Most exercisers can get away with gulping water after a workout, but endurance athletes—anyone training for a marathon or playing hours of tennis in the hot sun—need to put extra effort into replenishing the minerals flushed out via sweat. Sure, electrolytes come standard in sports drinks and energy bars, but they're usually accompanied by a hearty helping of calories and added sugar.
A better way to replenish the electrically charged particles needed to maintain fluid balance in the body and aid the muscle and nerve functions necessary for athletic performance: Pick up a spoon and fork.
"Foods contain so many more electrolytes, as well as vitamins and other health-protective compounds," says author and sports dietitian Nancy Clark, RD. Here, how to replace five key electrolytes with healthy, whole foods.
We're told to just say no to sodium, but it's the electrolyte we lose in the highest concentration when we sweat. Salt helps the body hold on to water, keeping you hydrated for a longer period of time. Still, there's no need to down an entire bag of pretzels postworkout.
"You can easily replace the 800 mg of sodium lost in two pounds of sweat during a hard hour-long workout by enjoying a recovery snack of chocolate milk and a bagel with peanut butter," says Clark. Athletes can also consume a salty meal, like soup, before a strenuous sweat session, so their bodies are better equipped to retain fluid and maintain hydration throughout exercise, she adds.
Typically paired with sodium, chloride is found in table salt and processed foods like deli meats, condiments, canned soup, and potato chips--and like salt, it's typically not lacking in the American diet. The mineral, which is needed to maintain fluid balance, blood volume, blood pressure, and body fluid pH levels, is also lost in high concentrations via sweat. Skip the snack food aisle and replenish chloride with whole food sources such as olives, seaweed, rye, tomatoes, lettuce, and celery.
For a portable, potassium-rich postworkout snack, pick fresh or dried fruits like oranges, melons, raisins, or prunes. During an hour of hard training, you might lose 200 to 600 mg of potassium, which supports cell and heart function, regulates blood pressure, prevents bone loss and kidney stones, and plays a vital role in muscle contraction. To replenish, Clark suggests snacking on a medium to large banana (450 to 600 mg of potassium). Other whole foods rich in potassium include baked and sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, peas, beans, and avocado.
Milk may not seem like the best courtside companion, but researchers at McMaster University in the UK found that the calcium-rich beverage does a better job than water or sports drinks at rehydrating the body after a workout. Why? Milk delivers a mix of carbohydrates, calcium, sodium, and potassium, along with high-quality protein, which aids muscle recovery. Aim to include calcium-rich foods like milk (regular or soy) and cereal, yogurt, or a latte each day, Clark advises.
Along with calcium, magnesium aids muscle contraction, nerve function, enzyme activation, and bone development. To replenish stores of the mineral after exercise, Clark suggests chowing down on leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts, peanut butter, dried beans, and lentils as often as possible. The added benefit: Magnesium helps fight fatigue. When you're low on the mineral, your body demands more oxygen--and energy--during physical activity, and therefore you tire more quickly, according to researchers at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service.