How to Solve the Electrolyte Equation

May 13, 2021

If you’re anything like us, when you hear “electrolytes,” you think of one thing: sports drinks. Specifically, those OTT commercials where famous athletes sweat profusely before gulping down the contents of a neon-filled cup or bottle.

According to registered dietitians (and former dancers!) Nora Minno and Emily Cook Harrison, the real story on electrolytes isn’t all that different—well, maybe just a tad less dramatic. As Minno says, “Electrolytes are really important in maintaining hydration status.” But wait, isn’t that why dancers drink water?! We’re so glad you asked.

What Are Electrolytes?

“Electrolytes are minerals—specifically sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium—that work in the body in a variety of ways,” says Harrison. For example, “Sodium is really important in fluid balance and in preventing dehydration, while calcium affects muscle contraction and release,” she adds.

You can think of the quartet above as the Fab Four of electrolytes (i.e., the best-known and most essential), but there are others as well, says Minno: “There’s also bicarbonate, chloride and phosphate.” According to Minno, all electrolytes contribute in some way to the body’s general functioning, including moving nutrients in and out of cells as needed.

Why Do Dancers Need Them?

If you’ve ever felt lethargic or foggy-brained—despite drinking more than enough water—you were probably suffering from an imbalance of electrolytes, says Harrison: “Fatigue, loss of balance and stubborn muscle cramps are the first signs of electrolyte deficiency.” Without sufficient electrolytes in your system, you’ll suffer from sluggishness while at the studio and extra muscle soreness after you’re done dancing.

Harrison notes that certain conditions demand additional electrolytes. Think dancing without air conditioning or outdoors in summertime, running through a super-long or super-athletic piece, or performing in a heavy costume that makes you sweat buckets. In short, the more you sweat, the more electrolytes you’ll need to replenish the minerals your body sweats out. You can check out sources like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or other sports nutrition journals for handy guidelines.

How Can Dancers Get Enough Electrolytes?

This brings us back to those sports drinks. Not all products (including tablets that dissolve in your water bottle, pills, powders and traditional sports drinks) are equal in quality. When choosing, Minno and Harrison advise checking the label: If it contains sodium and either magnesium or potassium, you’re good to go. Both nutritionists say you can even make your own sports drink at home with a splash of fruit juice, a pinch of salt and plenty of water.

Concerned about the added sugar? Don’t be. As Minno says, “Young, active dancers need plenty of carbohydrates and glucose for muscle and brain function”—especially if you only have time to sneak a couple of sips backstage before dancing even harder and longer.

In your everyday dancer life, though, normal-food sources of electrolytes should be sufficient. One more reason to love your fruits and veggies: They’re great sources of electrolytes. But Harrison says these important minerals can also be found in nuts, seeds, soy, beans, some fish and dairy (yep, that’s the same calcium). The one electrolyte that’s not commonly found in fresh, whole foods is sodium, so Minno says dancers shouldn’t be afraid of putting a little salt on home-cooked dishes. (Restaurant meals and processed foods tend to be more than salty enough already.)

Oh, and coconut water? “It’s fine to drink if you like the taste,” says Harrison. “But as far as potassium is concerned, it’s way cheaper to have an orange and a glass of water.”