The electrolytes sodium and potassium play a critical role in regulating your body’s water balance during exercise: the levels of these electrolytes allow your muscle cells (and every other cell in your body) to retain the right amount of water. But when we exercise, we lose electrolytes via sweating. The sodium content of sweat is why it tastes so salty.
During a race or long run, if you rehydrate by drinking a lot of water which do not contain electrolytes, you may upset the balance of electrolytes in your bloodstream. This may lead to a dangerous condition called hyponatremia, where blood sodium levels drop too low. When this happens, your body's water levels rise, and your cells begin to swell. This swelling can cause many health problems, from mild to life-threatening.
Hyponatremia signs and symptoms may include:
Sodium and other electrolytes assist rehydration during exercise in two ways. First, it increases the rate of fluid absorption from the gut into the bloodstream. And faster fluid absorption means faster hydration and less risk of dehydration.
According to a pair of studies from the University of Iowa, sodium only increases the rate of fluid absorption if the fluid doesn't also contain carbohydrate. If the fluid does contain carbohydrate -- as most sports drinks do -- the amount of sodium contained in the drink (or consumed with the drink, in the case of salt tablets) has no effect on the absorption rate.
The second benefit of electrolytes with regard to hydration is that it helps athletes maintain a higher blood volume, which in turn keeps body temperature and heart rate from rising during prolonged exercise. Research has shown that sodium does indeed have these effects. However, a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found that the amount of sodium has less of an impact. High-sodium sports drinks were no more effective than a low-sodium sports drink in regulating body temperature and preventing "cardiac drift" (rising heart rate during prolonged exercise).
During long periods of endurance activities, experts often recommend athletes 'drink to thirst'. This varies by individual but most athletes fall between 14 and 18 fluid ounces per hour of exercise. Keep in mind some athletes will sweat more than others. And fluid losses will be higher in heat and humidity.
Sodium and potassium are not the only minerals lost during prolonged exercise. Trace minerals, minerals in smaller quantities (such as magnesium, copper, manganese, zinc, cobalt, selenium, silica, iodine, chromium, boron, and vanadium), play critical roles within the body's balanced ecosystem. Its important for endurance athletes to consume an electrolyte source that contains essential trace minerals to help regulate blood volume and maintain proper brain and muscle function during endurance training.
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