Sports Drinks And Electrolytes

Matt McClelland aka Wildwalks

We all know that water is essential for life and you can never have enough of a good thing - or can you? The common saying “The dose makes the poison” was first expressed by Paracelsus in the 1500s and is still the basic principle of toxicology. Let’s look at the risks of not drinking enough or too much water. Let’s also check out what all that sports drinks fuss is about.

Why is water so important for the body?

About 60% of our body is water, which is the main distributer of vitamins and minerals to our cells. Water transports toxins out of the body and helps process all the food we eat. It also regulates our temperature (sweating helps cool us down). It even lubricates joints and acts as a shock absorber for our eyes, brain and spinal cord. An average adult replaces between two and three litres of water per day. Most of our water comes from the food we eat. We even make about a cup of water each day through metabolising fat - clever.

Not enough water

We all know the proverb that when you start feeling thirsty, you are already dehydrated. The signs of mild dehydration are thirst; tiredness; headaches and a decrease in alertness, concentration and memory as well as a loss of endurance and physical skills. That’s a red alert to start drinking, but not in litres; lots of smaller sips tend to be kinder to your body and help you bounce back faster.

Too much water

When drinking water beyond thirst (such as during a long bouts of intensive exercise), the sodium in your body can becomes diluted. This is called hyponatremia. If hyponatremia leads to nausea and vomiting, headache, confusion, lethargy, fatigue, loss of appetite, restlessness and irritability, muscle weakness, spasms or cramps, seizures, and decreased consciousness and possible death. Although this is pretty rare, it seems more likely in tropical areas and is worth being noted in these regions. Risk of dehydration is a much more common problem, so don’t use this as an excuse to not drink enough, but do keep it in mind. Too much of a good thing can be bad.

Are you a salty sweater?

Weird questions I know - but trust me, it is relevant. Some people sweat more salt than others. People with saltier sweat tend to have higher salt intake needs. You are likely a salty sweater if you get white marks on your skin and shirt or if you get a gritty feeling on your skin after exercise - these are salt residues. Other signs include when sweat stings your eyes or cuts in your skin.

No need to stress. Many people are salty sweaters, but you will need to be more aware of getting enough sodium and potassium. You can do this through a diet, but if you are exercising and needing to drink a lot, than sports drinks with sodium and potassium are likely to improve your performance and health.

Benefits of sport drinks

“For the average person who goes out for an hour to play tennis, there is no need for these beverages,” said Dr. Michael Sawka, chief of the Institute’s Thermal Physiology and Medicine Division. Importantly, he goes on to say that sports drinks can help people who exercise strenuously for more than an hour at time. He also says that if you don’t like to drink plain water then a sports drink is better than a soft drink. So if you are on a strenuous bushwalk and sweating a lot, a sports drink may help improve things.

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are salts (charged ions) ) are salts (charged ions) that float around your body doing lots of pretty cool things. In particular they are critical for allowing nerves to send their signals and for regulating your blood pressure. Your body is constantly playing a balancing act to keep water and electrolytes just right. If your sodium level drops then your kidneys will produce more urine so you pee out excess water. When sodium levels are high you get thirsty - you drink to restore the balance. We normally get all the electrolytes we need through our food.

There are two main salts in sports drinks - sodium and potassium – which your body needs to keep in balance. Too much sodium and your blood pressure can rise to dangerous levels. Not enough potassium and you will be week, get muscle cramps and have dangerous abnormal heart rhythms. As a general rule most of our diets are too high in sodium and low in potassium.

What is in sport drinks?

There are three key ingredients in most sports drinks. They are obviously mostly water, handy for hydration. Secondly, they generally have a lot of sugar, not so great. The third main ingredient are the salts, primarily sodium and potassium.

Sodium is found in most processed foods in the form of Sodium Chloride. Potassium is found naturally in green leafy vegetables, potatoes and dried apricots. Bananas are probably the most famous natural source of potassium.

Most sports drinks can be obtained in ready to drink or powder form. There are also plenty of recipes online for DIY. Obviously powdered drinks are lighter for walking if you are able to collect water along the way.

So should you drink a sports drink?

Clearly I am going to come up with some lawyered wimpy response: please consult with your doctor or dietician. But in this case I really think it is a good idea if you are doing extreme or long duration walks. You may survive based on general advice, but no-one has a normal body, and who wants to just survive. Surely we want to enjoy ourselves.

Unless your plan is to go hard and fast (in which case you really should get professional advice and build up to it) then a well-balanced diet and enough water to quench thirst will do you fine. I am a salty sweater, so I generally carry powdered sports drink with me and mix up a batch or two on long warm walking days. I find that the flavour also helps me drink enough water, otherwise I tend to not get enough fluid into me.

In terms of hydration, the rule of thumb is listen to your thirst and check the colour of your urine – it should be pale yellow. If you are thirsty or your pee is a darker yellow, then drink more. If it is hot and you are sweating hard, then rest to reduce your fluid and salt loss. In most cases sports drinks are a bit of yummy hype. You can get the salts you need from your diet. If you have been working hard and sweating hard for an extended time; if you think that you have lost salt or it has been diluted with too much water, then there may be some value in the sports drink for you. Listen to your body, rest when you need to, eat well, drink enough and have fun

Further reading

Striking a Balance: Less Sodium (Salt), More Potassium
Current US military fluid replacement guidelines
Water purification article in the second edition of emag

Don’t Guzzle the Hype