Refuel, recharge – Spotlight on electrolytes (Part 1)

You may have seen the first post in which I gave you a cheeky sneak peek at the blog content of my soon-to-launch Great Expectations Fitness website. I decided to continue giving you guys a head start and give you the first in my “Spotlight On:” series – electrolytes. Enjoy!

I am not sure if the fitness industry is booming, but it is certainly evolving. People are not just pulling out their lycra and striding out for a jog or aerobics class, as may have been the case in the running and fitness booms of the 1970s or 1980s. In those days, from what I gather, it was all about either enjoying the exercise for its own sake, or enjoying the progress in one’s fitness/strength/physique.

Now, people are busy, money is tight, commitments are many, and yet we know we need to take care of our health. So rather than the fitness nuts of the 1970s who just couldn’t get enough of their running, or the health freaks of the 80s who would obsess over fat-free and macrobiotic cuisine, we look for the little adjustments we can make every day – that 30min foolproof gym routine, that one miracle food to consume, that single golden rule which will solve all our problems.

Unfortunately, health and sport supplement companies are expertly surfing this wave and the range of more-or-less-related products has proliferated at a startling rate, making it hard to know what to believe, who to trust, and how to spend your money.

In this little series I have called “Spotlight On:” I hope to shed some light on different types of products and supplements, talking about whether or not they are necessary, what to look for, how to choose your product, and what my personal picks are.

As we are going through some of our hottest days in the last few years, it seems a good time to talk about electrolytes and hydration.

We all know the importance of drinking more water, less caffeine, and staying hydrated. “8-10 glasses a day” is the guideline currently being thrown around, with the more confident sources recommending we monitor the colour of our urine.

But as it became clear that people were not going to meet these recommendations, sports drink companies emerged touting their product as a tasty and enjoyable way of staying hydrated – but why were they better than water, which is free and easy to access? Because they contained electrolytes. Electrolytes, put simply, are salts. In a little more detail, they are electrically-charged ions. Put these two definitions together – sweat is salty, salt is sodium chloride, the electrolytes present in salt are sodium and chloride.

Quite early on people figured out that if we were sweating we were losing water. If we were losing water, we had to replace it. But sweat is salty – so we must be losing salt. Therefore, the logic follows that we should be replacing it.

Why is is so important to replace salt – or any electrolyte? Well, our body moves through muscular contractions. To move, a muscle needs to be stimulated by an electrical impulse from a nerve. And electrical impulses are governed by ions moving in various directions – so it is important that our body has a good supply of ions available to flow to the muscles and keep us moving or at least functioning (remember the heart is a muscle).

Now most of us consume enough salt in our diets to see us through an average training session. But in a particularly long training session, or on a hot day when you are sweating more either before or during your session, or if you are on a low-sodium or calorie-restricted diet which means you may not be consuming all the electrolytes you need in your food, you may benefit from added electrolytes in your water. Why shouldn’t you just drink more water? Well, if you are sweating out water and salts but only replacing the water, you will end up with an electrolyte imbalance known as hyponatremia where the ratio of sodium in relation to water is too low. This puts your body in a similar situation to trying to make a phone call when you have no phone signal – your phone works, and your friend’s phone works, but you can’t communicate with them because the devices at either end don’t connect. Without electrolytes, everything in your body might be otherwise healthy and functioning, but the different components can’t communicate and you can end up experiencing symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, muscle weakness, headaches, or vomiting.

So we need to put salt back into our bodies with the water that we replace, we’re clear on that. Why would you not just pick up a bottle of branded commercial sports drink?

First, it’s expensive. Anywhere between £1 and £2 a bottle on average, and if you train even just four days a week on average with about ten weeks off during the year, you’re spending anywhere from about £168 to £336 a year on the stuff. But you’re dedicated to your sport and your health, and money is no object – that’s fine, but what are you actually paying for?

Here is the composition of one leading brand of sports drink: Carbonated Water, Glucose Syrup (25%), Citric Acid(E330), Lactic Acid (E270), Flavouring (unspecified), Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Bisulphite (E-222)), Caffeine, Antioxidant (Ascorbic Acid), Colour. I have highlighted the ingredients which are actually electrolytes. It’s pretty obvious here that you are not paying for the products which are actually beneficial for your health.

I could talk about the value of consuming glucose and caffeine in your sports drink, but that will be a topic for another day. Right now I want to focus on the best way to get electrolytes into your system.

Now a big player in the market is coconut water. It emerged a couple of years ago, and now there are too many different brands to keep track of. It has marketed itself as a healthy and natural way to stay hydrated. As long as we are talking about 100% coconut water (not the coconut water drinks you sometimes see: they contain added sugar and usually other preservatives, and are normally a lot cheaper!), I can’t argue with that – it is entirely natural, with nothing added, and it is a caffeine-free which means it will be hydrating. However – it is no substitute for a proper electrolyte drink. The reason is that it is high in potassium, which is an electrolyte, but not sodium. So not only are you not replacing the sodium you lose through sweat if you consume coconut water, but you run the risk of further upsetting the delicate balance that our electrically-charged body depends on. To go back to our phone signal analogy – it’s like discovering you still don’t have signal but you do have internet. That’s great, but it doesn’t make it any easier to make a phone call (unfortunately, our bodies don’t have an internal Skype system built it yet). Clever marketing from coconut water, who haven’t made any false claims, but have managed to be distinctly misleading.

So you can’t just have more plain water, sports drinks aren’t ideal especially if you’re watching the calories, sugar intake, or budget, and coconut water is just not quite right. What can you do to help with hydration and electrolyte balance?

Some big movers and shakers have come out over the last year or two, in the form of calorie-free, sugar-free electrolyte tablets and powders. Honestly, I think these are great. Whether you choose powders or tablets, they are practical, deliver just what you need, usually quite tasty and refreshing, and although they are not always cheap, do provide the best value for money.

In part 2, I will review some of the leading products that I have tried, and hopefully give you a slightly clearer idea of what might work for you.