Electrolytes vs. Water

Everyone knows the importance of proper hydration when involved in a strenuous physical activity, especially when the temperature rises. What many people do not understand is how to properly hydrate. More specifically, many people don’t know when a supplemental beverage (i.e. sports drink) may be needed or when simple water is best. Despite a good deal of debate on both sides, there appears to be room for both – but both are not necessarily appropriate for everyone or every situation.

Water has not always been the go-to source for battling thirst. Before water purification was possible, ale was often the first choice due to the fear of illness. Over the years, drinking water has become the favored solution, but there have always been attempts to find something better. Enter the sports drink.

Gatorade, the first “sports drink,” was invented in the 1960s by a University of Florida research team as a means of providing athletes with more than just water. These types of beverages usually include electrolytes as well as various minerals and nutrients, which are an important part of the overall performance during heavy physical activities. Initially, they were used almost exclusively by high-level athletes, but in recent years have been marketed more and more to the everyday sports enthusiasts, outdoorsmen, and people who spend time enjoying the summer heat.

The question then becomes, “Which is actually a better source of hydration – electrolytes or water?”

What Are Electrolytes?

First, you need to understand what electrolytes are and their importance. In a nutshell, electrolytes are minerals, normally found in the body, that produce an electrical charge. This would include sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, chloride, and phosphorus. Your body uses these minerals to stimulate cells, improve muscle function, and regulate water use. Too few electrolytes, and you can potentially suffer from fatigue, muscle cramps, and electrolyte-induced dehydration – a condition resulting from an inability to absorb available water.

Second, you need to understand when your body needs additional help in maintaining the proper balance of electrolytes. For the majority of people, the best answer is to let nature take its course. Many of the foods we consume on a regular basis provide an ample supply of these minerals. Bananas, green vegetables, whole grains, and meats are excellent sources of various electrolytes, so someone who enjoys a balanced diet should have no problem during general day-to-day activities. However, research has shown that individuals involved in strenuous, long-term physical activity may need to reintroduce electrolytes during or immediately following such activity to help the body maintain the proper levels.

But what is strenuous activity? Generally speaking, researchers agree that this describes a heavy or prolonged activity that exceeds one hour, although this varies depending on your personal physical condition, and can be compounded by environmental factors – such as high temperatures. This was the focus of the researchers who invented Gatorade – athletes working out for long periods of time in the hot Florida sun. There is little doubt that if you are involved in such activity, especially in the summer heat, the electrolytes provided by a supplement can be beneficial.

Sugar and Salt

One of the downsides of sports drinks, which is the most common form of electrolyte replacement, is the high sugar content. Sugar is added to increase the carbohydrate count, vital to continued energy levels during strenuous physical activity. However, if you are not burning excessive amounts of calories, you may actually take in more than needed from a single 16-ounce drink. Consuming sports drinks when not under physical exertion will not only provide unneeded electrolytes but can add a great deal of unwanted sugar to your diet. Plus, many such drinks are also very high in sodium. Again, this is a good thing when sweating profusely, but not so good when sitting in the stands watching others play.

So how does this affect the average person who may be spending the day at the beach or doing yard work? In most cases, you do not need to add electrolytes to your diet or consume anything other than water. Drinking water beforehand and continued consumption throughout the day will be more than enough to sustain a healthy body. How do you know when to drink more water? When you’re thirsty! Don’t ignore it. Better yet, don’t wait for it to kick in. Taking small sips of water throughout your activity will help keep you hydrated.

How Much Do You Need?

If you are going to supplement your electrolyte intake, it is best done in moderation. An old-time Army medic once told me to dump half the sports drink, dilute the other half with water, and march on. While I am not sure if his advice was learned or self-taught, research does tend to agree. A single 16-ounce sports drink, consumed over the course of a workout, will generally provide more than enough electrolytes to avoid cramping, fatigue, or many of the other signs of electrolyte depreciation.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell

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