Michael Jordan sure looks hot dripping beads of orange sports drink sweat, but just how much does gulping down a big ol' bottle of Gatorage put your workout into beast mode?
Before you slide your hard-earned dollars into the gym's neon liquid-filled vending machine, here’s everything you need to know about the actual power of electrolytes.
What They Are
“Electrolytes are positively or negatively charged substances, like the minerals sodium and potassium, that conduct an electrical current in your body,” says Michael Bergeron, Ph.D., a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
Since your body is basically one giant electrical system, these electrolytes do everything from help your muscles receive a signal from your brain to contract, to retain water and distribute it throughout your cells.
Are They Worth the Hype?
As you might have gathered from any sports drink commercial ever, electrolytes peace out of your body during a workout via your sweat, says Bergeron.
Someone exercising at an intense level can lose liters of sweat per hour and thousands of milligrams of the electrolyte sodium with it. He says this loss of sodium can make it tough for your body to retain the water you drink after sweating buckets, which means you could chug H2O without actually rehydrating. That sodium imbalance might lead to salt cravings and muscle cramping, so in that case, loading up on electrolytes could be helpful. However, in order to drip enough sweat to experience this kind of imbalance, you would have to be exercising at a highly athletic level—as in two or more hours at a high-intensity.
For someone who works out at moderate intensity for an hour or less every day, maintaining a well-balanced diet and hydrating before a workout is enough to keep your electrolyte levels where they need to be, says Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., co-owner of SoHo Strength Lab and ProMix Nutrition.
If you feel woozy at the beginning of a workout, it’s often because you’re dehydrated or have low blood sugar, not from an electrolyte imbalance, says Matheny.
But if you're training for a marathon or triathlon, your electrolyte balance should be on your radar. “When you’re doing intense exercise sessions almost every day and losing a lot of sweat every time, you might need to do a little extra to boost your electrolyte levels,” says Bergeron.
How to Boost Your Electrolyte Game
There’s no way for you to measure your own sodium content, so if you’re well-rested, well-hydrated, and well-fueled, but still cramp up or crave salt post-training sesh, Bergeron recommends mixing 1/2 tsp of salt into your sports drink. (Sounds gross, but he promises you won’t even taste it.) You can also opt for a higher sodium sports drink (Pedialyte contains twice the sodium of Gatorade) or add a little extra salt to your diet, he says.
Since we tend to get enough salt in our lives (if not way more than we need, according to the FDA), someone who isn't training for an athletic event might experience a type of electrolyte imbalance caused by having too much sodium compared to potassium, says Matheny. With this type of imbalance you might experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea as your body tries to get rid of the extra sodium, he says.
If you'd like to keep your levels in check, you can ensure your potassium is balanced post-workout by noshing on a banana or a serving of spinach.
We'll never look at table salt or neon-green sports drinks the same.