Electrolyte beverages are everywhere we look these days. From the sodium-rich LMNT to the TikTok-famous “hangover remedy” Liquid IV, we’ve been bombarded with options that are a step above the sugary sports drinks of our youth. Everyone seems to be drinking them, including endurance athletes, people just wanting to kick a soda habit, and myself. But are they all marketing hype or do they really offer benefits?
According to the National Institute of Health, electrolytes, including sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, and calcium, are essential for basic life functioning. When the levels in your body are out of whack, it can disrupt your day-to-day and, in some cases, cause symptoms like headaches, nausea, and fatigue. Luckily, we generally get all of what we need through a balanced diet, but electrolyte-packed beverages aim to deliver a kick of those vital minerals—especially sodium—in one easy-to-drink package.
Most electrolyte drinks are designed for pre- and post- workouts to replenish your body after sweat loss, which can cause dehydration. “When you start pulling fluid out of your cells, you’re losing both fluid and sodium when you sweat,” says board-certified sports dietitian Kala Reister, MS. If you’re only rehydrated with water, this can result in an electrolyte imbalance, which is why Reister regularly recommends these supplements to her athletes: “The rule of thumb that I follow is if [a workout] is hot, hard, or high-intensity. Or if it’s longer than two hours,” she explains. The importance of intensity level is also confirmed by a 2019 study which collected data from athletes during both low and moderate intensity cycling. Researchers found that the total sweat losses of sodium increased by 150 percent as exercise intensity increased.
It doesn’t all come down to how hard your workout is, though. As Reister mentioned, other factors, like your environment, can dictate your need for electrolytes. A 2011 study found that daily water and sodium losses in “active athletes during hot weather exposure can induce water and electrolyte deficits.” Both need to be replaced to return to baseline. The study points out that if there’s no urgency for recovery, you can replace water and electrolytes through your normal eating and drinking. But if you want to recover in less than 24 hours, consuming electrolytes is “encouraged to facilitate recovery.” And while we all know from experience that hot temperatures make you sweat more, Lucy Mower, MS, outpatient clinical registered dietician at University of Utah Health, mentions that even in cold weather or high-altitude environments, you should still be prioritizing hydration because you’re losing fluid through respiration.
So yes, electrolytes can be helpful for many situations, but not all electrolytes are created equal. And while each athlete and person has different needs based on their own physiology, some guidelines exist. “The endurance recommendation that I’ve seen by ACSF is 300 to 600 milligrams [of sodium] per hour,” explains Reister.