You've seen the Gatorade commercials, so you know that sports drinks help you run faster, jump higher and basically turn you into a superhuman — right? Well, not quite. But the electrolytes delivered by these drinks are super important when it comes to refueling and rehydrating after a workout.
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If you're suspicious of the neon-colored, sugar-loaded options on shelves, though, there's good news: Whipping up a homemade electrolyte drink is a piece of cake.
First, Why Do We Need Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that play a role in controlling heartbeat, balancing bodily fluids and sending electrical impulses to muscles in order to coordinate movement, according to the University of Michigan Medical School. Sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, phosphate and calcium are the minerals our bodies rely on most.
Each time we sweat, vomit, defecate or otherwise lose fluids, electrolytes are lost. If someone loses electrolytes faster than he or she can replenish them with diet, though, there's a risk for dangerous side effects such as muscle cramping or irregular heartbeat. This is why dehydration can land you in the hospital, and treatment is usually intravenous fluids loaded with electrolytes.
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When Should You Replenish Electrolytes?
When athletes perform extreme workouts, they threaten their bodies' ability to balance and regulate electrolytes. That's why, despite sports drinks' neon color and high sugar content, they do have a time and a place for people losing electrolytes in extreme conditions.
But of course, not every workout requires a sports drink for adequate replenishment. Food contains electrolytes, and the average athlete can more than adequately meet his or her electrolyte and hydration needs simply by drinking water and eating a meal. But as the interest in marathons, ultra marathons and triathlons grows, so does the need for sports drink consumption.
Individual needs for when to replace water with a sports drink will vary. As a September 2015 paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests, different individuals sweat and lose electrolytes at different rates. A person's acclimation to heat and humidity, along with their speed, body weight and even their genes all influence their sweat rate.
A good rule of thumb is to consider drinking a sports drink for continuous endurance activities lasting longer than one hour. Engaging in exercise for prolonged periods may result in dehydration and sodium losses from sweat. While it may be tempting to use water for hydration, the sodium in sports drinks provides much-needed salt to the depleted athlete. Basically, if you're exercising continuously and hard enough to sweat for more than an hour, a sports drink is probably a good idea.
For those looking for a more natural solution to sports drinks, it is possible to combine real food sources of electrolytes to create homemade options:
Homemade Electrolyte Drink Recipes
Real Food Sports Drink
- 1 cup coconut water
- 2 cups water*
- 1/2 cup pulp-free orange juice
- 1/8 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon salt*
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
Mint Sports Drink
- 2 cups mint tea
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/8-1/4 tsp salt*
*May need to increase water or add salt depending on your own personal needs. Makes enough to consume over a three-hour period, taking about 1 to 2 ounces every 10 to 15 minutes.