Simply put dehydration is when your body loses more water than it takes in. This happens through sweat, water vapor in the breath that is exhaled, and urine. Naturally the more intense the exercise the more sweat and exhalation occur. Electrolytes are also lost from your body.
What are electrolytes?
There are five electrolytes, each with an important function: potassium, sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium. These help to keep the muscular, nervous, cardiac, and digestive systems of the body working properly. Specifically, potassium regulates the heart beat and muscle function. Sodium, which is depleted most during exercise, is necessary for regulating muscles and nerves. Magnesium functions to prevent calcium overload, maintain proper muscle function, and the electrical potential of cells. Both phosphorus and calcium are important for bone health, however phosphorous also helps muscles contract and transfer energy throughout the body. As you can imagine, ensuring a proper level of electrolytes during exercise is extremely necessary for performance. With that said plain water lacks electrolytes and so an alternative is needed. What you grab depends on the intensity of activity.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade, Vitamin Water, Propel, and Smart Water seek to provide athletes with enhanced water that will fuel the body. Here is the lowdown on these deceptive beverages: in the case of Gatorade, Powerade, and Vitamin Water they contain high fructose corn syrup as their second ingredient. In other words these "sports drinks" are mostly sugar water. On the other hand, Propel and Smart Water appear to be simply water with electrolytes added. Each contain only three of the five total electrolytes and in far inferior amounts to tap water. Yes, tap water has MORE electrolytes than these "enhanced" waters!
What to drink?
So what should you drink?
If you are engaging in low intensity exercise or for everyday consumption, solid black carbon filtered water is best. A solid black carbon filter removes metals, parasites, bacteria, chlorine, nitrates, and pesticides from your tap water. According to the Environmental Working Group there are 300+ contaminants in your drinking water (if you think being on the municipal supply keeps you in the clear think back to the number of times you have heard the news report the necessity to boil your water before use)! An example of one of these filters is a Berkley Filter, however any filtered water is better than none. Here is a comprehensive comparison of the best options.
Again, if you are engaging in low intensity training or moderate intensity for sixty minutes or less, then mineral water is a good option. Mineral water can be very high in sodium (depends on the brand) and has the added benefits of reducing inflammation as well as swelling of the muscles and joints. Because sodium replenishment is extremely important, choosing either a Gerolsteiner or San Pellegrino are your better options as they contain the most sodium. The one downside to these is they contain carbonation making them a good option for post training, but definitely undesirable during your training session.
Is there a drink that will replace electrolytes?
Is it possible to replace all five electrolytes without the sugar or fizz?
Coconut water is nature's energy drink perfect during high to moderate intensity training (lasting sixty minutes or longer). It is also low in sugar, yet sweet and contains cytokinins. (Cytokinins are plant hormones that have anti-cancer, anti-thrombolytic, and anti-aging effects). In fact for over 60 years coconut water has been used intravenously in emergency situations.
The deal with coconut water is that in order to reap all the benefits it MUST come from young, immature coconuts. This is where labeling is important since many companies will use mature coconuts then mask the bitter taste with added flavorings.
Coconut water is perishable so any available on the shelf has been highly processed and lacks the nutrients that it purports.
Because of this, the BEST coconut water that is completely natural is Harmless Harvest. You can find this in the refrigeration section with variations of a pink coloration due to the interaction of antioxidants with light.
Does it really matter?
The inspiration for this article began with the consumption of a bottle of San Pelligrino mineral water after intense deadlift training. I had not sweat much during the session and stopped with my husband for some lunch before picking up the kids. Since I did not care for the selection of food where we were, I opted for just the mineral water to tie me over until we got home. Grogginess was setting in though making it difficult to stay awake. Once I began drinking the water, a burst of electricity ran through my body as it replenished all my depleted electrolytes bringing me "back to life".
I urge you to use this as a guide for enhancing your training but also beyond the training room as often illness or poor nutrition or even humidity can also create an increased demand for electrolytes in the body