include:
- Dry mouth
- Diminished urine input
- Dark yellow urine
Dehydration can be very dangerous when it reaches severe levels. Signs and complications of severe dehydration include:
- Reduced elasticity of the skin
- Drop in blood pressure
- Quickening heart rate
- Sunken eyes
Dehydration can be deadly if it is not properly addressed, and rehydration after experiencing severe dehydration requires careful medical care and attention in order to prevent the body from going into shock. Luckily, dehydration can be prevented by paying attention to your fluid levels. Experts recommend sipping on small amounts of water throughout the day, typically two to three ounces at a time, instead of chugging large amounts of water all at once, and using an electrolyte supplement as needed. Water is naturally hydrating and is usually enough on its own to rehydrate the body on a normal basis or after short bouts of activity. However, after a big night out, a day working under the hot sun, or after a tough workout, you’ll likely need to replenish your body’s levels of electrolytes. Drinking too much water without replacing electrolytes lost through sweat, urine, diarrhea, or vomiting can contribute to a dangerous condition called hyponatremia, which is a severe sodium imbalance in which the levels of sodium in the blood are too low to maintain proper function. Hyponatremia can be fatal, so it is essential that people replace the electrolytes expelled by the body by using an electrolyte supplement that can help restore balance to levels of electrolytes and fluids in the body.
What do electrolyte drinks do?
Electrolyte drinks are helpful tools in the prevention of dehydration. They serve to replace electrolytes that the body loses through sweat and urine each day and vomiting and diarrhea when we are sick. Most people are familiar with the use of electrolyte supplements and drinks during sports games or after a workout thanks to commercials for popular drinks, but there are many other ways to use electrolyte supplements that are unrelated to working out. Electrolytes play a critical role in supporting the overall health and function of the body, as they are involved in maintaining a healthy and functioning brain, allowing the muscles to contract and function properly, and maintaining the overall balance of fluids in the body. People who have an adequate intake of electrolytes are better equipped to maintain focus, perform cognitive tasks, and remember details, which can help improve performance both on and off the field. Electrolyte supplements can also be useful in reducing the symptoms of a hangover after a big night out, as electrolyte levels are often depleted, causing dehydration. Restoring the proper balance of fluids will reverse dehydration, reduce headache pain, minimize feelings of fatigue, reduce nausea, and minimize muscle and joint pain. When used for athletic performance, electrolyte drinks can give you the power to keep performing at your peak for longer by supporting hydration levels and can also help you recover from a tough workout more quickly.
Should I drink electrolytes before or after my workout?
Whether you should consume electrolytes before, during, or after your workout depends largely on the type of workout you are doing and how much you generally sweat. Some people are extremely salty sweaters, as evidenced by skin and clothing covered in a salty residue after workout out, and others are profuse sweaters who start sweating even with mild or short exercise. These individuals should drink electrolytes before they work out in order to prepare their bodies for what is to come, especially when they plan to exercise for an extended period of time, at a high intensity, or in a hot or humid environment.
Consuming electrolytes during exercise is recommended when you are planning to do a workout that will last longer than 60 to 90 minutes or that is especially intense. You may also need to consume some carbohydrates to fuel your workout as well, but these don’t need to come in the form of added sugars in your electrolyte drink. Instead, try bringing a snack with you to your workout, which is less likely to cause stomach upset.
In general, most people drink electrolytes after their workout in order to replace electrolytes that the body has lost through sweat. Plain water can be enough to rehydrate after a short or low intensity workout, but people who are salty or excessive sweaters or who have worked out for a long time or at a high intensity should consider using an electrolyte supplement to rebalance their electrolyte and fluid levels. People who are training for endurance events, such as a marathon, half marathon, or triathlon and are doing intense workouts each day need to be careful about properly replacing electrolytes in order to ensure that they do not enter their workouts depleted and dehydrated.