Electrolytes for Cyclists 101
You´re three-quarters of the way through completing your first “century” ride and everything is going surprisingly well. You mapped out your ride and somehow haven´t gotten lost yet. You´ve kept your calorie intake sufficiently high in preparation for burning 3000+ calories during this single bike ride. You packed your energy bars, some Science in Sport gels to keep your glycogen stores (carbohydrates stored in your muscles) topped up and several bottles of water; and there you are riding along quite happily, listening to your new workout playlist, when suddenly... an electric feeling strikes your calf muscle. Cramps!
It´s the bête noire of the cycling world. You remember reading something about electrolytes being important in Cycling Weekly, but you´d never suffered with cramps before, so you kind of shrugged it off as not being all that crucial.
When you reach the point of cramping, your athletic performance has already been compromised for some time. Cramping is your body´s way of letting you know that in terms of electrolytes, it´s running on empty.
But what are electrolytes? Why are they so important? And how can you keep them topped up without wasting tons of money on fancy sports drinks?
Electrolytes are the salts and minerals that enable your body´s electrical impulses to operate properly. The concentrations of electrolytes in the body are controlled by various hormones, the majority of which are manufactured in a person´s kidney and adrenal glands. Electrolytes are basically the ions in salt. This includes sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium.
So, why are they so important?
Electrolytes allow cells to generate energy, maintain the stability of their walls, and to function in general. They control the fluid balance of the body and are important in muscle contraction and almost every major biochemical reaction in the body.
An electrolyte imbalance can lead to either weak muscles or muscles which contract too severely. Other symptoms include: dizziness, fatigue, nausea, trembling, constipation, dry skin, lack of perspiration and muscle weakness.
Now, the most important thing to remember is that when you exercise, your body´s electrolyte balance begins to shift. This is because the body loses electrolytes through sweat, particularly sodium, and to a lesser extent magnesium and potassium. If these electrolytes are not replenished, an imbalance occurs. This is particularly important for cyclists, as you are exercising at a high intensity for up to 8 hours at a time.
Sodium: Your friend and foe
Reading this, you´d be forgiven for beginning to doubt all you´ve ever been told about reducing your sodium intake.
Here is the bottom line - our bodies can regulate and recirculate sodium. But, once the body detects that we have too much sodium circulating in our system (after we indulge in one too many soy sauce drenched sushi rolls, for example) the hormone aldosterone signals the kidneys to stop filtering and recirculating sodium. Instead, the kidneys will excrete sodium resulting on the predominance of another hormone (called vasopressin) and causing fluid retention. A pinch of salt with your scrambled eggs every now and then is fine, but indulging in one too many take aways or restaurant meals, is sure to mess with your electrolytes and lead to an imbalance.
Athletes should aim to get 2,000mg of sodium per day.
So now I guess you are wondering, where can you get these electrolytes from, anyway? Don´t worry, we´ve got you covered.
Best natural remedies for replenishing electrolytes
1) Try to include lots of foods containing naturally occurring electrolytes in your diet.
Good sources of potassium:
- Dried Dates and apricots (great to take with you on a long ride)
- Green leafy vegetables: spinach, chard + kale
- Bell peppers
Good sources of natural sodium:
- Bok choy
Good sources of magnesium:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Spinach & Swiss chard
- Cacao powder
Good sources of calcium:
- Green leafy vegetables
Alternatively, try taking an Epsom salt bath. Epsom salt is the common name for Magnesium Sulphate. It is the quickest and easiest way to give you a boost of magnesium, and studies have shown that it helps regulate the electrolytes in your body. Magnesium is an essential activator of more than 300 enzyme reactions in the body, and is necessary for maintaining proper calcium levels. Epsom salt baths are also great for relieving pain and muscle cramps. Trust us, there´s nothing better than soaking in an Epsom salt bath after a long ride.
2) The homemade solution: what better way to restore you body´s electrolytes than by creating your own natural remedy? It´s fast, it´s easy and it´s effective. Make this recipe in bulk at the beginning of the week, store the mixture in a few 700ml bottles, and grab it to go before you head out on a long ride.
- 4 grapefruits
- 4 oranges
- 3 cups of coconut water
- 2 tbsp of raw honey
- 1/8 teaspoon of Himalayan sea salt
- 2 tbsp chia seeds
Chop up the grapefruit and oranges, and remove the skin. Place them in the blender and blitz until smooth. Next, add the coconut water and blitz again. Finally, add the raw honey and the sea salt. Once you are happy with the mixture, drop in your chia seeds and stir. You do not want the chia seeds to be blitzed like the rest of the concoction.
The addition of chia seeds helps prolong hydration in the body, as chia seeds soak up to 10-12 times of their own weight in water, protecting against dehydration and promoting endurance and recovery. Perfect for the long-distance cyclist!
Sometimes it can be challenging to stay on top of your electrolytes when you’re sweating constantly during a ride. So make sure you eat plenty of electrolyte-rich foods, indulge in an Epsom salt bath, and bring along our homemade electrolyte drink to your next training session, if you want to put cramps out of your performance equation.