Your sweat betrays you by stealing those precious electrolytes. . .
ELECTROLYTES: WHAT THEY ARE & WHY YOU NEED THEM
Aside from the thudding and yelling omnipresent throughout a typical Muay Thai class, there is at least one other constant: sweat. As the intensity increases, you sweat more and more. Many think of sweat as water, and they’re right – mostly. Water is a component of sweat, but sweat also has ammonia, urea, and salt (which is why it tastes salty).
Electrolytes are basically salt. The electrolytes that are in sweat are sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. They play roles in water regulation and are important components in the nervous, skeletal, and muscular systems in your body.
Too little (or too much!) of these electrolytes causes issues. If you exercise intensely at least a few times a week, you might want to look into whether you might be low on some of these electrolytes, especially if you sweat a lot. Here’s a look at what each of these critical electrolytes contributes to your health – and why you should keep your body stocked up on each.
ELECTROLYTES: SODIUM, CHLORIDE & POTASSIUM
Sodium is a mineral that gets a bad rap, because the general population simply consumes too much of it unnecessarily and it’s often associated with high blood pressure. Many fighters try to consume as little sodium as possible because it retains water, which is a very necessary bodily function in preventing dehydration.
For the avid Muay Thai practitioner, however, it’s very possible to be sodium-deficient if you actively avoid putting salt in your food. Low sodium levels cause muscle cramps and dizziness (due to low blood pressure), neither of which are fun. If you experience all these symptoms, you just might need some extra sodium in your diet.
Luckily, sodium is very easy to get: add table salt to the foods you cook and eat. Many snacks, such as nuts and pretzels, have salt as an ingredient and are an easy way to up sodium in your diet. Monitor your blood pressure to make sure you don’t overdo it.
Chloride helps your body maintain a healthy pH balance. Normal pH balances allow your body to function optimally. It also works with sodium to help transmit electrical impulses in your nervous system.
Signs of not getting enough chloride include muscle weakness and lethargy. It’s an ingredient in table salt, so it’s just as easy to get into your diet as sodium. There haven’t been any observed cases of “chloride overdose” in healthy individuals, so the only thing to do is to make sure you’re drinking enough water as well.
In the body, sodium and potassium are antagonists (this is, of course, grossly oversimplified). Potassium counteracts many of the effects of sodium, and helps to lower blood pressure. However, being low in both at the same time is possible if you sweat a lot. Having a balanced diet that includes both will help your body function and prevent dehydration and muscle cramps. Bananas are famously associated with potassium, and athletes are frequently encouraged to consume more potassium to aid in muscle recovery.
ELECTROLYTES: MAGNESIUM & CALCIUM
Magnesium plays an important part when it comes to muscles. Without it, muscles do not relax properly. This causes painful muscle cramps. Low magnesium also results in lactic acid buildup. Lactic acid is the reason you feel sore and/or tight after working out. Pumpkin seeds, nuts, and beans are great foods for making sure you get enough magnesium.
Calcium is well known for being good for your bones, as it’s pretty much what your bones are made from! Calcium also triggers your muscles to contract. Not getting enough calcium results in weak bones (which is not good for anyone, but especially athletes) and muscle spasms, which, like cramps, are painful and can be avoided. Almonds, broccoli, and other dark leafy greens contain calcium.
All of the aforementioned electrolytes lost during heavy exercise can be replenished with whole foods or with electrolyte products. There are many sport drinks that market to serious athletes for this reason, but many of them contain a lot of sugar to make the taste appealing.
The absolute best source of electrolytes is coconut water, but if quality coconut water is not available to you, there are powdered and pill forms of electrolytes that you may consider supplementing as you train Muay Thai.
As always, do not self-diagnose. If you experience some of these symptoms, you could be low in some of the electrolytes, not just feeling lazy or sore. Get yourself checked out by a medical professional to confirm if you would benefit from electrolyte supplements as you train Muay Thai.
- Plant-based fighter, foodie, and aspiring physical therapist. Angela is currently living in Bangkok and training full time.