Electrolytes, Energy and Exercise
A good electrolyte level ensures that you can easily bounce back from your workout and stay energized afterward. If electrolyte levels are low, you might feel fatigued post-workout. This fatigue feels a little different than being “tired” from lack of calories or a bad night’s sleep. In many cases of post-workout fatigue, your electrolyte levels need to be reset which means you don’t necessarily need extra carbs, calories or caffeine.
What are electrolytes?
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 and are necessary for your body to maintain a proper fluid balance, transmit nerve impulses, and contract your muscles. The minerals that make up electrolytes 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. An 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 out there that help keep your endurance steady during a workout. While your body can absorb these quickly, some contain unnatural ingredients. We suggest opting for whole foods. Make sure your post-workout snacks include a mix of the following 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, they often 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 work out — heck, it’s even hard to find the energy 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 have trouble operating throughout the day.
While it may be tempting to reach for more food — especially sugar-laden ones — if your goal is to lose weight, opt for hydration and electrolyte-filled meals. 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. This might help you resist reaching for caffeine or other appetite suppressants.
Here’s one example of an electrolyte-replenishing meal that can help re-energize you after a sweaty workout. Pair it with a glass (1 cup) of coconut water.
Electrolyte salad for post-workout
2 cups kale
1 oz brazil nuts
1 dash of table salt (0.4g)
2 Tbsp oil-based dressing
Protein of choice (optional)
Multivitamins: Are they useful?
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. If you need a quick reboot after a hard workout, something in liquid or whole food form is your best bet. If you are interested in learning more about supplements and how they can help or hurt, read our Supplements 101 article.