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Scan the neon label of a sports-drink bottle, and you’re likely to see it boasting about its electrolytes. Behind that zippy term lies a list of elements you’ve probably heard of: sodium, chlorine, potassium, calcium, and magnesium are all among the most common electrolytes and the least common baby names. An electrolyte is simply any ion (that is, an electrically charged atom or molecule) that can allow electrical signals and water to travel through the many permeable cells in your body. Fortunately, our bodies typically maintain their electrolyte balance through normal dietary intake; table salt, for instance, is made up of sodium and chlorine ions.
Why, then, would electrolytes be important to athletes? With each liter of sweat, about 1.5 grams of electrolytes escape through the pores. This means that if you’re sweating copiously and drinking only water to compensate, you can effectively dilute your internal electrolytes. This can lead to such conditions as hyponatremia, wherein your body has a lower-than-normal concentration of sodium ions, which can produce symptoms including nausea, confusion, and muscle spasms. This can be a real risk for marathon runners and other endurance athletes. But for anyone working out for just an hour a day, nutritionists agree that you most likely don’t need to worry about electrolytes—staying hydrated, eating well, and staring at a photo of a big, shiny trophy is typically enough to give your body the power it needs.