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Why Cyclists Need Salt | Hydration for Athletes

with KAYSEE ARMSTRONG

After noticing tons of white, salty deposits all over my cycling kit after riding a couple of hours in the summer, I decided to do some research on hydration. I started buying the hottest brand name sports drinks on the market. For the past 4-5 years, I’ve experimented with all different types of sports drinks, but never actually read the label on the back.

Then last year, I got a fancy sweat test done. Turns out, I’m an extra-salty sweater and I sweat a lot. That means I need to constantly take in fluids that have electrolytes to prevent dehydration.

Kaysee's salty sweat

But wait, what are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are all the rage these days. Energy boosts, hangover cures, and speedy hydration have blasted all sorts of new electrolyte-focused products onto the mainstream market. 

“Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge. They play a vital role in the human body, affecting everything from heartbeat to muscle contraction. Electrolyte levels that are too high or too low can cause health problems,” according to Angela Ryan Lee, MD. Electrolytes are essentially: potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and (a big one for athletes) sodium. 

Electrolytes help your body do practically everything. When you are an athlete, you’re relying heavily on the bodily processes that electrolytes help perform while simultaneously losing electrolytes through your sweat. One result could be hyponatremia, which is a deficiency of sodium in the blood that can cause excessive fatigue. It can be caused by dehydration (not drinking enough water) or by drinking too much water without electrolytes. That can equal issues in athletic performance and illness, which is one reason why endurance athletes are so obsessed with electrolytes. 

All that begs some questions: Are electrolyte products one size fits all? How much electrolyte intake do we really need? When is the best time to be taking or reducing electrolyte consumption? 

Pour up a tall glass of Pedialyte, and we’ll dive in. 

Kaysee filling water bottles

What are the best electrolyte drinks?

Simple answer: there is no “best electrolyte drink”. Electrolyte products all have different levels of sodium in them, which is good since we are all different and we all sweat differently. Someone who barely sweats and doesn’t sweat out that much salt isn’t going to need as much sodium as I do. I highly recommend all athletes get a sweat test. A sweat test can help you personalize your hydration plan. Otherwise, you’ll just be guessing. 

Another factor to think about is whether you need or want carbohydrates mixed with the electrolytes. Many brands like Skratch, Tailwind, Liquid IV, or Maurten also have calories and carbohydrates to help fuel a workout. Other brands like Nuun or LMNT have little to no calories or carbohydrates. 

Kaysee eating a well-balanced breakfast

What’s the recommended electrolyte intake?

On nutrition facts labels for electrolyte products, you will see columns for the three main electrolytes Sodium, Potassium, and Chloride and the other essential electrolytes: magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonates. Before we start adding electrolytes to our drinks, it is important to remember our everyday diets provide these electrolytes as well. Which means most people who are exercising an hour at a time can get all their electrolytes by drinking plain water and eating a healthy, balanced diet. 

For those that partake in high-intensity exercise over an hour or an ultra-endurance sport, they should start by knowing that the sodium is the main electrolyte affecting proper hydration while exercising. When I got my sweat test done, they told me to intake 10,000mg of sodium per hour of exercise (this recommendation was specific to my needs and is not recommended for others). Before this information, I was focusing on potassium. I’m sure there is a weird correlation between bananas, sport, and endurance athletes in my brain process. Which simply showed me that I had no idea what I was looking for when replacing my electrolytes. 

There are no set guidelines for how much sodium an athlete should have. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends no more than 2.3 grams of sodium per day, but some studies show most people should be getting more than twice that amount. If you’re losing lots of salt in your sweat, then it only makes sense you should be getting more. Getting a sweat test and/or metabolic panel and blood tests can help you determine exactly what electrolyte supplement amounts you need. Not into that? Another good way to tell if you need more salt is by tuning in to how you feel. If you’re craving salty snacks after a workout or you have headaches after a long ride, chances are you need more sodium.

Kaysee riding in the desert

When is the best time for electrolyte consumption?

To combat my excess of salty sweat when I ride, I’ve developed a system of preloading and recovering with electrolytes. Ultimately, sodium helps retain fluid so “pre-gaming” with electrolytes can cause a bit of bloating and discomfort before a hard ride or race. However, if I’m doing a twelve-hour race in the middle of summer, I know that a little discomfort before the event will lead to a huge advantage on how I feel during the event and my performance. Along with that, I make sure my water and recovery drinks have electrolytes mixed in. It’s particularly important to remember to hydrate with electrolytes when traveling to an event at altitude, racing or training in extreme heat, during winter training indoors, or any time you’re craving salty food. 

All of that to say, everyone is different. But for the most part, if you’re an athlete and you sweat, healthy hydration equals water plus electrolytes. Eating a well-balanced diet will help your electrolyte intake in addition to . Every day and every season are different so being mindful to how that is affecting the electrolytes you need will help plan properly.

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