Ever guzzle a sports drink after a tough workout and notice how you feel instantly revived? That’s how important electrolytes are to your body. Since they help you stay hydrated, knowing how to replenish electrolytes after a sweat is super important, especially if you want your energy to bounce back quickly.
Though the word is plastered on all sorts of beverages and concoctions, it’s good to understand what electrolytes actually are. “Electrolytes are tiny particles that carry electrical charges and serve many roles within the body, such as keeping water balanced both inside and outside of cells so your muscles and organs work their best,” says Vishal Patel, a NASM-certified fitness nutritionist specialist and chief nutritionist at Nuun. Humans actually need electrolytes in order to survive. They’re a class of minerals that circle throughout your bloodstream and are lost multiple ways. (More on that below.)
There are a number of different kinds of electrolytes, each of which does different jobs within your body. “For staying hydrated during exercise and having your best workout, the most important electrolytes are sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium,” Patel tells Bustle. Typically, you don’t have to go out of your way to replenish electrolytes, as you get them through food. As long as you eat a nutrient-rich diet, Patel says you should be a-OK.
It’s when you do grueling workouts, like a long run or HIIT session, that you might want to take an extra step to replenish electrolytes faster, says registered dietician Amy E. Reed, MS, RD, who works with the Division of Nutrition Therapy for Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. The same goes if you’re sweating on a hot or humid day or if you get sick and lose a lot of fluids. “Otherwise, electrolyte replacement is likely not necessary,” Reed tells Bustle.
Here, more info about electrolyte imbalances as well as what you can do to get your body back on (hydrated) track.
How Are Electrolytes Lost?
While electrolytes are lost through things like breathing and peeing, they’re also lost when you sweat, which is why it’s good to keep an eye on your hydration during a workout, particularly when you’re going hard. According to Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD, a registered dietician nutritionist, it’s recommended to replenish electrolytes after one hour of high-intensity exercise.
“It's important to note while there are some symptoms associated with electrolyte depletion, you should not wait until you experience them to replenish,” she tells Bustle. Since it can negatively impact your health (see more on that below), an imbalance isn’t something to take lightly.
How To Tell If You Need More Electrolytes
If your electrolytes are out of whack, you’ll likely notice a few changes in how you feel. “Symptoms of low electrolytes may be blurred vision, rapid heart rate, irregular heart rate, or vomiting,” says Jaramillo. A drop in electrolytes can also trigger dizziness, muscle cramps, fatigue, and even brain fog, which is why runners, in particular, often start to cramp up and feel worn out.
According to registered dietician Luciana Godoi, MS, RD, LDN, you can also check the elasticity of your skin to see what’s going on internally. As a test, gently pinch the back of your hand. “If your skin snaps back right away that is a good sign,” Godoi says. “But if it is slow to return, that is a sign your electrolytes may be out of balance.”
You should also take note if you feel dehydrated, since being thirsty goes hand-in-hand with an electrolyte imbalance. As Patel says, “When you feel completely hydrated and replenished, that’s when you’ll know that your electrolyte balance is being maintained.”
How To Replenish Electrolytes
Remember, don’t wait until you feel bad to replenish your electrolytes. Do these things on the regular, especially if you like to work out.
1. Diversify Your Electrolytes
It won’t help to consume a ton of salt or a ton of potassium in an effort to replenish your electrolytes. Instead, you have to ingest a healthy mix: To ensure you’re getting what you need during exercise, Patel recommends looking for sports drinks that contain a mix of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
Jaramillo recommends electrolyte gels, too, especially when you’re in a pinch. Just like a sports drink, they’re designed to replace the type of electrolytes you lose during exercise. These chia energy gels from Huma+ have sodium, potassium, and magnesium sourced from coconut water and sea salt.
2. Eat An Avocado
Eating nutrient-dense food is a good idea any day, but you might want to up your game after a particularly sweaty workout by adding a few more electrolyte-rich foods to your plate. Godoi suggests choosing from spinach, avocados, broccoli, oranges, raspberries, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi, kale, passionfruit, blueberries, papaya, clementines, and/or blackberries.
Godoi says it’s also OK to drink a smoothie or green juice mix with these ingredients instead. She likes the green powder AG1, which contains spirulina, kelp, wheatgrass, and other superfoods to ensure you get all the nutrients you need.
3. Salt Your Meals
While you won’t want to over-salt your food with the goal of replenishing electrolytes, it is a good idea to sprinkle some on a meal after a big sweat, says Life Time dietician Paul Kriegler, RD, LD, CPT, CISS. Another trick, he says, is to have a salty snack, like olives, pickles, or salted nuts.
Sea salt is the best choice since it contains sodium and chloride. In general, it’s recommended that you get 2,300 mg of sodium per day, Patel says, since electrolytes (sodium in particular) need water to be absorbed by the body. Up your intake a bit if you’re sweating a lot.
4. Sip Coconut Water
Studies have shown that fresh young coconut water is an ideal beverage for whole body rehydration, especially after exercise. According to registered dietician Kristin Gillespie, MS, RD, LD, it’s because coconut water contains sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
“Amounts vary by brand depending on the processing, but most coconut water products are incredibly rich in potassium, containing more per serving than the amount in a single banana,” she tells Bustle.
5. Go Easy On The H20
Drinking water after a workout is obviously important. But did you know it’s possible to overdo it? “If water is consumed in large quantities, it can result in hyponatremia, which is when the excess amount of water in your body dilutes the bloodstream and decreases the number of vital electrolytes,” says Reed. In other words, it can actually throw your electrolytes off, making you feel worse.
According to the American Council on Exercise, you should drink 17 to 20 ounces of plain water two to three hours before you start exercising; 8 ounces of water 20 to 30 minutes before you start exercising or during your warm-up; 7 to 10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise; and 8 ounces of water no more than 30 minutes after you exercise.
You can overdo it with electrolyte water, too. “This typically happens when someone is using electrolyte water/drink in a situation where they are not having a loss of electrolytes,” Reed says. So save those for workout days — or whenever you get extra sweaty.
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Vishal Patel, NASM-certified fitness nutritionist specialist
Amy E. Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LD, registered dietitian, Division of Nutrition Therapy for Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center & Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Luciana Godoi, MS, RD, LDN, registered dietician
Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD, registered dietician nutritionist
Kristin Gillespie, MS, RD, LD, registered dietician
Paul Kriegler, RD, LD, CPT, CISS, dietician