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What are Electrolytes?

What are Electrolytes?

What are Electrolytes?

Hydration plays a significant, yet highly underemphasized, role in your ability to perform at a high level and sustain that level of performance throughout your training.

 

In fact, even as little as 2% dehydration significantly impairs stamina, fatigue resistance, and performance (both physically and mentally).[1]

 

When discussing hydration, we typically assume that entails drinking more fluids (i.e. water). And, while consuming adequate amounts of water is imperative for hydration (our bodies are ~70% water after all), it’s not the only thing you need to be concerned with.

 

The other vital component to proper hydration is electrolytes.

 

Today, we’ll take a look at what electrolytes are, what they do in the body, and why they play a critical role in your ability to perform to the best of your abilities.

 

Let’s start at the top!

 

What Are Electrolytes?

 

Electrolytes is a catch-all term to describe minerals that carry a positive or negative electric charge.

 

When these minerals are dissolved in a fluid, they form electrolytes which are used by the body to carry out various biological processes.

 

Electrolytes found in your body include:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Chloride
  • Phosphate

 

Now, let’s take a closer look at four of the most well-known electrolytes in the body in sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

 

Sodium

 

Far and away, the most well-known electrolyte is sodium, which is found in just every packaged and processed food you’ll encounter. And while it has been heavily criticized in recent years, for the active athlete, consuming enough sodium is a must.

 

Sodium helps regulate blood pressure and blood volume, and it also helps maintain fluid balance in the body. Additionally, sodium is also required for proper muscle function, which is why it’s included in our performance-sustaining intra workout, Sport Amino.

 

Neurons and muscle cells are also stimulated by sodium activity, which means that if you’re deficient in sodium, your muscles may contract weaker and more slowly. On top of that, you’re also more likely to experience muscle cramping.

 

Researchers note that the human body requires ~500mg per day of sodium to function properly, with the recommended intake not to exceed 2,300 mg per day, which is approximately 1 teaspoon of salt.

 

However, the average American consumes around 3,400 mg (3.4 grams) of sodium daily[6], which means your chances of being sodium deficient are pretty slim.

 

Now, while that high of sodium intake may sound off warning bells about hypertension, realize that research is conflicted on whether or not excessive consumption of sodium impacts blood pressure.

 

In fact, one recent study found that individuals consumed less than 5,000mg (5 grams) of sodium per day, there was no association found between sodium intake and cardiovascular disease or stroke.[7]

Now, not all individuals will respond the same to a similar amount of sodium, and those with a history of diabetes, kidney disease or high blood pressure should monitor their sodium intake, but if you work out frequently, you need salt.

 

Furthermore, trained athletes have been known to lose up to 8,500mg of sodium in just two hours of training, and unconditioned athletes have been known to lose even more than that when exercising outdoors!

 

In other words, the more physically active you are, the greater your needs for sodium (and other electrolytes). So while the RDA for sodium is 2,300mg per day, if you’re training multiple times per week, chances are pretty good, your requirement for sodium is a good bit higher.

 

Potassium

 

Potassium is the “counterpunch” to sodium in the body.

 

The reason we say this is that sodium helps regulate fluid balance outside of your cells, and  potassium helps maintain fluid balance inside your cells. Plus, similar to sodium, potassium is also essential for optimal muscle function, as well as maintaining a regular heartbeat.

Speaking of muscle function, potassium forms the other half (sodium being the first half) of the electrical pump that controls electrolyte balance and allows for conductivity between cells.[8]

 

Due to the critical role potassium plays in conductivity, it also serves an important role in neurotransmission, the process through which nerves communicate.

 

And, again, much like sodium, potassium is also lost in vast amounts during workouts, which makes replenishing it immensely important if you want to sustain a high level of performance throughout your workout or competition.

 

If you’re deficient in potassium, the effects are very similar to a deficiency in sodium -- cramping, reduced performance, increased fatigue, heightened risk of injury, etc.

 

Lastly, if for no other reason than you should monitor potassium levels, consider this -- potassium helps your body store carbohydrates for energy.

 

As you probably know, carbs are the preferred source of energy for muscles during intense physical activity. Deficiencies in potassium can impair the body’s use of glucose (carbs), which will take your performance from 100 to 0 in the blink of an eye.

 

Calcium

 

When you hear the word calcium, no doubt you have visions of milk, yogurt, and (maybe) ice cream.

 

The link between dairy consumption and calcium has been ingrained in all of us thanks to billions of dollars in advertising by the dairy council, and for good reason -- calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body.

 

Furthermore, calcium is also essential for strong bones (which supports your muscles) and teeth.

 

There’s no denying the role calcium plays in fortifying your internal structure, but what’s never really discussed is the role calcium serves boosting workout performance.

 

Calcium is needed for nerve impulse transmission (which tells the muscle to contract), muscle contraction, and even blood clotting.[9]

 

And, although 99% of bodily calcium stores reside in bone, a small portion does circulate in your bloodstream. However, when you are deficient in dietary calcium, and your body needs it (for example, to perform a bicep curl), it’s going to pull the calcium it needs from your bones!

 

If this happens frequently enough, you’re likely to end up with a severe calcium deficiency, which can lead to brittle bones, osteoporosis, and an increased chance you’ll suffer a bone break.

 

Magnesium

 

Perhaps the least talked about electrolyte whenever someone discusses the importance of electrolytes and performance is magnesium.

 

This probably stems from the fact that magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body.

 

Still, just because magnesium is less plentiful than calcium, potassium, and sodium doesn’t mean it’s any less vital to optimal performance during your workouts, especially when you consider the fact that magnesium is required for over 300 reactions in the body!

 

Chief among the functions magnesium is involved with is the synthesis of DNA and RNA -- your genetic code.

 

Magnesium also helps regulate normal nerve and muscle function as well as heart rate. It also supports bone and teeth formation, bolsters immune system function, and stabilizes blood sugar levels (helping you avoid the peaks and valleys that can result in energy crashes).

 

Unfortunately, many athletes are deficient in this electrolyte and don’t even realize it!

 

The good news is, magnesium can easily be found in a number of foods common in diets, including coffee, tea, leafy greens, and nuts.

 

Why Do We Need Electrolytes?

 

As we mentioned at the outset, electrolytes serve critical roles in numerous biological processes in the body.

 

To recap, electrolytes are involved in[2,3,4,5]:

 

  • Hydration
  • Muscle contraction
  • Blood pH regulation
  • Nerve impulse conduction
  • Cognitive function
  • Blood clotting
  • DNA and Protein synthesis
  • Energy metabolism

 

When you sweat your body loses both fluid (water) as well as electrolytes. If you aren’t adequately hydrated at the start of your workout, and/or you don’t hydrate sufficiently during training, you will notice a significant decrease in performance, focus, and stamina as well as a significant increase in fatigue and perceived exertion.

 

Basically, when you’re not properly hydrated, exercise feels harder, takes more out of you, and you can’t perform as well.

 

If you keep trying to exercise in this dehydrated state, more severe symptoms of dehydration (cramping, dizziness, elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, etc.) can set in. This is why it’s critical to consume both water and electrolytes when you’re training, all the more so if you’re training in hot environments.

 

So, What Happens When You Don’t Drink Enough Water?

 

Besides the impaired performance, dizziness, and cramping, not drinking enough water also causes overall blood volume to decrease and plasma osmolality to increase.

 

As a result, blood pressure drops, which increases renin and angiotensin II concentrations. This leads to greater sodium and chloride reabsorption in the kidneys (as well as water), ultimately decreasing urine output.

 

Hydration Tips for Optimal Performance

 

By now, it’s pretty clear that hydration is essential to superior performance in your workouts, but the next question you’re probably wondering is:

 

“How much should I drink to perform my best?

 

We’ve got you covered there too.

 

The topic of hydration and athletics has been pretty heavily studied and several guidelines have been issued from various exercise associations such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

 

Here are some tips to keep in mind the next time you’re headed into a grueling workout:

 

Pre Workout (30 minutes prior to exercise)

 

Before warming up, stretching, or even taking your pre-workout, weigh yourself on a bathroom scale.

 

Remember this number.

 

While this might seem strange, just bare with us, all will become clear soon.

 

Next, drink 16-20 ounces of water along with some electrolytes and (depending on the intensity and duration of your workout) carbohydrates.

 

Intra Workout (during exercise)

 

Drink 6-8oz of fluid from water, a sports drink, or an intra workout supplement, such as Sport Amino, for every 15-20 minutes you’re training.

 

If you’re exercising over 60 minutes, it’s generally a good idea to add some carbohydrates to sustain energy levels and performance. Generally speaking, most people need between 30-60g of carbohydrates for every additional hour of training.

 

Our preferred pre and intra workout carb source is Tri-Carb, which contains a trio of fast-digesting, easy-on-the-stomach carbohydrates along with a full spectrum of electrolytes to support energy production, protect against muscle breakdown, and sustain performance.

 

Post Workout (after exercise)

 

After you’ve completed your workout, weigh yourself again.

 

For every pound of weight you lost during training, you need to consume 16-24oz of fluid containing both water and electrolytes.

 

Keep in mind that training outdoors or in gyms that have no air-conditioning unit will increase fluid and electrolyte losses, which means your water and electrolyte needs will be considerably greater than if you are exercising in a well-ventilated, air-conditioned gym.

 

Takeaway

 

Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge when dissolved in a fluid. Our bodies use them in countless biological functions including muscle contractions, blood clotting, and nerve impulse transmission, which means electrolytes are vital for optimal physical and mental performance.

 

If you train intensely, chances are good that you’ll need to make sure you’re consuming adequate amounts of water and electrolytes to sustain a high level of performance and avoid the possibility of cramping, fatigue, and/or injury.

 

References

  1. Riebl SK, Davy BM. The Hydration Equation: Update on Water Balance and Cognitive Performance. ACSMs Health Fit J. 2013;17(6):21–28. doi:10.1249/FIT.0b013e3182a9570f
  2.  Fong J, Khan A. Hypocalcemia: updates in diagnosis and management for primary care. Can Fam Physician. 2012;58(2):158–162.
  3. Buffington, M. A., & Abreo, K. (2016). Hyponatremia: A Review. Journal of Intensive Care Medicine, 31(4), 223–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/0885066614566794
  4. Kardalas E, Paschou SA, Anagnostis P, Muscogiuri G, Siasos G, Vryonidou A. Hypokalemia: a clinical update. Endocr Connect. 2018;7(4):R135–R146. doi:10.1530/EC-18-0109
  5. Svensen, C. (2019). 42 - Electrolytes and Diuretics. In H. C. Hemmings & T. D. B. T.-P. and P. for A. (Second E. Egan (Eds.) (pp. 814–835). Philadelphia: Elsevier. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-48110-6.00042-9
  6. "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines." Home of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion - Health.gov, health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
  7. Mente, A., O’Donnell, M., Rangarajan, S., McQueen, M., Dagenais, G., Wielgosz, A., Yusuf, S. (2018). Urinary sodium excretion, blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and mortality: a community-level prospective epidemiological cohort study. The Lancet, 392(10146), 496–506. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31376-X
  8. Clausen, T. (2003). Na+-K+ pump regulation and skeletal muscle contractility. Physiological Reviews, 83(4), 1269–1324. https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00011.2003
  9. Szent-Györgyi AG. Calcium regulation of muscle contraction. Biophys J. 1975;15(7):707–723. doi:10.1016/S0006-3495(75)85849-8

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