The words hydration and electrolytes are thrown around an awful lot in the fitness and nutrition industries. Athletes are often recommended to properly hydrate and also replenish electrolyte stores in the human body, but have you ever given any thought as to what electrolytes actually do in the body, and what is their role in regard to athletic performance?
We’ve got all those questions answered and a lot more up ahead as we dive headfirst into the world of electrolytes!
What Are Electrolytes?
In the simplest sense, electrolytes are salt ions dissolved in a fluid that enables the fluid to conduct electricity. There are several electrolytes present in the human body, but the four we’re most interested in, particularly in regard to performance, are sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
Sodium (“salt”) is used first and foremost for the regulation of blood pressure and blood volume. It also maintains fluid balance and is vital to muscle function. Neurons and muscle tissue are stimulated by sodium activity, which means if you’re sodium-deficient, your muscles are sluggish to respond, fatigue sooner, and will inevitably cramp.
Humans require a bare minimum of ~500mg / day of sodium in order to function properly, yet most individuals consume roughly 3,000-4,000mg / day. The American Heart Association (AHA) salt intake be limited to 2,300mg or less, and ideally suggests adults consume no more than 1,500mg / day.
While it’s often reported that excessive sodium intake will lead to high blood pressure and assorted other cardiovascular issues, recent research indicates that high intakes of sodium may actually lower blood pressure. 
However, sodium requirements for athletes and lay people are vastly different, and if you’re training intensely, you definitely do NOT want to limit sodium!
Studies conducted in high-level athletes documents that they can lose as much as 8,500mg of sodium in two hours of training. Unconditioned individuals may lose even more when training in the heat.
The bottom line is if you’re training vigorously multiple times per week you’re burning through sodium reserves at a rapid rate and replenishing them is a must if you want to continue to perform at a high level!
Magnesium may be the least understood and discussed electrolyte in regard to the overall function of the human body. It’s the fourth most abundant mineral in the body and is involved in more than 300 different reactions. Magnesium also happens to play a key role in DNA and RNA synthesis too.
Additionally, magnesium is also required for optimal nerve and muscle function, bone and teeth formation, immune system function, and maintaining stable blood sugar levels. Plus, it’s vital to maintaining a regular heartbeat and energy transmission in the body.
Magnesium can easily be obtained through the diet and is found in large amounts in nuts, leafy greens, tea, and coffee.
Think of potassium as the “sodium balancer”. Whereas sodium is located outside cell walls, potassium is the primary electrolyte within your cells. Potassium is crucial to controlling heartbeat and muscle function. It also forms the other half of the electrical pump that regulates the balance of electrolytes in the cell and allows for conductivity. Due to this critical function, potassium also plays a role in neurotransmission, supporting communication between nerves.
Similar to sodium, potassium is significantly depleted during intense training. If you think it’s important to replenish sodium during/after training, potassium is as important as sodium, and potentially even more important since to regulates muscle contraction and neurotransmission. Potassium deficiencies can lead to cramping, fatigue, and injury, which further highlights its importance in regard to performance. Plus, potassium also helps your muscles store carbs for energy, which will certainly come in handy to longer and more intensely you train.
Calcium is the most abundant, and well known, electrolyte, rivaled in notoriety only by sodium. You’re well acquainted with calcium’s role in regard to bone health and development, but you may be surprised to learn it also impacts your performance.
More specifically, calcium is vital to nerve impulse transmission, blood clotting, and muscle contraction. If blood levels of calcium are low, your body then leaches calcium from your bones, which can eventually lead to brittle bones and osteoporosis.
Electrolyte Consumption for Performance
Proper hydrated is always important, but even more so when talking about athletic performance. Did you know that even as little as a 2% drop in hydration levels can result in fatigue, cramping, and impaired brain function?
It’s true, which is why you absolutely must be properly hydrating around the clock, and especially in the time before, during and after your workout. Following are some guidelines to help you stay properly hydrated at all times
30 minutes Before Training
Step on a scale and weigh yourself, remember this number, you’ll see why in a moment.
Consume 16-20oz of fluid + carbohydrates and electrolytes from food or in the form of a sports nutrition supplement such as Steel Fuel™ All-In-One BCAA + Hydration Formula.
Consume 6-8oz of liquid (from water alone or mixed with BCAAs such as Steel Fuel™) for every 15-20 minutes of activity and remember to consume approximately 30-60g of carbohydrates for every hour you’re training.
Weigh yourself again and subtract this new number from your initial pre-training weight.
For every pound of water weight lost during training, consume 16-24oz water along with some electrolytes, which can be found in Steel Fuel™.
Hydration isn’t just important in the hours pre and post training, it’s important in the days and weeks leading up to your big day of competition. Far too many times, athletes make the mistake of only slamming water in the hours leading up to the big game, and what they fail to realize is that your nutrition and fluid intake in the days leading up to the competition are as important as what you do immediately before the game.
No athlete wants to suffer the effects of hyponatremia, during or after competing, which is why this quick-reference guide was created. Use the information contained in here to fuel up properly and ensure your electrolyte stores never bottom out when you need them most!
- Moore LL, Singer MR, Bradlee ML. Low Sodium Intakes are Not Associated with Lower Blood Pressure Levels among Framingham Offspring Study Adults. FASEB J . 2017;31(1 Supplement):446.6-446.6. http://www.fasebj.org/content/31/1_Supplement/446.6.abstract.