Training for a Spartan race can do a number on your body if you’re not smart, which is why you make it a point to make the right choices from your nutrition to your recovery days. But what you may not be taking into account is whether or not you have low electrolytes, and this can have a direct influence on your performance. In fact, research has found that losing as little as 1-2 percent of fluids and electrolytes through sweat can cause you to feel more fatigued, and chances are that when you’re competing you may be losing a lot more than that. Here’s everything you should know about electrolytes—starting with why you need them in the first place.
How Electrolytes Help Athletes
“Electrolytes are certain minerals like sodium, potassium, chloride, and magnesium that humans need quite a precarious balance of in order to maintain adequate heart function, muscle function, pH level, and hydration status,” says Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LDN, a nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition.
In the case of exercise and training, electrolytes help maintain proper fluid balance in your body in addition to contributing to muscle function—including your heart. When you sweat, that fluid loss includes water any electrolytes. And if you’re dehydrated, your muscles get fatigued faster on top of performing slower and workouts feeler tougher than usual.
What’s the Right Amount of Electrolytes?
There’s no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to proper electrolyte levels, but you can base much of it off your body weight. To start, weigh yourself both before and after exercising. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends continually drinking during exercise to prevent excessive water weight loss (anything more than 2 percent of your body weight). If you find you’re staying in this range, there’s a good chance your fluid and electrolyte levels are relatively stable.
If you find you lose more than this, or feel dizzy, fatigued, shaky, have muscle cramping, or even vomit at any point before, during, or after training these are warning signs that you may have low electrolytes, says Moreno.
Don’t forget to take into account when and where you’re training, as the climate, altitude (which may make you exert yourself more than usual), and time spent exercising can all increase the number of electrolytes lost through sweat. The ACSM says it’s possible to lose anywhere between four to 10 liters of water and 3,500 to 7,000 mg of sodium in these types of situations.
What to Do When You Have Low Electrolytes
While water may cut it for shorter workouts, Moreno says to consider sipping on an electrolyte-based sports drink for any workout session longer than 90 minutes.
Drinking electrolytes while exercising is important in maintaining nutrient and fluid levels, but in those instances where you’ve been sweating and losing more fluid than normal and are looking increase low electrolytes, you don’t have to resort to chugging sports drinks for the next 24 hours.
There are plenty of foods that have high levels of electrolytes in them, Moreno says, such as bananas, celery, kale, beets, pumpkin seeds, potatoes, oranges, chocolate milk, and even pickles. Pack your diet after a tough training session with some of these foods to help refuel and rehydrate quickly.