We’re advised to take them for hydration and recovery, and particularly during hot training sessions or races, but what are electrolyte drinks? Sports nutritionist Rob Hobson tells you all you need to know.

Put simply, electrolyte drinks are specifically designed to help replenish the body’s electrolytes – naturally occurring salts and minerals that help balance our bodies’ fluids. The best electrolyte drinks typically contain a blend of electrolytes, carbohydrates and other nutrients that work together to help support hydration and recovery. These drinks generally come as a powder or tablet that you dissolve in water.

Electrolytes are minerals that have an electrical charge when dissolved in water, meaning they can conduct an electrical current. The role of electrolytes is to help regulate the body’s fluid balance, nerve function and muscle contraction while also assisting with the passage of nutrients in and out of cells.

The electrolytes sodium, potassium and chloride are found in the highest concentrations in bodily fluids such as sweat, blood and urine. The most important one concerning exercise performance is sodium.

Let’s take a closer look at the role of these minerals commonly found in electrolyte drinks.

Meet the expert

Rob Hobson is an award-winning Registered nutritionist RNutr, SENR, BSc (nutrition), PGdip (sports nutrition), MSc (public health nutrition), Sunday Times bestselling author, and nutrition consultant.

What is the role of electrolytes?

Sodium: The most vital electrolyte that helps to maintain body fluid volume. Sodium is often added to sports drinks alongside glucose; glucose increases sodium absorption, in turn facilitating water absorption.

Potassium: This mineral helps to keep your body in a steady state of equilibrium and helps to prevent muscle cramping and weakness.

Chloride: During exercise, we require chloride for proper muscle contraction and transmission of nerve impulses.

A man pouring electrolyte power into a water bottle outside
Soluble electrolyte supplements are available in tablet or powder form

When should you take electrolyte drinks? 

Now you’re more clued up on what electrolyte drinks are, let’s take a closer look at when you should be drinking them. Hydration is paramount during exercise, and fluid losses of more than 2% body weight can impair coordination, decision-making and overall athletic performance, and even more so in hot climates. The rate at which you sweat can influence how dehydrated you get during exercise, and with this comes the loss of sodium, which is even more significant in ‘salty sweaters’.

Should I take electrolytes before working out?

Starting intense exercise in a state of optimal total body water is important. In some cases, adding electrolytes (sodium) to fluids to promote fluid retention can achieve this. This is especially relevant if you’re about to start a long race, competition or hardcore training session.

Should I take electrolytes while exercising?

There is only a benefit to taking electrolyte drinks (sodium) if you lose significant amounts of sweat or are training/competing for an extended period. The rate you sweat can vary and many factors can influence it such as exercise duration and intensity, fitness levels and climate. A sweat rate above 2L/hr would be considered high.

According to the Academy of Sports Nutrition and Medicine, circumstances requiring electrolytes (sodium) during exercise may include a sweat rate greater than 1.2L/h, exercise lasting more than 2 hours or having very salty sweat (your sweat may leave white marks on your kit).

Experts suggest that electrolyte (sodium) consumption during exercise is 500-700mg per hour, which is highly variable and dependent on the individual. If someone is unconditioned, training in the heat and humidity, a salty sweater or exercising for several hours, they may need more.

Getting adequate sodium during an endurance or ultra-endurance event can also help prevent hyponatremia, when sodium levels in the blood are abnormally low. The symptoms of hyponatremia include fatigue, dehydration, confusion, slurred speech and vomiting, and if not treated can be life-threatening.

How to calculate your sweat rate

  • Weigh yourself without clothing. This weight in kg is (A).
  • Before you exercise, measure any fluids you are taking with you in litres. This figure is (X).
  • Perform your exercise, which should be between 1 and 2 hours.
  • After exercising, weigh your water bottle again to see how much you have drunk in litres. This figure is (Y). Calculate the amount drunk. This is (X) – (Y) to give you (Z) in litres.
  • Towel yourself dry and weigh yourself again without clothing. This weight in kg is (B).
  • Calculate your weight loss. This is (A) – (B) to give you (C) in kg.
  • Calculate your sweat rate. This is (C) + (Z) divided by the time spent exercising and is given as L/hr.

Should I take electrolytes after exercise?

Straight after a workout is the time that electrolyte drinks are most helpful. After an intense, lengthy training session or event, most people will undoubtedly finish with a fluid deficit. They will need to rehydrate during the recovery period.

If you are competing, having a good hydration strategy in place is advisable, and this includes rehydration during recovery. Consuming fluids alongside sodium in the form of electrolytes and foods can help with fluid retention. Electrolytes during this period can also help replace losses during exercise and are especially useful when you need rapid rehydration due to short periods between competing or training.

Benefits of electrolyte drinks after a workout:

The role of electrolyte drinks during and after exercise is not to replace electrolytes lost through sweat but for several other purposes:

  • Increasing the palatability of drinks
  • Promoting drinking by maintaining thirst
  • Preventing hyponatremia (low sodium levels resulting from excessive fluid consumption)
  • Increasing the uptake of water in the body
  • Increasing fluid retention

Is it OK to drink electrolytes every day?

If you don’t need an electrolyte, then there is no point in taking one. It is also worth remembering that these drinks are high in sodium. While athletes may need more in their diet during training and competition, people generally consume too much sodium, which can harm your health and increase your risk of high blood pressure.

You can get all the necessary electrolytes from your food, and most people get more than enough sodium. Eating plenty of plant-based foods such as vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds will ensure a good intake of other minerals from your diet.

Can electrolyte drinks help hangovers?

Some people swear by electrolyte drinks to help with the electrolyte imbalances caused by fluid losses during a drinking session. However, there is a lack of research to prove that the severity of a hangover is correlated with a disruption in electrolyte balance or that adding electrolytes to your diet will help lessen the severity of a hangover. In most cases, your body will quickly restore the balance of electrolytes once the effect of alcohol wears off.

Electrolytes are most effective in helping with rehydration during recovery from intense, lengthy exercise, heavy or salty sweaters and those involved in endurance sports. For everyone else, you should be able to get what you need from the food you eat.

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