When summer rolls around, many of us reach for sports drinks filled with electrolytes to prep for summer hikes and outdoor workouts. But what are electrolytes, exactly, and why are they so important?
Here, registered dieticians break down the science behind these mini powerhouses, how to know when you’re short on them, and which ones to add to your cart or skip.
Electrolytes are minerals in the body that have an electric charge. They’re crucial to keeping your heart beating, muscles flexing, and nerves all firing normally.
“Everyone thinks about fluid as numero uno in preventing dehydration, but electrolytes are the hidden heroes helping to maintain fluid balance in and out of cells as well as more efficiently delivering fluid to exercising muscles,” says Leslie Bonci, RD, a sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs and co-founder of the sports nutrition consulting group Performance365.
Essential electrolytes your body needs include:
- Sodium, chloride and potassium, which regulate the body’s balance of fluids
- Calcium and magnesium, which support muscles and metabolism
When you breathe faster and sweat, all of these electrolytes are lost. That’s why replenishing your stores with the right foods and drinks is essential to avoid imbalances and keep your body running.
“Summer brings hot temperatures, which can dehydrate you in a short time if you aren’t drinking enough water and taking in the right nutrients,” says Nicole Hinckley, RD, a registered dietitian who’s worked with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Orange Theory and athletes at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
When it’s hot and humid outside, sweat can’t cool you off as quickly as it usually does, so your body gets hotter, and you lose more fluids and electrolytes, per the Mayo Clinic. Signs of dehydration like dizziness, muscle cramps, a pounding or racing heart, confusion, headache, fatigue and dark-colored urine are all indicators you need to hydrate ASAP.
On a typical summer day, eating a balanced diet and drinking plenty of fluids is all you need to do to ensure your body has the electrolytes it needs, says Wirtz. But if you’re new to hot-weather workouts or plan to spend an hour or longer exercising intensely, it’s important to regularly take breaks to stay hydrated with electrolyte-packed drinks and snacks. If you’re pregnant, keep in mind that it’s best to only work out outdoors when it’s not hot and humid, according to guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Here are four top-rated sources of electrolytes, according to RDs:
Fun fact: Studies show milk does a better job of hydrating than water. But most people don’t find it appealing while exercising, says Bonci. With deproteinized milk, GoodSport serves the carbs and electrolytes you need without the protein, fat or milky taste. Another option? A glass of milk after a sweat sesh could also do the trick, adds Hinckley, since your muscles need carbs and protein to rebuild.
“Protein20 not only contains protein to aid in recovery and muscle growth, but also has electrolytes such as potassium and sodium, which are essential for hydration,” says Hinckley. Since most adults don’t get enough potassium in their diet, it’s an especially smart refueling choice.
3. TRAIL MIX
Salty-sweet trail mix is the classic snack for hikes because it’s the perfect combination of electrolyte-rich foods. Lightly-salted nuts like almonds contain magnesium and sodium, while dried fruits like raisins, apricots and bananas are high in potassium, explains Mary Wirtz, RD, a nutritional consultant for Mom Loves Best.
4. PICKLED FOODS
Pickled foods like olives, sauerkraut and kimchi are a lesser-known source of electrolytes and a great excuse to treat yourself to a post-workout salty snack. Since tomatoes are a good source of potassium, Wirtz regularly combines them with olives for a quick salsa with chips. “It’s the perfect refuel after a hard workout,” she says.
Unless you’re an athlete training at high intensity for optimal performance, there’s no need to stock up on the following:
1. SUGARY SPORTS DRINKS
Many popular sports drinks contain upwards of 36 grams of sugar per serving (the maximum amount of added sugar men should get in per day and far more than the limit of 25 grams for women!). “This can be great for athletes but harmful to the ‘average Joe,’” says Hinckley. High in added sugars and artificial ingredients, they’re just not necessary — especially if your goal is to lose or maintain weight, she says.
2. ELECTROLYTE WATERS, GELS AND POWDERS
Like sports drinks, electrolyte waters, gels and powders are generally not worth it, says Wirtz. Again, unless you’re working out for hours or training for a race, you simply don’t need them.
3. COCONUT WATER
Yes, it’s tasty, popular and high in potassium. But coconut water is low in some of the most essential electrolytes like sodium and chloride and doesn’t provide the right balance of these key nutrients your body needs, says Bonci. Another problem: The amount of electrolytes in a bottle could vary as the coconut inside ages, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“In these hot summer months, especially if it’s humid outside, it’s extremely crucial to drink lots of water and replenish electrolytes lost through sweat,” says Hinckley. Listen to your body. If you feel dizzy, thirsty, weak or develop a headache, that’s your sign to find a shady spot and up your electrolyte intake.