Sabrina is a physician and a running enthusiast. By combining her knowledge in both fields, she is able to help readers make informed and healthy choices in their training.
Fitness experts and athletes always emphasize the importance of taking enough fluids and electrolytes when exercising and training for competition, but have you ever wondered howit actually affectsone’s health and athletic performance?
What Are Electrolytes?
In order to understand their function, it is first important to get a grasp of what electrolytes actually are. Electrolytes are chemical substances that become electrically charged when dissolved in a solution. These substances can be found in the human body, and are essential for proper functioning.
Although there are a number of electrolytes present in the body, the physiologically important ones are sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium. Of these, sodium is the major extracellular (outside the cell) electrolyte, while potassium is the major intracellular (inside the cell) electrolyte. Electrolytes are vital in maintaining a state of fluid balance in the body, by regulating the flow of fluid in the extracellular and intracellular compartments of the body. Electrolyte concentration is regulated by different hormones. Specialized cells monitor the levels of electrolytes and fluid in the body, and ensure electrolyte balance remains within normal limits.
Role of Fluid and Electrolytes in Health
Aside from regulating the distribution of water in the body, electrolytes have many other bodily functions. In fact, electrolytes are necessary for majority of cellular functions. One of the basic functions of electrolytes is the generation of what is known as an “action potential.” Movement of electrolytes across the cell membrane result in transmission of impulses and propagation of signals, resulting in cell activation and organ functioning. Movement is generated when nerve impulses travel from the brain to the muscle. Muscle contraction is likewise dependent on adequate electrolyte levels in the body. Since the heart is also a muscle, electrolytes are also necessary for normal cardiac activity and good circulation. Electrolytes are likewise responsible for the maintenance of acid-base balance. With regulation of fluid flow, they are also able to control the blood pressure of an individual.
Electrolyte imbalance can result from certain conditions, such as diarrhea, vomiting, or strenuous exercise. This imbalance can result in serious, occasionally life-threatening, consequences. In these instances, it is often necessary to replace the lost fluid and electrolytes using commercially available solutions containing electrolytes, in order to maintain the normal balance in the body.
Optimizing Athletic Performance
During athletic training and competition, particularly for long periods of time, athletes tend to lose significant amounts of electrolytes and fluid through sweat. Scientific evidence is available, stating that an individual’s athletic performance may be significantly impaired when dehydration occurs. Even the American College of Sports Medicine encourages proper fluid replacement to optimize physical performance.
When an athlete is dehydrated and the levels of electrolytes are low, symptoms such as muscle fatigue, weakness, and cramping can occur. These can compromise athletic performance. Moreover, significant deficits in fluid and electrolytes in athletes have been known to result in thermal strain and increased demand to the cardiovascular system.
It is thus important to keep yourself hydrated and replace lost electrolytes during training and competition. Adequate rehydration and replacement of lost electrolytes normalizes plasma volume, decreases heart rate during exercise, reduces the risk of heat stress or exhaustion, and delays the onset of fatigue, among others. Athletes who keep themselves hydrated have been known to have more energy and have faster recovery, which ultimately aid in maximizing one’s performance.