What Are Electrolytes?

After exercise (or illness!) you’ve probably picked up a sports drink that promises to replace your electrolytes, but do you really know what electrolytes are and why we need them?

To avoid feeling drained and staying on top of your game you need to understand electrolytes: exactly what they do, how they do it, and what is the best way to replace them. This allows you to replenish them in the best way possible for your needs and remain at the peak of your physical fitness.

Electrolytes aren’t just one thing. The name covers a whole range of substances with the common factor that they conduct electricity when dissolved in water. This covers, in fact, the vast majority of salts, acids and bases, and these are used a lot in science and industry, where the main concern is producing the best possible conductor.

We need these electrolytes in a precise balance in our blood and concentrated in our cells to maintain our health, so when you’re rehydrating after strenuous exercise you need to make sure you’re doing it in the right way to restore that delicate balance.

Downing a big bottle of water after you’ve been working out or just run off the football pitch might feel cool and refreshing, but unless you also pay attention to your electrolytes you could just be diluting them further which would lead to you feeling worse! If you’ve been exercising heavily and don’t take steps to replenish your electrolyte levels you could find yourself suffering the side effects of dehydration however much water you drink!


Exhausted runner


What Do Electrolytes Do?

We know they’re important, but why? What do electrolytes do in your body, and why do things start to go wrong when they’re out of balance?

The main requirement your body has for electrolytes is maintaining hydration: ensuring the water you drink ends up in the places it’s needed. The reason hangovers give you a headache is that you’ve depleted your electrolytes and affected your body’s ability to regulate hydration: without enough water in you cells your brain tissue literally shrinks! You might have noticed the same effect after you’ve been exercising hard or even after a long, hot bath. A sports drink doesn’t just hydrate you, it also gives your body the capacity to use that hydration to the best extent. Without electrolytes, the majority of that water would simply pass straight through without doing you any good.

Your body uses electrolytes in two main ways: inside your cells (intracellular) and outside (extracellular). In your cells, electrolytes maintain homeostasis: they keep your cells hydrated, cool and at the optimum condition for the important work they do. Extracellular electrolytes play an important role conducting messages along your nerves and muscle fibres. This means you need to keep a balance between your intracellular and extracellular electrolytes to keep everything working as it needs to.


How Do We Lose Electrolytes?

Your body is basically a giant electrical circuit: your nerves and muscles (from your heart to your pectorals to your gluteus maximus!) all pulse with tiny electrical signals which translate into decisions and actions from dramatic ones like running a mile to tiny ones that aren’t within your conscious control like your heart’s regular beat.

As all of these processes are regulated by your electrolytes they need to be spread throughout the whole of your body. While this is good because it means these important substances are available wherever they’re needed, it does have a downside. It renders your electrolytes vulnerable to loss: through urine, and blood but most importantly for us, by sweating.

When you’re working your hardest, you can sweat nearly one and a half litres per hour. If you’re exercising for long periods, like endurance training for a marathon (or running a marathon!), playing a football game in hot conditions, or even just doing some taxing work around the house, that’s five or six litres of sweat, all packed with vital electrolytes streaming out of you.

Just drinking water could even be counterproductive at times like this: it keeps you cool, and think you’re hydrating yourself and keeping healthy so you have the false confidence to push harder and work your muscles more, even as you’re diluting your remaining electrolytes and giving your body more water to sweat them out with! You need to make sure you’re replenishing these vital minerals rather than diluting them.

If you don your new, moisture wicking lycra and fill a bottle of water for an all-day bike ride at the height of summer, you’re setting up the perfect conditions to cycle yourself into major deficits for some of your body’s most important substances without even noticing, and if your route takes you far from civilisation this could be very risky for you. Our three key tips for preventing electrolyte loss in times like these are:

  • Be mindful of how long you are going out for, consider how your hydration and electrolyte levels may drop.
  • Pay attention to potential symptoms such as; muscle cramps, nausea, mental fog and confusion.
  • Bring enough water with you as well as some of our suggested snacks and remedies mentioned below.

The Electrolyte Menu

The human body requires electrolytes that suit the delicate balance of minerals, salts and acids that keep it going. Common electrolytes used by the human body include:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Chloride
  • Hydrogen Phosphate
  • Hydrogen carbonate

Hydration is the main function handled by sodium and chloride. The other electrolytes have more subtle but just as vital effects. We’ve already covered how electrolytes conduct electricity – they are how your body transmits signals along and between your nerves and muscles. Without potassium, magnesium and sodium, you’ll suffer all sorts of pain and discomfort, and a serious imbalance can be life threatening.

Potassium and magnesium both help to regulate blood pressure and your heart rhythm. If you’ve come out of the gym after an intense session and felt your heart thudding in your chest, it’s these two electrolytes that help to get it back to a normal resting rhythm. A high hart rate is vital for a good work out but an out of control rhythm means a trip directly to hospital!
Magnesium is also used by your nerves to help transmit messages from the brain throughout your body while potassium is used by your muscles to signal for contractions – or to put it another way, movements! If you feel shaky or experience cramps after an intense run, that’s caused by a deficit of these minerals: your muscles can’t work as reliably or at their full strength and nerve signals experience a drop in efficiency, like a signal coming through the fuzz of a poorly tuned radio.

How to replenish electrolytes

For less exacting exercise your body will replenish itself naturally from your food. Fruit juice, nuts, milk and millennial favourite the avocado are all good sources of the electrolytes you need.

If you’re really pushing your endurance you need to start topping up your electrolytes consciously – you need to restore the balance of these vital salts and minerals quickly to keep up the effort. If you’re running a marathon, exercising hard in hot conditions, or merely working harder than you’re normally used to, you need a complete solution to the problem. For a carefully balanced rehydration that gives you exactly the vital minerals you need to restore your electrolyte balance you can choose from the range of O.R.S. rehydration products for a quick solution.

Alternatively you could eat a light meal – when you’ve rested a bit. You can, over time, get the majority of your vital electrolytes from food with two of the most important electrolytes appearing in table salt!

Preventing Electrolyte Loss

All of this should leave you wondering how to prevent disastrous electrolyte loss, and O.R.S has a few key tips for you. They’re important, but easy to put into practice so your exercise will leave you feeling tired but happy, not doubled over with muscle cramp!

  • Maintain a healthy diet. Eating a varied diet with plenty of vegetables will give you a solid foundation of the right electrolytes so when you start exercising your body is ready.
  • Seek out shade. In hot weather try to find cool environments to work out in, whether that’s shade or an air-conditioned gym. This cuts down on the excess sweating that drains electrolytes from your system.
  • Hydrate sensibly. Never simply drain a litre of water after a work out: it won’t do as much as good as water sipped and combined with a healthy snack. This restores your electrolyte balance and allows your body to actually absorb that water. If you’re working out for extended periods (current guidance suggests a run of 45 minutes or more, or equivalent work) make sure you’re using rehydration products to keep your body’s systems in balance and working for you.