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Are electrolytes overrated?

Recent research suggests that if you aren't training for more than four hours, you probably don't need to worry about electrolytes

You need to drink those electrolyte-packed drinks during your long workouts, right? Recent research has suggested otherwise–and that electrolytes don’t play the role within exercise that many triathletes and runners think they do. Renowned professor of exercise metabolism, Asker Jeukendrup, recently shared some information on My Sport Science summing up the role electrolytes play during exercise, and his findings are enough to have you rethink what you’re using for hydration.

What are electrolytes and why do we need them?

Electrolytes are minerals that dissolve in water into their individual, positively or negatively charged ions: Sodium: Na+ and Potassium: K+ Chloride: Cl- Magnesium: Mg2+, along with a multitude of others. Sodium and chloride at the two that athletes lose most in sweat–but these losses are “regulated in response to sodium consumed in the diet and recent sweat and urine losses,” shares Jeukendrup.

We get most of our electrolytes from our diet, and the vast majority of runners (or athletes of any kind) aren’t exercising longer than four hours–the point at which electrolyte replacement may be beneficial. Most electrolyte replacement drinks are targeted at the regular runner, however, giving confusing signals as to the importance of replenishing electrolytes during every workout.

Related: How to prevent leg cramps while training or racing

Does the loss of sodium through sweat really cause problems like cramping?

Those muscle cramps you may have experienced during a hard workout have traditionally be chalked up to sodium loss through sweat, but there’s very little actual scientific research to prove that’s the case.

“Whilst sweat sodium losses during exercise vary significantly from person-to-person and day-to-day due to a range of factors, the ultimate need for replacing sodium during exercise is to balance out fluid intake and losses and maintain an appropriate osmolality [the concentration of dissolved particles], rather than preventing an actual sodium deficit,” says Jeukendrup.

Research over the last few decades suggests that humans have stores of sodium in the body that are bound to structures in the skin, muscles and other tissues. This sodium does not contribute to the body’s fluid concentration but is available to be added to or released back into the blood as required.

“The most recent scientific view of cramping during exercise is that it is most likely a complex syndrome, with multiple different factors that can lead to changes in the nerves that control muscle contraction,” explains Jeukendrup.

Related: Nail your key races and training sessions through smart nutrition

The takeaway

While there certainly needs to be more research done in this area, Jeukeundrup suggests that the message around electrolytes “as it is portrayed in the media and by many companies is more hype than it is backed by scientific evidence.”

“Taking sodium during exercise can reduce the fall in blood osmolality and reduce (but not eliminate) the effect of aggressive fluid replacement on the risk of developing hyponatremia,” he adds. (Hyponatremia is a rare condition that occurs when athletes in endurance events develop an abnormally low concentration of sodium in their blood.)

“However, only when athletes exercise for more than 4 hours, and are likely to drink to replace more than 70 per cent of their sweat losses does the process of sweat sodium testing and targeted replacement appear necessary,” he explains. “Even then, only those athletes with above average sodium concentrations in their sweat (>1g/L) are likely to need to specifically focus on sodium replacement during exercise.”

For most of us, electrolyte replenishment will happen naturally through our diet.

This story originally appeared on runningmagazine.ca