Electrolytes, Energy and Exercise
What Are Electrolytes?
A good electrolyte level ensures that you can easily bounce back from your workout and stay energized. The key difference of fatigue you feel post workout compared to just being “tired” is one situation where electrolyte balance is the likely culprit compared to lack of calories or the previous night’s sleep. In many cases, resetting this balance will give you a quicker and more effective boost than extra carbs, calories or caffeine.
The word “electrolyte” is a term used to describe certain micronutrients and minerals that break down into positively or negatively charged ions. These ions generate electricity in your body (almost like a superhero) and are necessary for your body to maintain a proper fluid balance, transmit nerve impulses, and contract your muscles. The minerals that make up the term “electrolyte” are: Sodium, Chloride, Phosphate, Potassium, Calcium, and Magnesium.
Avoiding Muscle Cramps
The loss of electrolytes can lead to muscle cramps, feelings of sickness, and fatigue. A NIH study found that if an active person fails to replenish the electrolytes lost in a workout, the quality of their next exercise session can be compromised. We often lose electrolytes when sweating. Sweat quantity can be an easy way to gauge the nutrition you need post-workout to recover quickly and stay alert through the rest of the day.
There are quick electrolyte boosting energy shots and drink mixes which you can absorb quickly or during a workout to keep up your endurance. Ideally, plan meals to include electrolyte replenishing foods that contain a mix of key minerals:
- Sodium: Table salt, spinach, beets
- Chloride: Olives, lettuce, celery, tomato
- Phosphate: Pumpkin seeds, salmon, brazil nuts, shellfish
- Potassium: Spinach, kale, avocado, banana, coconut water
- Calcium: Almonds, kale, bok choy, yogurt, and any milk derivative
- Magnesium: Pumpkin seeds, brazil nuts
How Electrolytes Affect Your Energy
When most people begin counting calories, often they find themselves reducing their daily food intake to the proper levels. This can create the short term feeling of a caloric deficit (even though the body is getting proper nutrition) until the body adjusts; the same thing happens during the first 2-3 weeks of intermittent fasting.
When adjusting to reduced calorie intake, modified diets, or a controlled and targeted caloric deficit, it can be hard to find the energy to not only workout, but just to get through daily tasks. Without a proper fluid balance and without a proper amount of electrolytes in the body, you may find yourself feeling a little more sluggish than usual. In addition to that, you may experience some “brain fog” and general trouble operating throughout the day. While it may be tempting to reach for more food, if your goal is to lose weight, that’s not always the best answer.
By replenishing your body with water and eating healthy foods high in electrolytes, you can combat these feelings of sluggishness and have an alternative, biochemically balanced source of energy – instead of feeling compelled to increase caffeine or other appetite suppressants.
Here’s one example of an electrolyte replenishing meal that can get you quickly back on track after a sweaty workout.
- 1 cup coconut water
- 2 cups kale
- 1 oz brazil nuts
- 1 dash of table salt (0.4g)
- 2 tablespoons oil-based dressing
- Protein of choice (optional)
Multivitamins: Are they useful?
Note that most multivitamins do contain some of the electrolytes you need, though they aren’t always comprehensive and will take much longer to be digested than regular food or ideally, liquid you hold in your mouth for 30 seconds for quick absorption. Pills in general have limited bioavailability; if you must supplement essential nutrients, be sure to use a quality brand.
Some multivitamins are relatively useless and a waste of money, while others are more chemically potent and will have a reliable benefit. Most multivitamins don’t contain sodium and many only contain trace amounts of electrolytes. In general, when supplementing, there is no “one size fits all.” A balanced and complete diet should always come first.
Be mindful of your body and the regular changes you feel with food, exercise and water so you can tell the difference based on your specific biology to an electrolyte boost. Unlike caffeine which for many people can have a consistent boost similar to a spike in adrenaline, ingesting electrolytes when you have “enough” likely won’t create a noticeable effect.