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Are electrolyte supplements worth it? This is a common question among health-conscious individuals seeking optimal hydration and performance. Electrolyte supplements, such as powders or tablets, are designed to replenish essential

Are Electrolyte Supplements Worth It?

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When To Take Electrolytes (And When We Shouldn’t!)

Any sports nutrition outlet will sell electrolyte supplements. Sometimes in the form of sports drinks that claim to be more hydrating than water, or tablets that can be dissolved in water to make the same. How do they work, and should we be drinking them?

What are electrolytes?

They’re called “electrolytes” because they are ionized particles (so, they have a positive or negative electrical charge, depending on which kind of ion they are) that are usually combined in the form of salts.

The “first halves” of the salts include:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium

The “second halves” of the salts include:

  • Chloride
  • Phosphate
  • Bicarbonate
  • Nitrate

It doesn’t matter too much which way they’re combined, provided we get what we need. Specifically, the body needs them in a careful balance. Too much or too little, and bad things will start happening to us.

If we live in a temperate climate with a moderate lifestyle and a balanced diet, and have healthy working kidneys, usually our kidneys will keep them all in balance.

Why might we need to supplement?

Firstly, of course, you might have a dietary deficiency. Magnesium deficiency in particular is very common in North America, as people simply do not eat as much greenery as they ideally would.

But, also, you might sweat out your electrolytes, in which case, you will need to replace them.

In particular, endurance training and High Intensity Interval Training are likely to prompt this.

However… Are you in a rush? Because if not, you might just want to recover more slowly:

❝Vigorous exercise and warm/hot temperatures induce sweat production, which loses both water and electrolytes. Both water and sodium need to be replaced to re-establish “normal” total body water (euhydration).

This replacement can be by normal eating and drinking practices if there is no urgency for recovery.

But if rapid recovery (<24 h) is desired or severe hypohydration (>5% body mass) is encountered, aggressive drinking of fluids and consuming electrolytes should be encouraged to facilitate recovery❞

Source: Fluid and electrolyte needs for training, competition, and recovery

Should we just supplement anyway, as a “catch-all” to be sure?

Probably not. In particular, it is easy to get too much sodium in one’s diet, let alone by supplementation.And, oversupplementation of calcium is very common, and causes its own health problems. See:

To look directly to the science on this one, we see a general consensus amongst research reviews: “this is complicated and can go either way depending on what else people are doing”:

Well, that’s not helpful. Any clearer pointers?

Yes! Researchers Latzka and Mountain put together a very practical list of tips. Rather, they didn’t put it as a list, but the following bullet points are information extracted directly from their abstract, though we’ve also linked the full article below:

  • It is recommended that individuals begin exercise when adequately hydrated.
    • This can be facilitated by drinking 400 mL to 600 mL of fluid 2 hours before beginning exercise and drinking sufficient fluid during exercise to prevent dehydration from exceeding 2% body weight.
  • A practical recommendation is to drink small amounts of fluid (150-300 mL) every 15 to 20 minutes of exercise, varying the volume depending on sweating rate.
    • During exercise lasting less than 90 minutes, water alone is sufficient for fluid replacement
    • During prolonged exercise lasting longer than 90 minutes, commercially available carbohydrate electrolyte beverages should be considered to provide an exogenous carbohydrate source to sustain carbohydrate oxidation and endurance performance.
  • Electrolyte supplementation is generally not necessary because dietary intake is adequate to offset electrolytes lost in sweat and urine; however, during initial days of hot-weather training or when meals are not calorically adequate, supplemental salt intake may be indicated to sustain sodium balance.

Source: Water and electrolyte requirements for exercise

Bonus tip:

We’ve talked before about the specific age-related benefits of creatine supplementation, but if you’re doing endurance training or HIIT, you might also want to consider a creatine-electrolyte combination sports drink (even if you make it yourself):

Creatine-electrolyte supplementation improves repeated sprint cycling performance: a double-blind randomized control study

Where can I get electrolyte supplements?

They’re easy to find in any sports nutrition store, or you can buy them online; here’s an example product on Amazon for your convenience 🙂

You can also opt for natural and/or homemade electrolyte drinks:

Healthline | 8 Healthy Drinks Rich in Electrolytes

Enjoy!

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