When do you really need to add hydration tablets or other electrolytes to your exercise?

Athletic young man drinking from a water bottle while taking a break during a run

When you sweat, most of what you lose is water, but you also lose some important minerals that help your organs, nerves and muscles work well.

Those minerals, also called electrolytes, include potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and other substances. Once dissolved in liquid, electrolytes carry an electric charge that helps your heart beat, your blood flow and other body functions run smoothly. Electrolytes also help your body absorb and maintain the right amount of water.

If you lose too many electrolytes, your body can’t make them on its own, so you risk becoming dehydrated and experiencing tiredness, brain fog and sometimes nausea and dizziness.

How do I get enough electrolytes?

There are a lot of ways to get electrolytes. Eating a variety of foods may allow you to get enough electrolytes. That, plus drinking plenty of water, should keep you from getting dehydrated unless you’re an athlete or you exercise intensely, such as running, swimming or biking long distances.

For rigorous exercise, water is not enough — especially if it’s hot or humid. You need water along with electrolytes. The primary electrolyte people lose in sweat is sodium. So that’s what we’re really trying to replace in a sports drink.

The choices of electrolyte drinks, powders and tablets abound. You might swear by certain brands and flavors. The product that’s best for you may be the one you like the taste of the most.

Rather than an electrolyte drink, hydration tablets might be more appealing. You can just put them in your bottle filled with water, shake if up and your electrolyte drink is ready instantly.

Can you overdo electrolytes?

You can. Anyone who gets too many electrolytes may experience many of the same symptoms as having too few electrolytes. However, it’s much more common for people to not get enough electrolytes than to overdo it on them especially if they’re exercising intensely.

If you’re not doing high-intensity workouts, you probably don’t need electrolyte drinks even though you like the taste of them. You’re probably better off drinking mostly water.

Replenishing sodium

When choosing a sports drink, along with the flavor, consider how much you sweat and whether you tend to sweat a lot of sodium. We all sweat at different rates and some of us sweat more fluid or sodium than others. If you sweat a lot of sodium, you’ll notice dried white salt crystals on your skin, your clothes or a hat, once the sweat dries.

If that’s the case, you’ll need to replenish that sodium with an electrolyte drink with a fair amount of sodium in it. Some electrolyte products are higher in sodium than others. All sports drinks contain some sodium, usually between 35 and 200 mg for every eight ounces.

Electrolyte drinks lower in sodium

If you’re concerned about high blood pressure, you may want to look to the many low-sodium hydration products out there, including commercial coconut water drinks.

These drinks are often much lower in sodium and higher in potassium than other hydration drinks. Commercial coconut water drinks, for example, generally have 500 to 600 mg potassium and only about 60 mg of sodium for every eight ounces.

An athlete could use coconut water and add a sodium source and not risk dehydration. But I recommend you discuss it with your healthcare provider first.

Why is sugar in electrolyte drinks?

Sugar in electrolyte drinks is important because it gives your body carbohydrates that are quickly broken down to be used as energy when you exercise. But if you’re concerned about gaining weight or having high blood sugar levels, take a look at the ingredients on the label, because some electrolyte drinks have more sugar than others.

Before an intense workout that’s longer than an hour, a sports drink with calories might be a better choice than something that’s sugarless, colorless and calorie-free.

Electrolyte drinks marketed for children have some sport versions that are low in carbohydrates and very high in sodium so athletes would have to add carbohydrates if moderately intense activity is longer than 60 minutes.

Watch for dehydration

In the warmer seasons especially, it’s important to be aware of signs you could be dehydrated.

Warning signs of dehydration:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Sweating a lot as your body tries to cool itself down
  • Dark yellow, brown or cloudy pee

The color of your urine is a good indicator of whether you’re dehydrated. You want to aim to have pee that’s clear and light in color, like the color of lemonade. If you’re taking supplements, your pee might be fluorescent yellow, which is not a problem.

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