What are electrolytes and why do I need them?

Ben Emanuel II

Ever wondered why sports drinks contain electrolytes? That’s because one of the main reasons why athletes perform poorly is due to electrolyte imbalance. It is common to feel fatigued or dizzy whenever your electrolytes are down.

Ever wondered why sports drinks contain electrolytes? That’s because one of the main reasons why athletes perform poorly is due to electrolyte imbalance. It is common to feel fatigued or dizzy whenever your electrolytes are down. However, the question is when and how much electrolytes should you be taking to be able to perform at an optimum level?

What Are Electrolytes?

But first, what are electrolytes? Electrolytes conduct electricity when it is dissolved in water. These electrolytes help perform different functions in the body. Many of our daily functions rely on these electrolytes. These electrolytes interact with cells in different tissues of the body including nerves and muscles.

What Do Electrolytes Do?

Electrolytes in the body include potassium, sodium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, and phosphate.

Electrolytes when dissolved in water break into ions. Ions are small electrically charged particles that are present in the blood and cells to help maintain different body activity. For instance, both sodium and chloride are known to help regulate blood pressure and muscle and nerve functions. You also have calcium, sodium, and potassium which are needed by the muscles to contract.

So what happens when there's an electrolyte imbalance? In the case of muscles, you either get muscle weakness or excessive contraction depending on the electrolyte that is depleted.

When Does Electrolyte Imbalance Occur?

Electrolyte imbalance occurs in different situations. Remember that the human body is mostly water. And electrolyte imbalance occurs when there is a change in the body’s water levels. There are important electrolytes that are lost via sweat and urine.

There are also instances when the body loses electrolytes at a rapid pace. Vomiting and diarrhea are some of the most common situations where the body experiences electrolyte imbalance. The most common solution for this type of situation is to drink fluids that contain electrolytes such as a sports drink.

Among the most common symptoms of electrolyte imbalance include muscle spasm, convulsion, changes in the body’s blood pressure, tiredness, and seizure to name a few.

Timing Electrolytes Replacement and Athletic Performance

Water isn't enough for athletes especially if they want to perform in their peak form. There are a lot of supplements that contain electrolytes designed to replace electrolytes lost from sweat. However, it isn't just during the workout or after the workout that you have to take these types of supplements. It is also possible to take electrolytes before your workout to ensure focus and optimum performance.


The three most overlooked electrolytes that should be taken as a pre-workout include potassium, magnesium, and sodium. These are known to promote the body's homeostasis and provide energy for major organs in the body. Taking these electrolytes before a workout can improve overall muscle function and hydration. However, the only problem with these pre-workout drinks is that they contain a lot of sugar.

During Workout

You can also take electrolytes during your workouts. During your workout, you want to pay close attention to your sodium and carbohydrate intake if you wish to ensure optimum performance.

According to a study, carbohydrates can delay fatigue among athletes and even improve overall performance. However, some supplements contain a lot of sweeteners.

If you are not too comfortable taking too much sugar during your workout, you can choose powdered versions of electrolyte supplements to have control of its concentration.

Post Workout

And lastly, you shouldn't forget taking electrolytes after your workout. The post-workout supplementation should include salt to make it easier for the body to retain water. It is even advised in one study that athletes who are engaged in prolonged exercises for more than 3 hours should be taking water with higher sodium content in their post-workout drink.

How Much Should You Be Taking?

Another common question raised by athletes is how much water and electrolytes should you be taking? The body usually sheds 1% to 2% of its weight due to fluid loss in a matter of 60 to 90 minutes. By using this number, you want to make sure that you take at least 1-2% equivalent volume of the fluid lost.

As for the electrolytes, a rule of thumb is to take 60-120 mg sodium and 15-45 mg potassium if you are going to do physical activities for two hours. This will help in keeping the muscles working well and prevent cramps.

Bottom Line

The body needs electrolytes to be able to function the way it should. During workouts and physically demanding activities, electrolytes can also help the body perform at its best. However, you will lose electrolytes via sweat and urine. And if you don't replenish the lost electrolytes, that's when an imbalance occurs.

However, there is the right timing whenever you are taking electrolytes. It matters that you know what to take before, during, or after your workout to be able to reduce fatigue and still perform at your best.