Okay fine, water does hydrate you. But if you don’t have the proper balance of electrolytes in your body, then drinking all the water in the world isn’t going to adequately hydrate you. You need more than water to stay hydrated. Your body needs electrolytes–sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium–to hold onto the water that you drink. 

I’m not going to go deep into the science here. Instead, I’m going to give a real-world account of when I learned that just drinking water isn’t enough. When I rode a bicycle across the country, I experienced firsthand why you shouldn’t just drink water when you’re exercising.

Water Won’t Hydrate: Why you need electrolytes to stay hydrated

Water Doesn’t Hydrate You. Here’s Why.

I was riding a bicycle across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Every day I would ride from morning until sunset, then find a place to stop and camp for the night. Then, I’d do it all over the next day. 

I started from the Atlantic Ocean in New Jersey on May 1st and pedaled west from there. The spring weather in New Jersey and Pennsylvania was warm in a not-too-warm kind of way. By the time I made it to Ohio, that was starting to change, though.

June in the midwest is normally hot. This June was even hotter than normal. For weeks it was 100 degrees with the high humidity typical of the midwest. The temperatures and humidity had me sweating whenever I was moving. I was chugging water, drinking over 1 liter every hour. 

I was drinking so much water it was affecting my speed. I was stopping to refill my bottles in nearly every town I passed through in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. I needed tons of water to replenish the sweat that was constantly pouring out of me. Or, so I thought. 

Water Won’t Hydrate: Why you need electrolytes to stay hydrated

Then the headaches started. Every day by late afternoon I would get a slight ache behind my forehead. It felt like a slight pressure at first, nothing worth panicking over. I thought maybe it was from wearing a helmet, but quickly ruled that out when the headaches started coming earlier and earlier in the day. 

One morning in Wisconsin I woke up in my tent and realized I already had a headache. I took an ibuprofen and thought to myself, “how many ibuprofens have I taken for headaches lately?” I looked at the ziplock bag that was once full of 200 pills, there were less than 20 remaining. 

It’s now July, and the heatwave is receding slightly. But, I’m still dealing with these headaches. And now they’re almost constant. Something’s not right. 

I pack my bags for the day, thinking of little more than the pounding in my head. There has to be something more causing this headache than simply extreme heat

Water Won’t Hydrate: Why you need electrolytes to stay hydrated
I ride into a small town that has a grocery store. I stop in to get some breakfast and food for the day. Wandering the aisles, I stop in front of the drink cooler to absorb some cold air. My eyes fall on a half-gallon jug of orange juice and I immediately crave it. I’ve been drinking so much water, this is going to taste so much better than that. 

I’m sitting outside the grocery store, chugging orange juice and eating a muffin. The juice tastes delicious, much better than cheap orange juice from a small town grocery store should. It tasted so good I drank until I almost puked right in front of the grocery store. 

Okay, maybe I overdid it a little with the orange juice, but I could feel that it was replenishing something my body needed. There was still some juice left in the bottle so I filled my water bottles, cutting it with water to make a “sports drink” of sorts. 

The stomach ache quickly went away as I started from the grocery store on what would be one of the best days I’ve ever had on a bike. I pedaled through rolling hills most of the morning–the uphills were over before I could downshift and the downhill sections were euphoric.
Water Won’t Hydrate: Why you need electrolytes to stay hydrated

I came to a small town with a park along the bike path. It was already lunchtime, so I stopped in the park. I sat down to eat lunch at a picnic table, and realized for the first time in weeks my head didn’t hurt! 

What had I done differently? Did I eat anything special for breakfast? A grocery store muffin? No way. 

It must have been the orange juice!

Then it all started to make sense. I didn’t have a headache because of the heat or a lack of water. My body was deficient in the vitamins and minerals found in oranges! How had I not thought of this before? I’m exercising in the heat all day and not doing anything to replenish everything else I was sweating out other than the water. 

The salt stains on my shirt, the entire bag of Fritos that I’d just devoured, I needed electrolytes to replenish what I lost during exercise

This town has a small bike shop, I can see it across the road from where I’m sitting. I hop on my bike and pedal to it. I leave with a tube of electrolyte tablets I can mix with water. 

That afternoon I feel invincible. The flavored electrolyte tablets make the boring water I’d been chugging taste better, but I can feel the salty minerals doing more than simply making my water taste better. This drink is making me feel awesome. 

The headaches never came back, either. For the rest of the 5000 miles I biked that summer

I keep drinking orange juice, mixing it with water in a 1-to-1 ratio. Between the orange juice, sports drinks, and electrolyte drink mixes, I had more energy every day and no more headaches. 
I drank less water and was more hydrated. I could feel it. With electrolyte drinks, I just felt better.

Water Won’t Hydrate: Why you need electrolytes to stay hydrated

What are electrolytes and why do you need them to stay hydrated?

Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity when mixed with water. Your body uses electrolytes to direct water and nutrients to the areas of the body that need those nutrients. Electrolytes dissolve in your body and keep an optimal balance of fluids inside your cells. They also regulate nerve and muscle function, balance blood acidity and pressure, and help rebuild damaged tissue. 

Orange juice is high in potassium and often has calcium added, both of those minerals are essential electrolytes. Since my body lacked these minerals I could not hold on to all the water I was drinking. I thought I just needed to drink more water, but my body lacked the electrolytes it needed to make use of that water. All that water went right through me, it was wasted.

When I drank electrolyte beverages with more than just potassium and calcium, my body responded even more positively. That’s because when you sweat you lose more than just potassium and calcium. When you sweat you lose sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium. All these electrolytes are essential for keeping your body functioning like the well-oiled machine it is.  
Electrolytes do a lot for your body. Don’t neglect them as I did–drink your electrolytes.

Water Won’t Hydrate: Why you need electrolytes to stay hydrated

Posted by:

Chris Miller