By Robert Forster, PT
All physiological functions of the human body depend on electrically charged salts and minerals called electrolytes. Electrolytes control the fluid balance of the body and are important in muscle contraction, energy generation, and almost every major biochemical reaction in the body. Safe to say they are essential for everyone and especially athletes who ask their bodies to perform work for long periods of time in warm climates.
As we exercise, 90% of all the energy that is created is generated in the form of heat from sources including metabolic reactions, muscle contractions and the friction caused by the physical movement of body parts. At the same time, as body temperature rises the ability to continue performing work decreases. To offset the increased temperatures we are equipped with a sweating mechanism that allows the body to cool as sweat evaporates off the skin. Sweat contains significant amounts of electrolytes in the form of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese and others. The challenge for endurance athletes who perform outdoors in warm temperatures is to maintain electrolyte concentrations while sweating depletes them.
Electrolyte depletion causes the all too common, and sometimes severe, cramping we see at marathons and endurance cycling events. Most of the time the effects of electrolyte depletion is more subtle as we see athletes begin to slow down and finally be unable to continue to perform as their forward progression comes to a crawl. I have personally seen athletes who in spite of having had plenty of water, calories and even caffeine, slow to a snails pace until they added electrolyte supplements and were soon back on pace.
Electrolyte supplementation is easy and inexpensive, so why the resistance to electrolyte supplementation?
Too many nutritionists and coaches site studies that fail to show a relationship between electrolyte supplements and improved performance. Those studies are performed on elite athletes with highly trained metabolic conditioning, and they are looking at whether or not electrolytes make them faster. This research is not applicable to the recreational athlete looking to avoid debilitating muscle cramps .
Secondly, most recreational athletes believe no additional electrolytes are needed above what is contained in their sport drink.
However, in warm conditions as we sweat in a struggle to maintain body temperatures in a safe range, we sweat out copious amounts of electrolytes.
If we were to attempt to replenish them adequately with sport drinks we would need to drink gallons of it and overdose ourselves with calories. Accordingly, in warm conditions (72-75 degrees and above) runners, cyclists, hikers and the like, need to separate nutrition from hydration, meaning they need more water and electrolytes above and beyond what their sport drink provides, or risk calorie overload and gut absorption problems.
Also, too many athletes take the “nothing new on race day” mantra too far.
While it is not wise to change anything that worked well in training before the big day, it is 100% scientifically sound to change things that are not working well, if it’s the right change.
If race day is going to be hot, taking electrolytes is the the right change.
In 35 years helping athletes achieve peak performance, we have NEVER had an athlete suffer problems from electrolyte supplements. In contrast EVERY athlete who did not use electrolyte supplements when the weather called for them, suffered horribly.
At the Marathon Raceday Recovery Event at Forster Physical Therapy last year, we met two types of runners: those who took electrolyte supplements and were smiling and walking tall; and those who did not, who came limping in and were not happy!
Every year more people die from electrolyte depletion then dehydration as they over consume liquids, but fail to take in electrolytes and become water intoxicated leading to sometimes fatal condition known as hyponatremia.
How to Protect Your Health and Have a Great Race ?
Separate your nutrition from your hydration. To avoid the GI distress that comes from consuming too much sport drink in an attempt to get all the electrolytes you will need, you must alternate between your energy drink and plain water with electrolyte supplements.