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Athletes, get set, go with electrolytes!

Published:Thursday | March 22, 2012 | 12:00 AM
A medium banana is an excellent snack after exertion. - File

Heather Little-White, PhD, Contributor

It is track and field season and as the annual ISSA/GraceKennedy Champs rolls around next week, it is important for athletes and their coaches to understand the role of electrolytes in training and performance. Then it's on to London for the 2012 Olympics and the expectations are high for Jamaica's national team to do well. No athlete should jeopardise their chance to medal because of an electrolyte imbalance.

Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electric charge. The body needs electrolytes to regulate nerve and muscle functions, maintain acid-base balance and maintain fluid balance. Electrolytes such as chloride, potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium can be lost through sweat and should be replaced as quickly as possible through foods in the diet. When there is an imbalance of electrolytes, the amount of water, blood pH, muscle action and several other important body processes are affected.

Muscle spasm

If the levels of magnesium, sodium, potassium, or calcium are out of balance, any of the following symptoms may result.

  • Weakness
  • Twitching
  • Numbness
  • Nervous system disorders
  • Muscle spasm
  • Fatigue, lethargy
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Bone disorders
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Sodium and chloride foods

Sodium and chloride are present in some of the foods we eat and help to maintain fluid balance for proper cell function in the body. Foods containing sodium and chloride include table salt, beef, pork, sardines, cheese, olives, cornbread and sauerkraut. All processed and canned foods made with added salt, such as deli meats, chips and other snacks, nuts, butter, margarine, mayonnaise and many condiments have sodium and chloride.

To keep you hydrated longer, sodium is the electrolyte that helps to hold water in the body. As you sweat, you lose sodium rapidly and this is easily replaced from the foods you eat. For example, a salty, low fat meal (like soup) before training or competition will help the body retain fluid throughout your activity.

Potassium foods

It is easy to get potassium foods while you are on the go from fresh or dried fruits like oranges, melons, raisins, or prunes. A medium to large ripe banana is excellent as a snack after exertion. Other whole foods rich in potassium include sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables such as pak choi, spinach, callaloo, peas, beans, and avocado. Potassium is also in milk and salt substitutes made from potassium chloride. Potassium supports normal cell function, regulates blood pressure and prevents bone loss and kidney stones.

Magnesium foods

Magnesium works with calcium to aid muscle contraction, support bone and teeth development, nerve and muscle function and enzyme activation. When the body is low in magnesium, the body requires more oxygen during physical activity; therefore, you get tired more easily. Magnesium is found in leafy green vegetables, whole grain, nuts, cereals, beans, peanut butter and tomato paste.

Calcium foods

The body uses calcium for bone and teeth formation, blood clotting, muscle and enzyme function and normal heart rhythms. Calcium is most commonly found in milk and milk products. It is also in meat, fish with bones such as sardines, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, beans and certain dried fruits such as raisins, mangoes, pineapples and green vegetables.

Sports drinks

Electrolytes are not best replaced by sugary sports drinks. All fluids are not created equal and while sports drinks have some electrolytes, they are usually loaded with added excessive amounts of sugar. Athletes must make choices from nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, dairy, and whole grains to replace minerals lost during strenuous sweat sessions and competitions.

According to Nancy Clarke, RD, author and sports dietician, the best way to replenish electrically charged particles needed to maintain fluid balance in the body and aid the muscle and nerve functions necessary for athletic performance is through the use of a spoon and fork in dining. She adds that, "Compared to sports drinks, foods contain so many more electrolytes, as well as vitamins and other health-protective compounds."