On the list of workout terms you regularly use without really knowing what they mean, electrolytes is probably somewhere near the top (right up there with macros, drop sets, and clean and jerks). Sure, you might down a sports drink after a tough workout or an epic Saturday night to help with recovery, but you probably haven't stopped to think about what electrolytes are or what it is they do.
To find out, we teamed up with the hydration experts at BODYARMOR. They make better-for-you beverages such as BODYARMOR LYTE Sports Drink, a naturally sweetened, low-calorie sports drink (only 20 calories and 3 grams of sugar per serving!) that's packed with vitamins and electrolytes, and BODYARMOR SportWater, an alkaline water (pH 8+) that uses an electrolyte formula designed for sports and comes in a wide-mouth bottle for fast chugging.
So what is it about electrolytes that keep our bodies going? Turns out, they're pretty crucial.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals—such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, chlorine, and old-fashioned table salt—says Duncan French, VP of Performance at the UFC Performance Institute. They help with just about everything from fluid balance and muscle movement to brain function. How? Well, as electrolytes dissolve in our bodies, they become electrically charged (get it? electro-lytes), sparking nerves to life and regulating the flow of water in our cells—two essential factors for contracting muscles, keeping us alert, maintaining healthy blood pressure, and staying hydrated.
Wait, back up. You said I need salt to stay hydrated?
We know it sounds contradictory. And isn't salt supposed to be bad for you? Well, yes and no (more on that here). While it’s true too much sodium can contribute to health issues such as high blood pressure and heart disease, electrolytes are essential for maintaining a normal chemical balance in the body and keeping cells hydrated so our bodies can function.
“Salt is not good or bad,” says Dominic King, D.O., a sports medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Center. “It maintains hydration and what I call fluid metabolism."
Potassium, for example, helps prevent muscle cramps and regulate your heartbeat by managing sodium levels and fluid balance (hence why athletes reach for bananas after a big event). According to French, it's why BODYARMOR LYTE is the top choice sports drink for UFC athletes. The specially formulated electrolyte blend is packed with potassium, which boosts recovery and endurance.
OK, so what happens if I don't have enough electrolytes?
“Every time your body loses fluid, you lose electrolytes," French says.
Low electrolyte levels can lead to ~*fun*~ symptoms like drops in blood pressure, nausea, lightheadedness, persistent muscle aches, and cramps, French says. Failing to properly restore them long-term opens the door to potentially life-threatening issues like hypernatremia—low levels of sodium in the blood that severely impact blood pressure.
But French and King say there's no need to freak out. The fluids lost from a quick, medium-intensity workout or going about your regular day (sweating and, ahem, using the restroom) aren't going to send your body into a tailspin. But if you're powering through an hour-long HIIT, a tough race (like a marathon or mud run), or just having a particularly sweaty day, it's probably smart to keep an eye on your electrolyte levels.
"Whenever you have a longer workout or intense physical activity where you're losing fluids, it's important to replenish electrolytes," French says.
But isn't drinking water enough?
Water does play an important role in keeping you hydrated, but dehydration is more than just a loss of fluids—it's also a loss of electrolytes. Because purified water is just that (H2O in its simplest form), drinking only water means you're not necessarily replenishing electrolytes, King says.
"What [experts] can agree on is that plain water alone is not adequate for replenishing electrolyte stores and could potentially be dangerous," King says.
That's because if you're losing lots of fluids and drinking only water, you're also flushing out electrolytes, which will make you feel worse in the long run. French and King recommend getting electrolytes back from a combination of healthy post-workout snacks (bananas, yogurt, bagels, peanut butter) and electrolyte-infused beverages.
“BODYARMOR drinks are a great option because they don’t have synthetic sugars,” French says. “They use all-natural sugars that are easily digestible, minimize gastric distress, and promote rehydration rates by delivering electrolytes to the cells faster.”
The Bottom Line
Unbalanced electrolytes fudge up just about everything, from muscle movement to our ability to think clearly.
If you're generally healthy and tend to stick to low-impact workouts, you're probably getting enough electrolytes from your diet. But if you prefer longer, more intense workouts, you might want to increase your electrolyte intake through nutrient-rich foods and sports drinks, such as BODYARMOR SportWater.
Consider your fitness vocabulary updated.