It seems like ever since Gatorade debuted its neon-colored beverages back in 1965, athletes and fitness fanatics have been obsessed with the idea of getting enough electrolytes during their workouts. Today, sports drinks are just one of the countless ways to get your fill. The supplement aisle is filled with hydration tablets, gummy chews, gels, and even pills.
What are electrolytes, exactly?
Electrolytes, which are found in sports nutrition products as well as whole foods like bananas and sweet potatoes, are minerals that have an electric charge. Once they're in your body, they have two primary jobs: They balance the amount of water in your body to help your cells function properly, and they spark nerve impulses. “These impulses allow muscles to contract, which keeps the heart beating and the body moving,” explains Allison Childress, PhD, RDN, CSSD, a professor of nutritional science at Texas Tech University.
They also help us stay hydrated. When we sweat, we lose water along with electrolytes like sodium, potassium calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and chlorine. Without enough of these minerals in your body, you won't be able to retain the water you're chugging during workouts or on a hot day, which could lead to dehydration.
Should you be worried about getting enough electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential for the body to keep itself running properly, so consuming them is important. But most of the time, getting the right balance of electrolytes is kind of like getting enough oxygen: We do it without having to try.
“In healthy people, our bodies generally do an outstanding job of maintaining fluid balance,” says Ritanne Duszak, RD, a Philadelphia-based running and triathlon coach. If you’re adequately hydrated (read: you’re not thirsty, and your pee is clear or pale yellow) and are eating normally, your electrolyte levels are probably fine. “For the vast majority of people, your regular diet is going to be the best source of electrolytes,” Duszak adds.
That said, there are a few exceptions. We lose electrolytes through sweat, so if you’re active for extended periods (an hour or longer) or are in a hot or humid climate, you might need to make more of an effort to replenish your stores, Childress says. Otherwise, you could end up dehydrated with an electrolyte imbalance, which not only makes it hard to keep working out, it could also cause dizziness and fainting. The same goes if you’ve been vomiting or have diarrhea since these unpleasantries also cause fluid loss.
The best type of electrolyte drinks you can buy
If you're working out for an extended period or in extreme heat, an electrolyte drink like Gatorade or Powerade might be a good option. “They may be appropriate for rapid rehydration to quickly restore the body to pre-activity electrolyte levels for someone doing an intense workout for more than an hour,” Duszak explains. In other words, if you’re training for a marathon, or doing a long workout in the middle of a summer day, a sports drink can be beneficial.
The downside? These beverages tend to be loaded with sugar. For that reason, low-cal electrolyte drink tabs (which you pop into a water bottle) like nuun and Gu Hydration are a better choice. They are typically made with sweeteners like stevia, making them an attractive option for those watching their weight or sugar intake.
Electrolyte-rich foods to eat
If you’d rather steer clear of commercial electrolyte products altogether, though, you can replenish your electrolytes with a glass of water and a smart snack. For instance, bananas, spinach, milk, and yogurt are all good sources of electrolyte minerals, Childress says. (Post-workout green smoothie, anyone?) A sweet potato sprinkled with sea salt is another good option. “The potato is jam-packed with potassium, and the salt will increase the sodium content,” Duszak explains. Some other sources of electrolytes include:
Signs you might need more electrolytes
If you’re dehydrated, you’re probably low on electrolytes too. So take notice of signals that indicate you need to take in more water and electrolyte-rich foods. Dark-colored pee or peeing less often are two telltale signs. Headache, fatigue, and rapid heartbeat can also be symptoms of dehydration, Duszak says.
If you want to figure out whether you need to replenish your electrolytes after a workout, hop on the scale before and after exercising. If you’ve lost 2 percent or more of your body weight, there’s a good chance you’re dehydrated and could use some H2O and electrolytes, Duszak says.
💡 Still not sure if you’re refueling properly? 💡
Consider meeting with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition. Your RD can assess your workouts to help you get a better handle on your electrolyte loss—and recommend the best ways to replenish your stores.