Exercise & Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance

Young woman jogging by road in rural landscape

Most people realize that exercise can lead to dehydration and are careful to drink water before, during and after a workout. Water, however, is only half of the picture in staying hydrated. The body also contains electrolytes. These are water-soluble charged minerals responsible for carrying out chemical reactions that the body needs in order to function. Drinking too much water can dilute the body's supply of electrolytes, causing electrolyte imbalance or hyponatremia. If significant fluid replacement becomes necessary due to long bouts of exercise, such as running a marathon, it is important to include electrolytes, especially potassium and sodium, with water to maintain optimal hydration. The common symptoms of electrolyte imbalance are listed below.

Nausea and Vomiting

Woman with stomach ache

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

Having insufficient electrolytes in your system will cause you to feel sick to your stomach. If you have been replacing fluids by drinking a lot of water and begin to feel nauseous or start vomiting, stop drinking water and switch to a sports drink or use foods to replace electrolytes.

Headache and Fatigue

Woman with headache holding glass of water

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

Both dehydration and hyponatremia can cause headaches and fatigue. You may also feel weak, lethargic or confused, and be irritable or have trouble concentrating.

Muscle Cramps or Spasms

Running and sport ankle sprain injury

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

Muscle cramps are often the result of dehydration or low electrolyte concentration. Be careful not to mistake this for the normal soreness that often follows intense exercise.


Young woman with eyes closed, head in hands, close-up

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

Excess water that causes a drop in electrolyte concentration may cause bloating, particularly of the face and hands.

Severe Cases

Woman talking to doctor

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

If electrolyte levels become extremely low, severe medical consequences can result. These may include seizures, unconsciousness, coma or even death. If your efforts to restore electrolyte balance and hydration following exercise do not relieve your symptoms, or if they get worse, seek prompt medical attention. Intravenous fluids may be necessary to correct the balance.