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Why Electrolytes are Needed for Sports Performance

May 31, 2022

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Why Electrolytes are Needed for Sports Performance

May 31, 2022

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You might not start your search for better performance by discussing proper hydration; protein and workouts are typically the go-to searches for most people. However, adequate hydration is essential for training and overall athletic performance. Having sufficient amounts of the essential electrolytes is critical for maintaining a high activity level. 

Just as little as a 2% reduction in hydration levels can lead to cramping, fatigue, and significantly decreased performance. Staying hydrated and maintaining proper electrolytes are crucial if you perform at your best. 

Let’s dig deeper into why you need to make this a priority

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are small molecules with a natural positive or negative electrical charge when dissolved in a fluid and conduct electricity. Several electrolytes are common in the body, but the four most important ones for maximizing performance are sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. They help your body regulate chemical reactions and maintain the balance between fluids inside and outside your cells. 

Sodium

Sodium, or salt, is used by the body to help regulate blood pressure and volume.  It is essential for maintaining fluid balance and proper muscle functions. If you lack sodium, your muscles will weaken, “fire” more slowly, and eventually cramp.

You might have heard of low sodium diets for health reasons. Let’s focus on athlete performance. The human body needs 500mg per day to function correctly, and the CDC recommends not exceeding 2,300 mg of sodium daily. However, most people consume between 3,000 – 4,000mg daily with our modern daily diets. 

While there is not a lack of research regarding sodium impacts blood pressure, one thing is for sure, you are training hard, and in athletics, you need sodium in your diet. 

Studies following football and tennis players have found that sodium losses can range from 800 to 8,500 mg over two hours. Unconditioned athletes and those not acclimated to hot weather typically lose the most sodium. Therefore, athletes exercising over several hours, especially in hot environments, need to consistently replenish their fluid and electrolyte levels before, during, and after exercise.

If you’re an athlete, your body goes through a more significant amount of electrolytes than the average person. So replacing them becomes essential if you want to maintain high-performance levels.

Potassium

Potassium is the primary electrolyte found inside cells, while sodium is located outside them. This vital mineral is necessary for regulating muscle function and heartbeat.

For our purposes, potassium is essential in two ways: it helps maintain electrolyte balance and allows conductivity between cells. Potassium is also vital for neurotransmission, which helps nerves communicate. Like sodium, potassium is another electrolyte that can be lost in large amounts during exercise. Therefore, replenishing potassium is as important (if not more so) as sodium since it helps support muscle contraction and nerve transmission.

Potassium is vital for performance because it helps store carbohydrates for energy and can also help prevent muscle cramping and injury. Additionally, it helps store carbohydrates for energy. For optimal health and an ideal physique, aim to consume 3,500-4,500mg of potassium a day.

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Calcium

The most abundant mineral in the body, calcium, is as well known as sodium and is also responsible for much more in the body, particularly enhancing your performance.

Calcium is an important mineral for transmitting nerve impulses, muscle contraction, and blood clotting. Your body needs calcium in the bloodstream and cells. If your blood levels are low, the body will take calcium from your bones to make up for it. This can lead to osteoporosis.

As an athlete, you need to ensure that you get adequate calcium. That’s 700mg a day for adults and 800-1000mg for teenagers who are still growing.

Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential mineral required for over 300 different reactions in the body. Additionally, it plays a crucial role in creating DNA and RNA. 

It is also found in high concentrations within the body. It helps maintain proper nerve and muscle function, strengthens a regular heart rate, supports bone and teeth formation, boosts the immune system, and stabilizes blood sugar. Magnesium even helps transport energy throughout the body.

If you are working out regularly, it is important to be aware of the need for adequate magnesium. Magnesium helps relax the muscles after a workout, countering the role that calcium plays in contracting them. You can find magnesium in all sorts of foods, but leafy greens, coffee, tea, and nuts are some of the more abundant foods.

Fueling for Optimal Performance

It is important to drink plenty of fluids during and after exercise to stay hydrated. This is especially true during the pre-workout window (the time before, during, and after you train/compete), when your body is most likely to lose electrolytes due to sweat loss. To make sure you’re always topped off with electrolytes, follow these fueling strategies, particularly if you’re exercising outside or in a gym that’s not well ventilated. Of course, each activity and person is different. However, these strategies are based on standard guidelines. 

30 minutes before exercise

Drink 16-20 ounces of fluid, including some carbohydrates and electrolytes from food or drink. Most sports drinks contain around 400-450mg sodium per liter, so you might want to add in a salty snack on the side.

During exercise

Drink 6-8oz of fluid (from water/sports drinks) every 15-20 minutes to ingest roughly 30-60g of carbs every hour you’re exercising.

After exercise

For every pound of weight you lose during exercise, you need to drink  around16-24oz of water. So when training in extreme conditions, remember to drink plenty of fluids to prevent future fluid losses.

Long Term

The nutrition and hydration from your everyday life leading up to competition or workouts are just as important as the day of exercise.

Consider increasing your electrolyte intake (especially sodium) for outdoor training sessions. Some great options for this include pretzels, canned beans, canned tuna, crackers, salted nuts, or any form of electrolyte supplement. Doing so will help increase electrolyte intake while working to prevent cramping and decreased performance. 

If you’re concerned about your nutrient needs, it may be helpful to enlist the help of a physician or sports dietitian. These professionals can help you determine what specific nutrients you need to supplement and how much.

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