One Athletic Trainer’s View on Electrolytes

NATM_2013_2blueWe see advertisements for sports drinks all over the media. Everywhere we go there is Gatorade and/or Powerade. All sorts of studies have been done showing us the benefits of electrolytes, unfortunately, most of them by Gatorade or researchers sponsored by them. But, independent research has shown them to be important as well. But, are supplements of them really needed?

As an athletic trainer and an athlete, I, like most people have formed my own opinions of them, and share them with my athletes, friends, and family. I’m a firm believer that for most people and most athletes that we can get most of what we need through proper diet, and that includes electrolytes. Now, it may take careful consideration about what we eat at times to make sure we are getting everything that we need, but it can be done, and done relatively easy. There are many websites out there that can help you find the foods you need to make sure that you get not just your electrolytes, but all essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

Unfortunately I know with our modern lifestyle our diets sometimes are sacrificed for time and convenience. And, with endurance events, tournaments, double practices, etc, it can be almost impossible to get what we need from natural food sources and so we have to look elsewhere. When it comes to electrolytes and hydration, most people I know turn to either Gatorade or Powerade, both of which I recommend to my athletes and friends to stay away from.

Both Gatorade and Powerade have tons of sugar, and only two electrolytes: sodium and potassium. Most people don’t need all of the sugar (as much as there is in soda) and get plenty of sodium which is found in all processed foods. Potassium they may not get enough, but sodium for most people is not much of an issue except in very prolonged activity. Powerade does at least have a version, Ion, that has the other necessary electrolytes: calcium, magnesium, and chloride, but it still has a lot of sugar.

As an athlete (ultramarthon, Ironman triathlon, etc) I use and recommend several different products, but only on very long, 5+ hours, training runs and rides, and races. All of which have all of the electrolytes needed for proper muscle functioning. Thermolytes, endurolytes, and, recently, saltstick, all of which are capsules, and easy to carry and take with just water while on the run, bike, etc. When I want something with a little flavor I switch to Nuun, or to add a little sugar I’ll go with HEED. I pretty much always carry a bottle of electrolyte capsules and a container of Nuun in all of my gear bags. The downside is that you can only find them in running, or cycling stores or online. Not something you can get at local grocery store.

With my athletes I use only Elete. It is virtually tasteless and very simple to add into a big water cooler. No mess, no clean up, no sugar, doesn’t spoil, and it is loaded with electrolytes. I only use it with practices and games on very hot days, where the athletes are going to be out in the heat for extended time at high intensity. They will also have plain ice water available, and are monitored to make sure that they drink it as well. Any other time it is just water for them. The water coolers it is used in require no additional cleanup afterwards, other than what is normally done when they are filled with plain water. It is about as simple a product as you can find to use, and is all natural.

Even though I use, and let my athletes use electrolytes, I make sure that it isn’t overdone. Just like anything else, too much of it isn’t good for you. I educate my coaches and athletes both on getting the electrolytes through natural sources. We only use them, when there may be a need to supplement, and make sure at those times that they get plenty of plain water as well. Electrolytes are important, but use supplements only when needed.

*** On a side note, our country’s youth athletes need your help. Please help ensure that they have the proper emergency medical help that they need to stay safe**(petition failed)

March is National Athletic Training Month: Every Body Needs An Athletic Trainer


About Douglas Sawyer, MS, ATC

I am an athletic trainer who is also a very avid athlete. My first love is running, but I also love cycling and triathlons and many other activities. I'm not a swimmer though, I just don't drown for 2.4 miles... As a athletic trainer I work with sports injuries. I currently work at a school with athletes in 7th-12th grade in a wide variety of sports. I can be found on twitter at two different names: @IronmanLongRunr - where I tweet about run, bike, tri, & more @Longrunr - where I tweet about athletic training
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2 Responses to One Athletic Trainer’s View on Electrolytes

  1. Corine says:

    I find that on days when I work out for 1.5 hours or more, I sometimes NEED electrolytes to prevent cramping. However, I DON’T get them from Gatorade or other sports drinks; I get them in capsule or powder form and add them to water. If running long distance I may get them through gel or other supplement. The reasons I don’t use the pre-made sports drinks are that they are high in sugar and VERY ACIDIC – which promotes both nutrient loss and inflammatory conditions – not fun on a long run to have an inflamed knee or other body part! I have also found that I need more electrolytes if I am NOT using REAL SALT on my food (you know, the unrefined salt with all different colors because it actually still has the minerals in it – I use Himalayan pink salt lately). Good post. 🙂
    Corine 😀

  2. Corine Moore says:

    Hey, thanks for the link! 😀 I’m excited to learn something new! I can’t stand taking capsules while exercising! And though the pwd in the drinks don’t bother me, they can be expensive and I’m always open to learning more! Ad for the pink salt – do try it! I’m AMAZED at how badly I had cramps when I ran out of it for a few months (about a year ago). As soon as I started adding it to my diet again the cramping diminished and eventually completely subsided (of course, I wouldn’t use regular table salt 😮 – so my body was REALLY depleted! 😮 – Good learning experience! I’m anxious to read from your link and learn some more (the easy way ;). Have a great day! Corine 😀

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