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Do I need electrolytes when exercising? ​

Lady holding water bottle
Do you automatically reach for electrolytes when exercising? Find out whether they’re right for you and your exercise regime, or if you could better replenish your body simply with your diet

Summary

1What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are salts and minerals that are essential for your body’s core processes, such as...

2Electrolyte benefits ​for exercise

Carbohydrate electrolyte beverages should be considered during prolonged exercise lasting longer than 90 minutes...

3When would the best time to use electrolytes be?

Vigorous exercise and warmer weather cause the body to sweat more...

Do you get tired quickly when exercising? Electrolytes might be what you need to help reduce fatigue, especially if you enjoy competing and training at the gym throughout the week. However, if you’re more of a casual gym goer or attend the occasional aerobics class, then are they right for you?

There’s lots to learn, including what electrolytes are, their benefits, the best time to supplement with them and how to know if you’re dehydrated. In fact, being dehydrated by as little as 2% of your body weight can have an impact on your exercise performance.1,2

We’ve also covered how hydration can impact your workouts and if there’s such thing as being too hydrated?

So, on your marks, get set and let’s go…

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are salts and minerals that are essential for your body’s core processes, such as balancing the amount of water in your body.3 Significant electrolytes include:4
  • sodium
  • potassium
  • chloride
  • magnesium
  • calcium
  • phosphate
  • bicarbonates
Electrolytes come from our food and fluids4, but you can also use supplements. You can discover all the science in our handy ‘What are electrolytes?’' guide.

Electrolyte benefits ​for exercise

Carbohydrate electrolyte beverages should be considered during prolonged exercise lasting longer than 90 minutes, to sustain carbohydrate oxidation and endurance performance.5

Most of the time, electrolytes can be replaced and replenished by the food you eat and what you drink. Occasionally, depending on how much you may sweat during a workout and the intensity of it, then electrolytes can help to restore the balance of lost minerals.5
Lady drinking electrolytes in the park after a workout

When would the best time to use electrolytes be? ​

Vigorous exercise and warmer weather cause the body to sweat more. Sweat contains both water and electrolytes – in this case, sodium. These need to be replaced to re-establish "normal" total body water.6

If you’ve just completed a regular gym session, or a lunchtime run, then this replacement can be resolved by eating and drinking normally, especially if there’s no urgency for recovery.6 Though if you’re competing in a sporting competition or marathon, then consuming electrolytes is often encouraged.6

Can dehydration affect your workouts?

Dehydration can affect your workouts, yes.

Exercise performance can be compromised by a body water deficit, particularly when exercise is performed in hot environments. It’s recommended that individuals begin exercise when adequately hydrated.5

If dehydration reaches more than 5% of your body weight, it can decrease your workout performance by around 30%.1,2

Consuming a drink that contains electrolytes – for example magnesium, which contributes to a reduction of tiredness and fatigue and electrolyte balance – may help support rehydration, whilst overall replenishing your body, enhancing your performance and it may help with recovery.

How to tell if you’re dehydrated ​

Symptoms of dehydration in adults include:7
  • feeling thirsty
  • dark yellow, strong-smelling pee
  • peeing less often than usual
  • feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • feeling tired
  • a dry mouth, lips and tongue
  • sunken eyes

How to tell if you’re too hydrated​

Yes, there is such a thing as drinking too much water! If you suspect you may be overhydrated, look for symptoms such as:8
  • cloudy thinking
  • nausea and vomiting
  • muscle weakness
  • spasms or cramps
  • headaches
How to prevent overhydrating:8
  • use your thirst cues and urine colour as a guide
  • avoid drinking more than one litre of fluid per hour (this will allow your kidneys to get rid of excess water)
Although it’s not common to overhydrate it can happen in rare instances. You should try not to drink too much water in one go or in a short time frame, as this is called water intoxication.9
Lady taking a breather during workout

Can being too hydrated impact your workout?​

In a word, yes it can.

Your hydration levels can have extreme effects on both your physical and mental performance, and so your sports performance might be significantly affected too. Both overhydration and underhydration – if sufficiently severe – will impair performance and pose a risk to health.10

The final say

Electrolytes are better suited for intense, duration sports, like marathon running, HYROX competitions, or robust training routines.

If you enjoy a few sessions a week at the gym mixed in with a bit of cardio, it’s best to try and get what you need from your diet rather than supplementing with electrolytes.

Disclaimer

This article is for advice only and does not constitute as medical advice. While we strive for accuracy and balance, please be aware that this article may discuss products available for purchase through Holland & Barrett. Consult a healthcare professional before making any health-related decisions.
 

Sources

  1. Human Kinetics. Dehydration and its effects on performance [Internet]. Human Kinetics. 2018. Available from: https://us.humankinetics.com/blogs/excerpt/dehydration-and-its-effects-on-performance
  2. Craig EN, Cummings EG. Dehydration and muscular work. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1966 Mar;21(2):670–4. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/5934478/
  3. MedlinePlus. Fluid and Electrolyte Balance [Internet]. Medlineplus.gov. National Library of Medicine; 2023. Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/fluidandelectrolytebalance.html
  4. Shrimanker I, Bhattarai S. Electrolytes [Internet]. Nih.gov. StatPearls Publishing; 2023. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541123/
  5. Latzka WA, Montain SJ. WATER AND ELECTROLYTE REQUIREMENTS FOR EXERCISE. Clinics in Sports Medicine. 1999 Jul;18(3):513–24. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10410838/
  6. Shirreffs SM, Sawka MN. Fluid and electrolyte needs for training, competition, and recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences [Internet]. 2011 Jan;29(sup1):S39–46. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22150427/
  7. NHS. Dehydration [Internet]. NHS. 2022. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dehydration/
  8. Are you over-hydrated? - Gundersen Health System [Internet]. www.gundersenhealth.org. 2024. Available from: https://www.gundersenhealth.org/health-wellness/eat-move/are-you-over-hydrated#:~:text=For%20most%20people%2C%20dehydration%20is
  9. Peechakara BV, Gupta M. Water Toxicity [Internet]. Nih.gov. StatPearls Publishing; 2019. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537231/
  10. Maughan RJ, Meyer NL. Hydration during Intense Exercise Training. Limits of Human Endurance. 2013;76:25–37. Available from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23899752/#:~:text=Hydration%20status%20has%20profound%20effects,pose%20a%20risk%20to%20health.
 

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