The best electrolyte replacements - powders, drinks, tablets, mixes, supplements.
What electrolytes are, how to replace electrolytes and why we lose them.
Nope... it ain't just salt. Electrolytes are, by definition, substances that break down to electrically conductive particles (called "ions") when dissolved in a polar solvent. To cut through the scientific jargon, let's focus on what that means for your body. In other words, when electrolyte minerals are mixed with water (the "polar solvent"), they become electrically charged.
Consuming adequate levels of this electrolyte solution is essential for the human body to function. Maintaining a proper balance of these nutrients during intense physical activity is even more important.
There are a lot of electrolytes - mainly salts, acids and bases. However, there are only a handful that naturally occur in body fluid. These are:
Calcium (Ca): Critical to maintaining general bone health, an important consideration with the constant stress backpacking, cycling, running, etc places on your bones. Calcium also ensures your blood properly clots - very important when cut.
FDA Recommended DV: 1,000 mg
Food Sources: Milk, cheese, yogurt, seafood, greens, soy.
Potassium (K): This mineral is essential for a lot of organs to function properly, including regulating your heartbeat and kidneys. It also helps with maintain fluid levels, ph balance, and prevent muscle cramps.
FDA Recommended DV: 4,500 mg
Food Sources: Bananas, dates, sweet potatoes, squash, coconut.
Sodium (Na): Sodium is vital in regulating body fluid volumes. Specifically, regulating water levels, blood pressure and blood volume. The major positively charged ion - called "cation".
FDA Recommended DV: 2,400 mg/day
Food Sources: Most anything with salt (sodium chloride). Naturally occurs in beets, chicken, milk, celery.
Chloride (Cl): Works hand in hand with Sodium in regulating your body fluid as well as cell balance. The major negative charged ion - called "anion".
FDA Recommended DV: 3,400 mg/day
Food Sources: Most anything with salt (sodium chloride). Naturally occurs in tomatoes, lettuce, seaweed, cauliflower, radishes.
Magnesium (Mg): Acts a vehicle in transporting other electrolytes like potassium and calcium through cell membranes. Makes it crucial for the nervous and muscular systems as well as well heart rhythm.
FDA Recommended DV: 400 mg/day.
Natural Food Sources: Fish, nuts, seeds, dark greens, dark chocolate, bananas.
Other important electrolytes are Bicarbonate (HCO3) and Phospate (HPO4). See all FDA recommended daily values.
We lose electrolytes when we lose bodily fluids - dehydration, diarrhea, vomiting, etc. During exercise and intense physical activity, we lose large amounts of electrolytes through sweating.
ALL of our common electrolytes are depleted when we sweat. Sweat is mostly water which makes hydration essential. However, sweat also contains large amounts of sodium and chloride as well as small amounts of potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate and bicarbonate.
Go for a long run on a hot day or hike up a big mountain and you can sweat out a huge amount of these electrolytes. Losing too many electrolytes will lead to an imbalance. An improper balance can cause headaches, muscle cramps, fatigue, dehydration and even seizures. Going for an extended period of time with an imbalance can lead to some seriously nasty problems like this long list of deadly diseases.
The rate at which an individual loses electrolytes varies drastically. Activity, intensity, humidity, elevation, gender, weight, etc all play a role in depletion rates which makes estimations so difficult and relatively, inaccurate. We also sweat with varying concentration levels of electrolytes. That being said, for sodium, a general rule of thumb to is to replace 80-240 mg per hour. See another depletion study.
For endurance activities like long-distance backpacking, running and cycling, most athletes consume electrolytes before, during AND after activity. Note you may not need to proactively replace electrolytes if you are doing moderate physical or are active for less than an hour. After all, over consuming too many can create problems as well - like Hypernatremia.
There are a ton of electrolytes replacements on the market - from sports drinks, powder mixes, dissolvable tablets, performance chews, jelly beans, and supplements.
Try to keep it natural. A LOT of replacements for sale are chemically fortified, contain heavily refined sugars, artificial sweeteners (like harmful aspartame) and artificial coloring. You can always make your own with ingredients from the grocery store. Coconut water is often called "nature's Gatorade" and contains an array of essential electrolyte minerals like potassium, sodium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium.
If you're up for experimenting, an easy DIY electrolyte drink recipe is:
● 1 part lemon juice
● 2 parts orange juice
● 2 parts coconut water
● 6 parts water
● pinch of salt
● spoon of honey
Drop a tablet in your bottle and watch it fizz away. 10 Nuun tablets come in each convenient pop-top bottle. Only 1 g of sugar per tablet. They champion simple ingredients and include fruit powders and leaf extracts. There are several variations ranging from 10-60 calories, optional caffeine, flavors, and electrolyte combinations.
Dubbed the "all natural sports drink" - Skratch Labs is a tasty option to mix or shake into a sports drink. Each serving contains 80 calories and 20 grams of sugar. Depending on your needs, these high levels could be a deal breaker or music to your ears. Naturally flavored by real fruit.
This concentration is not designed to be a sweet and tasty sports drink and adds a slightly tart flavor when added to water. However, this stuff packs a punch. It does not have any artificial sweeteners or flavoring - just water and electrolytes. Unlike most replacements, Lyteshow prioritizes Magnesium over Sodium.
Another great all-natural energy mix in easy packets. The best thing about Ultima Replenisher is the long list of electrolytes, vitamins and minerals that are provided. They prioritized Magnesium over Sodium even more than LyteShow. Therefore, note this is a low Sodium mix. Also there are 0 calories and 0 g of sugar.
See Ultima Replenisher.
Not as fun or tasty to consume as other replacements on the list. Depending on your activity, the pill form could be the easiest option. These tablets provide dense levels of four main electrolytes - Sodium, Potassium, Magnesium, and Calcium. Don't count on much else though.
See Salt Stick.
Gu mainly focuses on gels, but also offers some seriously tasty energy drink mixes for endurance athletes. Most servings provide around 70 calories and 9 grams of sugar. Others (like Roctane) get up to a whopping 250 calories and 16 grams of sugar. Also available with caffeine and in packets.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.
650-calorie fuel in a ready-to-eat package.