Paddle Healthy: Electrolytes Part I

Photo: Aaron Schmidt
Photo: Aaron Schmidt Arunas Klupsas / Getty Images

Paddle Healthy: Dehydration, Electrolyte Depletion, and Sports Drinks

Electrolyte balance is one of the most misunderstood topics in sports nutrition. Electrolytes are positively and negatively charged ions that help control the movement of water throughout the body, helping cells flush out waste products and transport nutrients into them. There are many different electrolytes, but we’re going to focus on the five most relevant to physical activity: sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium.

When we place our body in a stress state, particularly during exertion on or off the water, these electrolytes can become unbalanced causing (to put in in layman’s terms) the body to freak out and underperform. It’s difficult to avoid the negative effects of dehydration when electrolyte levels dip, even if you’re consuming fluid regularly during exercise.

Photo courtesy of Bailey Rosen.
Photo courtesy of Bailey Rosen.

Drinking Water vs. Being Hydrated

For the longest time, conventional wisdom dictated that when you exercised, you just drank more water to keep your body working. While you certainly need more fluids when you’re paddling, running or doing any other kind of activity, just drinking more isn’t going to remain hydrated if you’re not also replenishing electrolytes. And if you drink too much without also topping up electrolytes, your body can’t correctly process what you’re taking in. This can lead to fatigue, cramping, thermal regulation issues (i.e. you feel too hot or too cold), and cognitive problems.

“Drinking water alone isn’t going to cut it for longer training sessions or races,” says Marty Glenn, sports nutritionist/exercise physiologist from the University of Kansas. “You’ve got to top up essential electrolytes—particularly sodium—back into your body or performance will suffer.” Drink way too much water and you can actually cause hyponatremia, which occurs when your blood sodium levels are too low and causes disorientation and, in extreme cases, death.

Photo: Will Taylor
Photo: Will Taylor Pawel Gaul / Getty Images

The ‘Sports Drink’ Problem

To ensure maximum performance and recovery, we need to maintain and restore the equilibrium of the five substances previously mentioned. The trouble is that most drinks you’ll find on grocery store shelves that claim to help you maintain or restore electrolytes during and after exercise don’t contain all five necessary elements. The amount of the electrolytes they do contain are typically wrong for most paddlers’ training and racing needs, and many of these drinks and goos have a bevy of potentially harmful artificial ingredients, as well as a lot of sugar—which merely accelerates dehydration. And, with the current craze for getting more and more of an energy jolt, even more mainstream sports drinks contain way too much caffeine. “Caffeine can have a positive impact in low to moderate doses, but consuming too much right before activity or during a paddle can make you feel anxious and cause an upset stomach,” Glenn says.


Electrolyte Basics & What Happens if Your Levels Are Low

So if we can’t trust many of the big name sports drink brands to help us, what can we do? In this and next week’s posts, we’ll go over what electrolytes do and which products are best for training, races and recovery. First, let’s quickly go over the basic facts about which bodily functions each electrolytes are involved in, good natural food sources, and which symptoms occur when we don’t get the right amount of them:

Functions: Regulates water levels and blood pressure, as well as neurological processes
Deficiency symptoms: Muscle cramping, dizziness, loss of appetite
Natural sources: Salt

Functions: Regulate heart rate and muscular function
Deficiency symptoms: Confusion/disorientation, weaker muscle contractions, irregular heartbeat
Natural sources: Kiwis, broccoli, bananas

Functions: Fluid balance
Deficiency symptoms: Irregular heartbeat, lethargy
Natural sources: Salt, tomatoes, seaweed, celery

Functions: Stabilizing blood pressure, normal blood clotting, neurological functions, helps insulin open cells to glucose
Deficiency symptoms: Muscle spasms, numb/tingling fingers, osteoporosis
Natural sources: Dairy products, dark leafy green vegetables, soy beans

Functions: Muscle relaxation, protein synthesis, sleep regulation
Deficiency symptoms: Nausea, cramping, anxiety, depression
Natural sources: Pumpkin seeds, spinach, mackerel, most whole grains

Photo: Jason Kenworthy
Photo: Jason Kenworthy

Moving Beyond the “All-In-One” Sports Drink

Typically, the sports drink approach has been an “all in one” approach, whereby the drink tries to both supply the fuel your body needs (typically an easy to digest carbohydrate) as well as what you need to stay hydrated (water + electrolytes). In the past few years, companies such as Osmo Nutrition, Nuun, and Gu have taken a sledgehammer to this approach, formulating their pre-, during-, and post-workout drinks, goos, tablets, and more to just tackle hydration with adequate electrolytes and fluid balance, with minimal natural sugar content. You can then use other fuels, such as fruit and other whole foods, to take care of putting fuel into your body’s engine room.

Similarly, the mad scientists behind the latest hydration-focused products are re-examining how we can more adequately pre-hydrate before exercise and rehydrate afterwards, shaking up the old “eat carbs before” and “eat carbs and protein after” methodology.

Check back next week to see Part II, including some of our recommendations for hydrating before, during, and after paddling, different approaches for light training versus long sessions, and more.
Phil White

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The article was originally published on Standup Paddling

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