Athletes Don’t Need Sports Drinks to Get Electrolytes

I first heard the word “electrolyte” sitting in a car speeding to the doctor’s office. I’d just spent a night getting more intimate with the toilet than I’d ever wanted and my panicked mother was forcing yellow Gatorade down my throat.

“You need the electrolytes,” she yelled as I spit the yellow liquid out the window (my stomach couldn’t hold down anything except my own saliva). It was a chaotic mess that seems comical in hindsight. That’s probably why the memory is so vivid. Today, any mention of an electrolyte-containing sports drink puts me right back in that car.

As a kid, salt was something my uncle wasn’t supposed to have. Potassium was why grandma ate bananas for stomach cramps. Calcium was a magic word with the power to make me strong by just looking at a glass of milk. But as a professional endurance athlete and an adult, electrolytes took on a different meaning. Neglecting them could ruin a race but too much could be bad news as well.

Electrolytes play many roles in the body, but runners associate them most with fluid balance, hydration and muscle function. Without adequate electrolyte balance, you may have a sub-par workout. With the right mix of these electrically-charged minerals, our running systems are primed to take on a hard day.

But, aside from a few exceptions, sports drinks are unappetizing and filled with ingredients we can’t pronounce. Personally, I’m permanently scarred from the Gatorade fiasco. Luckily, many natural foods offer a balance of electrolytes that can help athletes replace what we lose during exercise. Adding electrolyte-rich foods to a daily mix of hydration and fueling efforts reduces the need to rely on high-sugar drinks or supplements to maintain a healthy electrolyte balance. Here are a few examples.

Food Sources of Electrolytes

Sodium (and Sodium Chloride)
Sodium chloride, AKA table salt, has a rocky history and a poor reputation. While salt can be a medical hazard for some, it can be a huge part of an athlete’s fuel. Sodium and chloride are essential for maintaining fluid levels and helping your body stay hydrated. Sodium needs vary widely among runners, considering everyone’s sweat rate and sweat composition are different. Runners with high sweat rates, or salty sweat (that white crystal film that you see on shirts, hats, shorts and sometimes your skin after a run), have higher sodium needs.

Processed food and restaurant foods are likely contributing to the majority of your sodium chloride intake. Some examples of foods that are typically higher in sodium include soups, deli meats, fast food and the classic snack foods like chips and pretzels. Canned vegetables, seasoning mixes and sport-specific foods like gels are additional sources. Fruits and vegetables, however, are naturally low in sodium.

Potassium

Potassium works with sodium to balance your body’s fluids and electrolyte levels. Steady fluid levels help regulate your heartbeat and prevent muscles from cramping, so potassium is of particular importance to runners. Some high-potassium containing foods include:

Fruits: Apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupe, dates, nectarines and oranges
Vegetables: Artichokes, beets, brussels sprouts, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potatoes, swiss chard and tomatoes
Nuts: Almonds, walnuts and pecans

Calcium

Calcium is best known for contributing to bone health, but it’s also an electrolyte that helps with muscle contraction and heart function. Dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, as well as vitamin D, which helps with calcium absorption. If you can tolerate dairy, consuming yogurt, cheese and other cream-based products is an easy way to calcium-up pre or post workout. But plenty of other foods provide calcium, too.

Here are some of the best non-dairy food sources that are rich in calcium:

Vegetables and legumes: Cooked collard and turnip greens, cooked kale, black-eyed peas, baked beans, iceberg lettuce and green peas
Meats, Nuts, Dairy and Fruit: Canned salmon, almonds, soy products (edamame, tofu and soy milk) and fortified non-dairy beverages such as nut milk and orange juice

Magnesium

Magnesium helps with muscle function, protein synthesis and assists the transportation of calcium and potassium across cell membranes in our muscles. It is found in a variety of foods, but since it’s not required to be on packaging, is sometimes hard to identify.

One serving of each food in this list provides a high percentage of the recommended daily value of magnesium: Yogurt, rice, baked potato, avocado, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, edamame, black beans, soy milk, peanuts, cashews, pecans, walnuts and almonds.

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