Making friends with electrolytes

“Electrolytes” is a rather scientific word most cyclists will have heard but maybe not thought about or understood in any depth. Understood or not electrolytes are critical to any cyclist’s ride; upsetting the electrolyte levels in your body will taint or even spoil your ride. In this post we’ll line up a few essential facts about electrolytes so that you can make sure that they work for you on your next ride. We promise to stay focussed on the practical needs of cyclists with just a minimum of the scientific mumbo jumbo.

So let's get the mumbo jumbo over with. Electrolytes are specific minerals that are critical because they are used by the cells in your body to conduct electrical charges, including the process of contracting muscles, as well as balance hydration and chemical levels in cells. The most important electrolytes used by the human body are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphate, and bicarbonate. By focusing on the short term needs of cyclists we can cut this list down to just two: sodium and potassium. Calcium, magnesium and phosphate are often inadequate in modern diets so do need consideration, especially if you eat processed foods, but the effects of a deficiency are longer term. Bicarbonate can be made by your body if necessary so is also not a short term concern for cyclists, we will have fun discussing the effects of bicarbonate on sports performance in a later post. Chloride comes along with the sodium in salt so is rarely a problem.

Salt is supposed to be unhealthy and needing restriction for optimal health, isn’t it? Maybe there is some nuance to the story that is missing. Salt is a major dietary source of sodium and chloride, two of the essential electrolytes. Sodium deficiency needs taking seriously, it has consequences ranging from warning signs such as headaches, fatigue, cramping and muscle spasms through to coma in extreme cases. Sodium deficiency is possible in athletes, especially scenarios where untrained athletes exercise intensively and then drink excessive amounts of plain water. Untrained athletes tend to lose more sodium in their sweat than more trained athletes while drinking plain water may overwhelm the kidney’s processing capacity and build up in the body. The combined effect of these factors can be sodium deficiency. In a healthy person excess sodium is removed by the kidneys so overdosing is not likely in the context of a reasonable diet. We can therefore take some extra salt around our ride to protect us from a deficiency without worrying about side effects. Luckily, as with water, our bodies are also pretty good at guiding our salt intake, if it tastes good eat more, once things taste salty you’ve had enough.

Potassium acts to balance sodium in the human body; together with sodium it regulates fluid levels in cells. Too little potassium and too much sodium in a diet can lead to high blood pressure, swelling and in the longer term other conditions such as mineral loss in bones and kidney stones. Too much potassium and too little sodium can lead to low blood glucose and low blood pressure and therefore feelings of weakness, hunger and anxiety. Potassium is found in whole foods, like fruit and vegetables, and missing from most processed foods so intake is also often low in modern diets. This is more of a problem for us cyclists, especially if we are going to be more liberal with salt.

A cyclist looking to feel their best out on a ride will therefore need to pay attention to the balance of potassium and sodium that they take on before their ride and bring with them. The optimal ratio will obviously depend on your individual situation, how much you are sweating, how hard you are riding and what weather conditions you are riding in. Some electrolyte products will provide a ratio as high as 5:1 sodium to potassium while a target ratio for the diet of a less active person is advised to be 1:1.

Electrolytes is one of the areas that Kalkman have prioritised when developing the recipes for our products. We have deliberately chosen ingredients with high potassium levels, such as dates and other dried fruit. Then we have added enough salt to achieve a ratio of around 2:1 sodium to potassium, enough to help an athlete who will probably be losing extra sodium. The natural ingredients we have chosen are also worthwhile sources of the other essential electrolytes so choosing our products instead of processed alternatives will also help you reach healthy intake levels for these.