The importance of hydration is well accepted in sports science. Dehydration impairs athletic performance and can be dangerous.
For the average person working out in the gym, water to thirst is enough to ensure you're adequately hydrated. It's smart to ensure you're hydrated before you workout, during, and afterwards.
Electrolytes are a 'thing' that get thrown around in fitness discussions all the time. E.G. "After a hard run you need electrolytes" or "Don't just have water, have electrolytes" or "Your favorite electrolyte will be available on course"
You can't read a sports nutrition article without seeing the E word. And it's with good reason. So, here's a really basic intro into electrolytes and why we need them, what they are, and how they affect your workout.
What are Electrolytes?
Literally, An electrolyte is any substance that contains free ions that conducts electricity. Humans need electrolytes to exist.
In human bodies, and this includes you, electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium bicarbonate, magnesium chloride, hydrogen phosphate and hydrogen carbonate.
Electrolytes are readily available in our foods. Sports drinks add soluble electrolytes to water.
What Do Electrolytes Do?
Electrolytes are responsible for a massive range of tasks in our body. They play a part in regulating our nerve and muscle function, hydration levels, blood pressure, and the rebuilding of damaged tissue. Various mechanisms and systems (including our kidneys and hormones) in our bodies exist to regulate electrolyte levels to ensure they don't get too high, or too low.
Our bodies are finely tuned machines and in a healthy state they are excellent at maintaining electrolyte balance, even during intense exercise.
Which is where sports drink marketing comes into play.
The Marketing Story
According to sports drink manufacturers, replacing electrolytes after sport is essential. They state that during exercise the body sweats salt (it does) and that it needs to be replaced to avoid hyponatraemia, or dangerously low sodium levels.
What the marketing doesn't tell you just how much exercise you would need to engage in to induce this state, nor do they tell you the dangers of drinking too much water/sports drink/anything.
According to Robert Robergs from the Universtity of New Mexico, unless you are exercising for longer than 90 minutes, there is no reason to drink something with excess sugar and electrolytes. Water to thirst is enough.
The Australian Institute of Sport states that excessive salt supplementation during exercise may lead to "gastrointestinal problems or cause further impairment of fluid balance" and may cause salt-induced cramps.
Producing a state of hyponatraemia by consuming too much liquid and thus diluting sodium levels in our bodies is extremely dangerous - and can result in death.
Basically the bottom line is, drink to THIRST.
If you're thirsty, drink. You can drink water, or if you prefer a sports drink.
If you're not thirsty, don't drink,
If you're engaging in particularly intense sports, re-hydrate under the guidance of your sports nutritionist.
Photo credit: redjar