I’m finally starting to feel human again! I *think* this is the LAST day of the lingering cold – well over a week since it started. Of course, had I realized I was SICK and not tried to just push through it, I probably could have cut my recovery time in half. I’m sure there is a lesson to be learned somewhere in there.
Over the weekend I had a civil war event. While these events don’t have quite the same physical demand as a backpacking trip, endurance ride, or athletic event, electrolytes can be a very real issue. Dressed in period uniforms made of wool, running around a field in the noon day sun, and dealing with fractious horses can make it very difficult to stay hydrated. It is not unusual for heat exhaustion to strike participants, and by the end of the weekend, even those who are reasonable prepared for the physical demands and the heat are DONE. I have trouble eating in the mornings, can have headaches throughout the day, am TIRED by evening, and often have to stop and take naps on my drive home. It often takes me several days to recover from an event that is particularly hot, or early in the season. With this in mind, I wondered whether properly taking electrolytes throughout the weekend would eliminate or greatly reduce these issues.
In this post I want to share what I learned or observed the past weekend, and provide a review of the electrolytes I have tried so far. I’m in the beginning stages of my electrolyte research (in both humans and horses!), so please read this as one person’s opinion and journey and not proven fact!
Things to consider
People are individuals (like horses) and elyte needs will vary. Some people don’t need to worry about their intake at all, others can get what they need through their food, and still others may need to supplement intensely in order to be comfortable. One factor might be how much you sweat and how much salt is in your sweat. I sweat a LOT, and often you can see the salt residues in my clothing. I have a high tolerance for hot weather combined with physical activity in part because of the sweating mechanism, however that comes with a cost of fluid and elyte replacement.
Your every day diet will determine, in part, what your elyte needs will be during physical exertion. My diet is very low in sodium, but very high in potassium (I eat bananas ALL the time. And I discovered that I just can’t stop eating Dates once I start. Both foods are high in K. Whether my high requirement for K is due to me eating lots of high K food, or my craving for high K food is because of a high requirement is uncertain). Thus, I’ve noticed that when I need electrolytes during physical activities I CRAVE high potassium foods. So, when I look for an elyte replacement, I look for products with relatively high potassium levels and lower sodium levels.
Do not underestimate the toll that chronic allergies can have on your fluid and elyte levels during physical activity. It’s amazing how quickly you can become dehydrated especially if your chronic allergies (runny nose, sinus drip etc.) are combined with a cold. My allergies are worse when I camp, and worse during the night (because of the close proximity to the ground/grass and laying prone) which is NOT conducive to being well hydrated in the morning for activities that start off with camping – like endurance!
Especially if you have allergies or are recovering from a cold, consider your elyte needs overnight. I found that having a bottle of electrolytes to sip on through the night when I was thirsty eliminated much of the morning “queasy stomach” I usually deal with and I started the day in much better shape than usual.
Signs I need to start supplementing with elytes
Until very recently I chalked up my balky stomach, headaches, and fatigue - to nerves, stress, and normal “tiredness” that comes after a long hard day. Similarly, when my calves were sore, I figured I was out of shape for the activity I was doing. After evaluating my symptoms as a whole, a little prompting from my blog readers, and some self evaluation – in hindsight I realized that everything could be explained by an elyte imbalance. Now, my goal is to recognize when I’m ACTUALLY GOING THROUGH IT.
This weekend was my first opportunity to practice being mindful of my electrolytes in a proactive way. Over the last weekend I kept a close eye on how I was feeling. I discovered that BEFORE I get to the dry heaves/calf cramping/fatigue stage I have the following symptoms:
1. I seem to be thirsty, yet I’ve been urinating more than usual, drinking sufficient water.
2. Water is not satisfying
3. I have a slight headache
4. I feel lethargic
If at this point, I take a dose of electrolytes – everything goes back to normal and I feel FINE. PERFECT. Able to PERFORM to the BEST of my ability. It’s like magic. It’s like getting a reboot, a “pass go and collect $200” reward. And it’s fast – as long as I caught it early and took care of my needs, I was up feeling good in 10-15 minutes.
I’m cautious with elytes because of my experiences in the horse/endurance world. It’s definitely possible to overdo it! I think with a little time, I’ll know exactly what I need to take to maintain my elyte levels but in the meantime, I waited until I knew it was time to do something. Here’s a rough protocol/schedule that I followed this weekend:
1. Have a bottle of water+elytes overnight to sip on as needed. Whatever remained in the morning, I drank before/during breakfast. I used a high potassium elyte mix at this time.
2. Throughout the day: an electrolyte tablet or drink (standard with sodium levels exceeding potassium levels). Another high potassium elyte mix 30-60 minutes later if the tablet didn’t do the trick (because at that point I knew that what I needed was potassium).
3. I followed the protocol outlined in #2 anytime I started to feel the symptoms described earlier. I usually needed to do it twice – once in the early afternoon after lunch, and again around dinner time. In the late evening before going to bed I would mix up another bottle of elytes for overnight and repeat the cycle.
4. Drank water throughout the day, as needed, normally, as dictated by thirst. (BTW – there’s a whole debate right now about drinking according to thirst, versus drinking before you’re thirsty. While I was marathoning, drinking before you were thirsty was all the rage, but now the pendulum has shifted and I’ve seen a lot of research that says you should rely on your thirst mechanism – as long as it’s in good working order. It IS possible to drink too much water and it’s more common than you might think. Use common sense. I know that for myself, I am likely to drink too much water rather than not enough because I’ve trained myself over the years to reach for the water bottle regularly during physical activity – whether or not I’m thirsty. More is not always better, especially if you really need elytes and not fluid).
The protocol worked well. I felt better in the morning after sipping elytes all nights than I have EVER felt. Much of my queasy stomach and “blah” feeling in the morning before endurance rides could probably be chalked up to waking up dehydrated. I didn’t feel “wiped” at the end of the day or the weekend. Monday morning I was up and ready to go to work without a problem – very unusual.
My “standard/maintenance” elyte will be S!caps. It’s a pill that is swallowed. They have sodium levels are higher than the potassium levels, which seems to be the standard in most elyte products. This will be the elyte I take during the day as a prevention. I dislike sweet drinks and it’s easier to swallow a tablet at the first signs, than to mix up a drink. For personal reasons I prefer to NOT drink an elyte solution as my only fluid replacer – I don’t feel like I can listen to my body as well. I would prefer to consume my fluid/water separately from the elyte. Also, I didn’t like any of the drinks (except vitalyte which I’ll use differently) well enough to use on a regular basis.
My elyte drink will be “Vitalyte”. It’s a high potassium drink and I’ll have it available if the S!cap (plus water consumption) doesn’t do the trick, and for overnights. For a complete review on this product, see next section.
My mom was nice enough to pick me up a selection of elyte products to try. I had DEFINITE preferences for the products based on elyte content, taste, ingredients, etc. If you are looking into your elyte options, it might be worth buying a selection of products to see what works for you. For more information on these products and why I chose them, see my previous post on this topic (too lazy to look up – it was a week or so ago).
Nathan Catalyst – somehow, I missed the fact this has sodium saccharine as an ingredient when I was viewing the ingredient statement online. I mixed up one tablet and could taste the artificial sweetener. Yep – there it was: saccharine. I gave the rest of the 15 tablets away. I don’t like the taste of artificial sweeteners, and as a rule they don’t settle in my stomach well on intense physical activities like endurance rides.
Vitalyte – this is NOT strong tasting. Like barely even noticeable. It’s barely sweet and doesn’t have syrupy feel to it. I thought it was sweetened entirely with glucose, but the ingredient statement on the product itself is different. The packets of powder that dilute into a quart of water are sweetened with glucose+fructose. The packets of powder that dilute into 16 oz of water (even though) the packaging looks the same…..except smaller…..are sweetened with dextrose+fructose. They taste the same. However, do NOT assume that the different packaging types of vitalyte have the same ingredient statements – check to be sure. I like that the product does not have artificial coloring. This one is a keeper for me!
S!caps – I will be doing further testing on this and I’ll let you know!
Cytomax – on the recommendation of a store employee, my mom bought a couple packets of cytomax. It had a couple of strikes against it. The first being that it does not disclose the Na:K levels. It also doesn’t have a full ingredient statement because of “proprietary ingredients”. It’s labeled as a “supplement” instead of a food. It’s “energy + elytes” and has a higher calorie content. Because I don’t have a full ingredient or nutritional statement I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing it’s full of sugar for the energy portion of the equation. It sure tastes that way. If you’ve ever thought Gatorade was too syrupy and sweet, you ain’t tasted nothin’! I have yet ot be able to finish a packet of cytomax. It’s extremely strong and sweet. It was OK on my stomach, which surprised me, but NOT something I will use as an electrolyte replacement. This might have a use at an endurance ride where I’m struggling with both calories and elytes and fluids – such as the last loop of a 100, where it’s doubtful I’ll eat as much as I should. This could probably keep me going….however, apart from that use, I’ll stick to a drink where I know what I’m getting in terms of potassium, and get the majority of my calories from real food.