Electrolytes are essential for athletes to stay effectively hydrated, although few people understand how important they are.

When people sweat during exercise, it’s not just water they lose. The electrolytes sodium, potassium and chloride, which are critical for normal body metabolism and function, are also lost. To prevent dehydration, these electrolytes must be replaced.

Research shows that 1-2 per cent dehydration (0.5-1kg weight loss in a 65kg athlete) can affect performance(1). Dehydration can also lead to more extreme versions of heat illness: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and in the most severe form, death.

While water can quench thirst before the body is properly hydrated, the electrolytes in sports drinks stimulate thirst mechanisms, so you are encouraged to drink more and replace fluids faster. Electrolytes also enhance fluid absorption from the small intestine, and aid fluid retention by reducing the volume of urine post exercise.(1,2)

Sodium also plays a role in preventing hyponatremia (low blood sodium), which could be fatal. The condition can be triggered by consuming large volumes of water, which dilutes the body’s sodium levels, and causes swelling of the brain. More information is available in the Coaches Edge article: “Hyponatremia - when water can be too much of a good thing.”

Gatorade is launching a new formulation containing 20 per cent more electrolytes in Australia. To speed fluid back into the body, the new formula retains a carbohydrate level of six per cent, which has been proven as the optimum level for keeping athletes better hydrated.(3)


  1. Maughan, R. ‘Fluid and carbohydrate intake during exercise.’ Clinical Sports Nutrition, 2 nd Ed. Burke, L and Deakin, V (eds), McGraw Hill, Sydney 2000.
  2. Wilk, B. and Bar-Or, O. J Appl Physiol, 80:1112-1117, 1996.
  3. Shi, X et al. Effects of carbohydrate type and concentration and solution osmolality on water absorption. Med Sci Sports Exerc 27:1607-1615, 1995
  4. Below, P. R., R. Mora-Rodriguez, J. Gonzalez-Alonso and E. F. Coyle Med Sci Sports Exer. 27(2), 200-210. 1995.
  5. Passe, D. M Horn and R Murray. Appetite 35:219-229, 2000.
  6. Ryan AJ, GP Lambert, X Shi, RT Chang, RW Summers, and CV Gisolfi. J Appl Physiol 84:1581-1588, 1998.




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