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Coach's Column with Namrita O'Dea

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |January 6, 2012 2:55 AM

This week our question goes to Namrita O'Dea. A licensed dietician and member of the Topeak/Ergon racing team, O'Dea helps riders fine tune their bodies for maximum performance through her business 55 Nine Performance_Nutrition.

Question - What is the formula for the right amount of electrolytes?  Does it differ for racing an endurance race (6+hrs) versus doing a 2hr short race?

What's the best source of electrolytes?  There are different myths out there, like the mustard one etc?  How do you know when you're cramping because of electrolyte imbalance vs. over doing it?

Answer - Unfortunately, there is no formula. This is because in addition to inter-individual variability in sweat rates and sweat electrolyte losses other factors such as duration of exercise, heat acclimatization status, environmental conditions, and training status can impact the amount of sweat lost and the composition of your sweat.  But, with a little calculated "trial and error" you can get close to a personal formula. A good starting point is using the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines: drink 0.4 to 0.8 liters per hour (13.5 to 27 ounces per hour) based on your level of thirst.  For short duration events the fluid may be water, assuming that you have been using water in training without cramping issues.  For longer events or warm-weather events use a sports drink with 110-163 mg sodium and 18-46 mg potassium per 8 oz of fluid.  Using a pre-formulated sports drink such as PowerBar Ironman Perform is the easiest way to get the energy, fluid, and electrolytes and makes it easier for you to "follow your thirst" compared to popping electrolyte pills.  Don't forget to factor in the electrolytes in your gels, chews, and other nutrition products, as well.

Pickle juice and mustard packets are often also used to relieve or prevent cramping. The key ingredients in both pickle juice and mustard are acetic acid and sodium. They are OK to use but because the ingredients are so concentrated it's recommended that you follow it up with drinking water or a combination of water and sports drink. 

Unfortunately there's no clear way to know for certain whether your muscle cramps are from an electrolyte imbalance or for another reason.  This is when knowing your body and constantly practicing a nutrition strategy during training can really help you when you are in a race situation. If your toes and feet are cramping, though, chances are that you may be low on your sodium intake or dehydrated.   

If you have a question you would like answered by one of our award-winning mountain bike coaches send it to and we will get one of them on it.

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