What do electrolytes do for runners?

You've seen ads for electrolyte replacement drinks. You've been told you have to replenish your electrolytes. But what are electrolytes and what do they actually do?
What do electrolytes do for runners?

You've seen ads for electrolyte replacement drinks. You've been told you have to replenish your electrolytes. But what are electrolytes and what do they actually do? Well, I'm Jesse Funk and on today's episode of Runner’s High, we're going to go to the science of what electrolytes actually do for your body.

Let's start off by defining what an electrolyte is. Sure, we know it's what plants crave. But you know, what is an electrolyte? Electrolytes are the scientific umbrella term for salt. Electrolytes became a kind of mainstream term, when electrolyte replacement drinks like Gatorade needed something to be used as a scientific, very nice sounding word in their marketing campaigns.

This group of salts that's found in your body include sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate and bicarbonate. I'm sure I probably missed one in there. The point being that we use this term electrolytes, but we really mean salts, and you get a lot of them from just the food you eat every day.

The important part here is that these salts aid in the function of a few different things inside of our bodies. They aid the function of our nervous system, they help our muscles contract, they help us control the hydration of our cells, as well as functioning and controlling the pH inside of our body. They do a lot of things to help us, unlike Bocat who just likes to be in the way.

As athletes, we're really kind of focused on that muscle contraction part, right? We're really wanting to make sure that muscles contract properly and there's no issues there. So, that's why you know, sports drinks were invented. Right? It turns out, you may not actually need to supplement your electrolytes at all for really most athletes.

In my interview with Christie Aschwanden, science writer and author on the Smart Athlete Podcast, we talked about her newest book called Good to Go, where she addresses this and a lot of myths around recovery and the things that we've been told. And then trying to look into what does the science say, what actually is backed up and what's bunk.

There's mounting evidence that you actually don't need to supplement your electrolytes when you're working out, because the average person gets plenty of these salts in their regular diet. In the book, Christie discusses this, but there's actually this kind of thing that happens when you are working out and you sweat and the electrolyte balance in your cells changes. Your body can sense this change, and your brain sends a signal for your kidneys to go to work and to do what it needs to do to make those electrolyte levels optimized inside your cells.

The big exception to this situation where you know maybe getting enough in your diet is not the case is for endurance athletes like me, and possibly like you, who are competing at events two hours and longer. This is where the body, you know, has the possibility of not being able to continue to maintain that because of the loss for a very, very long duration. But if your workout is half-hour, hour at the gym, it may not be necessary at all. Christie and I talked about this, in my interview with her on the Smart Athlete Podcast.

If you haven't seen that, subscribe to the channel, stay tuned for that. Go check that out in a second. But she talks about how you know we're kind of naturally drawn to these salts when we need it. That’s the thing about flavor and taste is that often it can be a mechanism to guide us towards the thing that our body needs. I’d love doing another video on that. If you'd like to see that, leave it down in the comments below, let me know if you want to see that video.

The great thing about Christie's assertion is she's not alone. And the whole assertion that she makes is because she did the research. And there's more evidence pointing to our ability to get what we need out of our regular diet when we eat whole foods, and those kinds of regular things every single day versus trying to load up with some particular supplement. I'll see you next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.

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