Underestimating Electrolytes

“Aaaaaaagggghhhh!!! Cramp! Calf cramp! End it now…I’’ve had a good run!”

Those are the words I was screaming after an hour of cross-country skiing at the spectacular Nordic Centre in Canmore. See, as much as I would like to brag about being a tough guy, the truth is, needles make me jumpy, I’’ll never finish watching The Exorcist, and a muscle cramp will make me collapse like I just got shot.

The embarrassment I suffered while lying at the bottom of the hill, with nine-year-olds whizzing past me on their tiny skis, was my body’’s payback for allowing it to become dehydrated. And it wasn’’t a matter of not drinking enough water, it was the other part of the equation: electrolytes.

Electrolytes are minerals that act as little electrical transporters to keep fluid moving in the body. Your kidneys use hormones to regulate electrolytes, but when there aren’’t enough electrolytes there’’s not a lot they can do. The key to remember is that when you’’re sweating you’’re not just losing water, you’re losing electrolytes, too. Both need to be replenished in order to keep balance in the body.

It’s a good idea to get some electrolytes in on the ascent or there may not be a descent! Photo Meghan J. Ward.

Outside of exercise, a healthy diet and lots of water should be enough to keep that balance; during exercise, a little more preparation is necessary. Sports drinks like Gatorade, Powerade, Accelerade and others (even some not ending in -ade!) have marketed themselves to be the ONLY way to hydrate your body during exercise. And while many do contain electrolytes, they also contain a cocktail of artificial colours, sweeteners and other additives you don’’t need.

But there are good options out there! The best come in liquid form for convenience and quick absorption. They also contain five of the most important electrolytes: sodium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and calcium. And if you’’re using it during exercise, it doesn’’t hurt if they have some simple sugars in there as well.

One great natural source of electrolytes is coconut water. It was first studied as an electrolyte supplement back in the ‘’40’s for its ability to revive dehydrated soldiers. Only recently has it been garnering attention in the sporting world. Now endurance athletes, sport drink companies and everyone in between are touting its benefits. You can usually find it in a special foods section of the grocery store.

Of the many electrolyte supplements available, the powder packets by Emergen-C are a step above. They taste great, have proper levels of electrolytes, and contain no artificial colours, sweeteners or flavours. In other words, don’’t wait for an emergency to use them; they’’re great for any sweaty activity.

Hopefully I’’ll remember to heed my own advice the next time I’’m in for a heavy workout! Now it’’s time for a cool bath to loosen my calf and hopefully soothe my wounded pride.

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John Reid

John Reid is a University of Calgary Faculty of Kinesiology graduate and Precision Nutrition Certified Sports Nutritionist. When he’s not rowing for the Calgary Row Club you’ll find him enjoying every possible second in the mountains hiking, trail running and road cycling.

Outside of sports, John is involved with the Branch Out Neurological Foundation, a local non-profit charitable organization dedicated to fundraising for new and alternative forms of treatment for neurological disorders.

Comments

    • Thanks for the response Kurtis!

      I prefer Nuun tablets for their taste, mix-ability and the fizzy texture. There are two reasons I recommend Emergen-C over Nuun, however.

      In your body you have an approximately 3-1 ratio of potassium to sodium. Nuun has about 360mg of sodium for every 77mg of potassium…the opposite of the ratio our body prefers. Emergen-C, on the other hand, has 60mg of sodium to every 200mg of potassium…closer to what we like. You can go a little deeper into it, but for brevity’s sake, that’s the just of it.
      Nuun contains an artificial sweetener called “acesulfame potassium” aka “Ace-K.” While Ace-K doesn’t get the negative attention aspartame or sucralose does, it’s still an artificial sweetener. Generally I try not to recommend anything with artificial sweeteners, although that can be difficult as they’re in almost everything!