Electrolytes and Their Importance to Endurance Athletes

[caption id="attachment_1443" align="alignleft" width="236" caption="E is for Electrolytes"][/caption] I have recently finished the book The Runner's Diet and it was chock full of information regarding carbohydrates, proteins and fats.  Or to use one term:  macro-nutrients.  There were chapters dedicated to these macro-nutrients and rightfully so as most people seem intent on focusing on these three, but as an endurance athlete there is more to being prepared than consuming a balanced diet of 55%-60% carbs, 15% protein and 20%-25% fat. There are electrolytes to worry about.  What is an electrolyte?  Electrolytes are the bodies salt which will help maintain fluid balance in your organ systems.  They are important in maintaining the integrity and function of your body.  Your next question is what are the normal names by which I might know what an electrolyte is?  The answer to that question is sodium, potassium and magnesium. There have been discussions, that I found online, about the need for electrolytes  and there are many interesting questions and points. Too much or too little? What is right for you? Are there dangers to watch out for? These are all valid; but the answers varied.  Endurance sports results in a lot of sweating which obviously results in a salt loss as well as water loss.  Your body does have an automatic process by which it balances salt and water concentrations.  Similar to water consumption guidelines, there is no hard and fast rule for replacing electrolytes.  Replacing electrolytes will vary depending on the climate you are in (hot temperatures are different than cold temperatures for water loss) as well as the intensity of the activity. From what I gathered there is no need to replace electrolytes immediately if the exercise lasts less than 3-4 hours.  Since most of us will be on the course for a half-iron distance, and certainly Iron distance race longer than 4 hours electrolyte replacement becomes an issue.  So how do you replace or avoid having to replace a lot of your electrolytes?  I read this on ultracycling.com and it made a lot of sense to me:   A plan to avoid the problems First of all, you can reduce your tendency to lose sodium by what you do when not training or competing. You can reduce the amount of sodium in your daily food. That will increase the level of aldosterone so that your body retains sodium better. Choose less salty foods. Use Morton Lite Salt in your salt shaker. That will reduce sodium and increase your potassium intake ( as will eating fruits and vegetables ). If you expect to compete in the heat, get heat acclimated as soon as possible. That will reduce your sweat rate under hot conditions. While you train, stay cool so that your sweat rate is lower. Wear light clothes, keep your jersey wet, and/or put ice on your neck. To satisfy your needs in a hot event you can take sodium in different forms. The simplest is table salt (a pinch per hour ). If an aid station has salt and boiled potatoes, you can dip a potato into the salt before eating it. V-8 and tomato juice are also good sources.Consume supplemental salt or electrolytes during the event. Most sports drinks have sodium levels that are fine for shorter distances, but inadequate for longer distances. Most gel products have insignificant amounts of sodium. You can use an electrolyte replacement supplement, but check the sodium content. Some riders take salt tablet such as Thermotabs. Some athletes use Stamina Electrolyte Tablets but those are not a good source of sodium or potassium (they are a good source of calcium and magnesium ). Some athletes use SUCCEED! Buffer/Electrolyte Caps that are formulated specifically for ultradistance athletes such as cyclists, triathletes and runners to supply sodium, buffers and sufficient amounts of potassium. As always, you need to drink. Don't wait until you are thirsty; the human thirst mechanism is too slow and inaccurate. As the adage goes: Eat before hunger, drink before thirst. When you finish a long training ride or event, you will usually have a deficit of water, calories and sodium. You will have a much smoother recovery if you replace all of those promptly. Soon after finishing, you can take an electrolyte supplement, 200 calories of carbohydrates and drink water until you are no longer thirsty, and are urinating again. In the days that follow, you will probably find that you have more energy and fewer aches and pains if you have promptly replaced water, carbohydrates and sodium after your long ride. [caption id="attachment_1441" align="alignright" width="248" caption="Water or Gatorade?"][/caption] And while it made sense to me I don't enjoy Gatorade because of its taste.  There are other reasons as well but in the end taste trumps all and I don't like how it tastes.  I use Accelerade from Pacific Health Labs on the bike.  It has the proven ration of 4:1 Carbohydrates to Protein and it also contains 180mg (8% of your daily value) and 55mg of Potassium (2% of your daily need.)  It contains only 60 calories per scoop in 12 fluid ounces.  Very good numbers especially when you compare it to Gatorade, which has 275mg of sodium in 150 calories for a 20-ounce bottle. You could eat a mini dill pickle and get 290mg of sodium with only 5 calories, but try eating that on the bike after you've been riding for 2+ hours.  Want some celery on the bike?  Well, it does have 100mg of sodium in only 20 calories but again the thought of pulling that out of your bento box just doesn't add up. I will gladly consume the Accelerade and the PowerBar Harvest bars that I have been training with.  I am consuming 1 PowerBar harvest bar every hour by cutting it into 4 pieces and eating every 15 minutes.  They have approximately 220 calories per bar so that meets my needs, and include 150mg of sodium and 240mg of potassium.  During my training I have not had any hunger pains running off the bike so I know that this works for me and I will not be changing it this close to race day.  

What do you drink or eat to replenish your electrolytes?  Did you know a banana has 422mg of potassium, but only 1mg of sodium?

Jason Bahamundi

About the Author:

I grew up in New York and lived there for 34 years until I got divorced and moved 1600 miles to my new home in Texas.  I love New York and miss it but that does not mean that Texas hasn’t been great to me because it has.  It was here that I discovered endurance sports and specifically the sport of triathlon.  Triathlon has given me new life through all the challenges it presents.  I no longer look at life the same way and I can say that is in part due to my endeavor into this sport.

Related Stories