Not just a running joke in the movie Idiocracy, electrolytes are an incredibly important part of maintaining vital functions in your body. Certified athletic trainers and pro athletes swear by them, but for those of us who aren’t professional-exercise-people, the purpose of electrolytes may not be so clear.
Let’s explore the what, why and how of electrolytes—and why it’s important equestrians to take them seriously.
What are electrolytes?
The term “electrolytes” is used to describe essential minerals that our body uses in its day-to-day operation. These minerals (like sodium, calcium, potassium, and chloride) are crucial in functions like regulating muscle contractions, maintaining hydration, and balancing pH levels. These might not sound like the most important jobs of your body, but they’re absolutely vital if you’re interested in, y’know, not dying.
Electrolytes are lost from our body in a number of ways. During a typical day, we can lose them in both sweat and urine. On a bad day, they can also be lost through vomit and diarrhea. Lose too many electrolytes and you’ll begin to suffer from physiological signs and symptoms, which is our body’s way of telling us that something is really not right.
The good news: electrolytes can be replaced through ingesting food or fluids with added salt.
Why do athletes consume electrolytes?
Electrolytes are lost through sweating as our body naturally tries to cool down while we’re working hard. Athletes doing an intense workout will often consume some form of electrolytes to replace those lost and prevent a drop in performance. Maintaining proper electrolyte levels can help you stay hydrated, prevent the onset of fatigue, and also delay muscle cramping.
Other than sweating during exercise, you can also dilute the level of electrolytes in your body by drinking a ton of water, without a corresponding uptake in electrolytes (referred to as overhydration). Some athletes will rotate between water and sports drinks, to keep their fluid intake up and prevent overhydration.
So why should riders care?
While you may not be running a marathon or biking your way up a steep mountain, equestrians are athletes (as we like to remind family and friends). You’re putting in a lot of work up there, especially if you’re riding a string of horses in the hot summer sun.
In addition, all the activities that happen along with riding also have the potential to gen up a ton of sweat. Mucking out, grooming, and wandering acres of fields for lost shoes can get your heart a pumpin’, and electrolyte loss with sweat is increased even more when you work hard in high, humid temperatures. (I’m looking at you, Florida).
Dehydration and electrolyte loss can cause some pretty unpleasant symptoms—fatigue, headache, nausea, as well as changes in blood pressure and muscle cramping among them. If you’ve ever worked out really hard and felt like crap afterward, it was likely at least partially due to low electrolyte levels in your body. You can also see these same effects after an epic night out on the town; alcohol is a diuretic, and we lose electrolytes naturally through our urine.
As a guideline, if you’re exercising more than an hour and a half, you should consider taking electrolytes, although the exact amount you’ve lost will be dependent on how much you’re actually sweating. If your dried sweat is crusty or looks like white chalk, this is evidence of electrolyte loss.
What are the best ways to consume electrolytes?
So glad you asked!
Diet—Electrolytes is essentially a fancy word for “salts,” and there are natural sources of these minerals that you can incorporate into your meals, if you know that you’re going to be working up a sweat. Simply put, a high salt meal with corresponding appropriate fluid intake can restore your electrolyte levels after a day of sweating.
But don’t run for those tasty horse show French fries just yet. A diet consistently high in salt can come with other health risks, so if you choose this method, make sure you’re incorporating the salt sparingly as part of an otherwise healthy diet.
Sports drinks or fortified water—Beware the sports drink. Most people are not working out hard enough to warrant chugging a sugar-laden sports drink every time they work out.
Sugar is necessary in these drinks to give your body the carbohydrates it needs for energy and for hydration during extended workouts. But some popular sports drinks have almost 80 grams of sugar, an excessive amount that is much more than most riders need during a typical workout.
Still, if you’re riding multiple horses in the hot sun, you might want to consider keeping a couple bottle in the tackroom fridge. Fortified water (prepackaged water with electrolytes like Propel) is another option.
If you choose the sports drink route, consider slightly diluting it with water to decrease the sugar content and increase your fluid intake. And shop the labels. You want to consume a sports drink with a little bit of sugar and a lot of sodium, preferably by taking frequent, small sips.
Electrolyte powders and gummies—A favorite of long-distance runners and cyclists, there are a variety of flavored electrolyte powders or powder tabs on the market that can be added to your water bottle and shaken up to give your water flavor, electrolytes and a small amount of carbohydrates. This is a great option for those who want to control the amount of electrolytes and flavor, but consuming electrolytes in this way does take slightly more effort than premade drinks.
Electrolyte gummies or jelly beans contain a small amount of electrolytes and calories for a quick boost of energy and are great for long hot horse show days. You can even make your own electrolyte gummies at home with just a few simple ingredients like electrolyte powder, sugar, and gelatin.
Coconut water—Bias warning: I do not like plain coconut water. Coconut water is one of those things that you’d think would be a refreshing choice, reminiscent of lazy days spent in the sun on the beach. But it’s more like drinking dirty tide pool water. If you try it, I suggest a flavored version, like mango or pineapple. Beware though, just like sports drinks, some brands add a lot of sugar to make the coconut water more palpable.
If you’re wondering if coconut water is better than sports drinks, the answer is it: depends. Coconut water may contain less artificial sugar, but the jury is still out on its performance enhancing potential. One study found no difference in performance between athletes who consume coconut water versus those that consume sports drinks, but those who choose the coconut water often had greater stomach upset.
Which makes sense. Because based on personal experience and zero peer-reviewed research, it is truly disgusting.
Popsicles—PediaLyte, savior of hungover people everywhere, is actually an electrolyte replacement product made for children who are at risk for losing electrolytes through diarrhea or vomiting (or for adults who went a little crazy with Margarita Tuesday). While you can get PediaLyte in drink form, you can also get PediaLyte popsicles, which are perfect for storing in the tackroom fridge during the hot summer months. They’re also a great option if you’re feeling nauseous from overheating, as the frozen popsicle form will prevent you from chugging liquid and making yourself feel ten times worse.
So when you’re considering whether you need electrolytes, remember this: sweat = electrolytes. If you’re sweating for more than an hour, you’re losing electrolytes from your body and you’ll need to think about replacing them, in whatever way seems most appealing to you (ie, probably not Coconut water.)