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Electrolytes in Sports

Muscles move via electrical nerve conduction. In order to help promote nerve conduction, we need electrolytes. Electrolytes are simply substances containing a charge, either positive or negative to ensure electrical conductivity. Besides regulating muscle function, electrolytes also help control nerve function, hydration levels and blood pH. All these factors are crucial to ensure maximum effectiveness in the gym or on the field.

Ingredients in Sport Drinks

These are a list of ingredients commonly found in sport drinks and electrolyte mixtures:

  • Sodium, potassium, chloride and carbonate ions are mostly required to ensure that the body’s water balance is in check.
  • Calcium, sodium and potassium ions are involved in proper muscle function. A loss of any of these electrolytes can result in loss of muscle function and muscle weakness in general.
  • Magnesium is an essential macromineral required to generate energy (ATP)
  • Carbohydrates, although not an electrolyte, are also often included in sports drinks and electrolyte mixtures to privide additional fuel during sustained exercise.

Losing Electrolytes During Exercise

Electrolytes are extremely important in sports and exercise. We lose most of our electrolytes as sweat which contains large amounts of sodium and chloride with comparatively smaller amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium. Increased sweating puts you at risk of a decreased performance in the gym. The loss of sodium can lead to cramps and subsequent shifts in water distribution in the body can lead to cramps.Low carbonate ions will also result in an inability to buffer rises in lactate and lactic acid produced during exercise. An inability to do so can mean decreased performance and increased feelings of pain from the burning sensation of lactate. Unfortunately, while we do know that electrolytes are extremely important for performance, most studies have focused on hydration and electrolyte levels in relation to performance. The problem with this is that it is hard to distinguish between loss in performance and the magnitude of effect between the hydration status and electrolyte loss. In other words, how much of the loss in performance is due to hydration status as a stand alone factor and how much of the loss in performance is due to changes in electrolyte levels as a stand alone factor.

How Electrolytes in Sports Drinks Help

The purpose of an electrolyte supplement is to help maintain the hydration and electrolyte status of an athlete in order to best maintain his/her performance, into a long bout of exercise.

Depending on factors like exercise duration, intensity, environment, and genetics, althletes may lose huge amounts of sodium through sweat. In this instance, simply consuming water is not enough and while it can rehydrate you, you run the risk of diluting the electrolytes left in your body which can cause issues such as cramps, dizziness, headaches, confusion, vomiting, fatigue and general tiredness.

More likely than not, you have experienced cramps at some point. From this you know that it is temporarily debilitating, and greatly affects your performance. Consequently, efforts have gone into trying to prevent the occurance of cramps. It has been found that supplementing with electrolytes and carbohydrates prior to and during exercise delayed the onset of cramps (Jung et al, 2005).

Other benefits of electrolyte supplementation include improving taste, as well as stimulating the thirst response, so that you become more inclined to drink , and thus, minimising dehydration (Coyle, 2004). The presence of sodium may also aid in the intestinal absorption of water and sugars present in the drink. Consequently, the inclusion of sodium in the drink of athletes performing exercise has been strongly promoted.

How Carbohydrates in Sports Drinks Help

Carbohydrate intake during exercise has long been associated with improved performance. Rapidly absorbed carbohydrates have been found to be the primary energy source late in a bout of extended exercise (Convertino et al,1996). The ingestion of carbohydrates from energy drinks during exercise can therefore delay fatigure and help to maintain power output (Coyle, 2004). This has been proven to be effective not only for endurance athletes, but also those practising a more "start stop" based sport  (Nicholas et al, 2000). Consequently, like sodium, the addition of carbohydrates to sports drinks has been strongly recommended.

Should I Supplement with Electrolyte

So the big question is, whether or not you should be using an electrolyte drink. The answer to that is: it depends. If you are going to perform exercises at a high intensity, for a long duration or in an environment that will cause a large amount of sweating, then supplementation with a drink containing electrolytes will definitely be beneficial. If your workout is light in intensity, short on duration or in a cool, moderate environment, then it is in this author’s opinion that supplementing with electrolytes is not necessary as any losses can be replenished through diet.

Bergaron et al (2010), A–Z of nutritional supplements: dietary supplements, sports nutrition foods and ergogenic aids for health and performance—Part 13. Br J Sports Med, 44: 985-986
Convertino et al (1996), American College of Sports Medicine position stand: exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 28: i–vii
Coyle (2004), Fluid and fuel intake during exercise. Journal of Sports Science, 22: 39-55
Jung et al (2005), Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps. J Athl Train, 40: 71-75
Nicholas et al (2000), The Loughborough Intermittent Shuttle Test: a field test that simulates the activity pattern of soccer. Journal of Sports Sciences, 18, 97–104
Sawka & Montain (2000), Fluid and electrolyte supplementation for exercise heat stress. Am J Clin Nutr, 72: 564S-572S

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