The Importance of Electrolytes for Athletes

Growing up my only experiences with electrolytes was watching some intense Sidney Crosby Gatorade commercials where he swung some ropes and dropped heavy weights dramatically, and learning from my parents that if you drink some after a night out you can prevent a hangover.

But after learning that 7-Time Super Bowl Champion Tom Brady places hydration and electrolytes as one of the most important pillars of his athletic performance I had to learn more.

What exactly are electrolytes? And why should I care about them as an athlete? All this will be answered, plus how to make your own electrolyte drink at home and the best electrolyte supplements on the market today!

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are essential minerals in your body that carry an electrical charge. They are critical for muscle contraction and play a key role in hydration, two functions that are very important for athletes.

Examples of electrolytes that play important roles in the body include:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium

Our primary focus is going to be sodium as it controls our fluid retention within our bodies.

Hydration is incredibly important for athletic performance with one study finding that a decrease in body weight of 2% as a result of dehydration can reduce athletic performance by as much as 6.7%! (1)

Most sports are games of inches and a loss of 6.7% in performance isn’t the difference between winning and losing... it’s the difference between dominating and getting blown out.

Click here if you want to learn more about the importance of hydration and how to maximize your own hydration.

So we know that hydration is important but what does that have to do with electrolytes? How does consuming salt (sodium-chloride) make you more hydrated? Shouldn’t it be the opposite?

Benefits of Electrolytes

Your body’s cells have an ideal ratio of sodium to water and they always want to return to that ideal ratio. When you consume electrolytes the cells in your body become saturated with sodium.

As a result, your cells become “thirsty” as they want to get back to that ideal ratio. They begin to draw in the water in your body through the process of osmosis.

This increased water retention prevents dehydration and allows your body to store more water for later use (sweat, lubrication, athletic output).

Here’s some handy diagrams:

Photo of a neutral cell during osmosis
Photo of a saturated cell during osmosis
Photo of a hydrated cell during osmosis

How To Use Electrolytes Effectively

Too much sodium and potassium can lead to dizziness, headaches, or vomiting... but it is extremely rare for athletes to experience these adverse effects as they are constantly sweating out sodium and potassium, and are hopefully consuming large amounts of water preventing oversaturation.

So how many electrolytes should I take in a day?

Tom Brady is at the extreme end of electrolyte consumption as he puts electrolytes in every glass of water, juice, beer, anything.

Combined with the fact that he drinks over eight litres of water on a training day, dude stays hydrated! It’s hard to argue with someone who is 43 years old and is still winning Super Bowls.

Consistently consuming electrolytes throughout the day is a valid strategy (that I do myself), but it can be expensive if your are looking at the high-end electrolyte supplements like BioSteel or TB12 which can run you $10+ per day to get 2-4 litres of water with electrolytes.

So if you are looking to use your expensive electrolytes strategically I like to roll with the strategy of consuming 16oz or 500ml of water with electrolytes about an hour before your training, practice, or game.

In addition, drink another 16oz or 500ml during your training, practice, or game to replace any lost salts due to sweating. If you do this, plus drink some regular water throughout depending on the intensity, you’ll perform better and exit any physical activity hydrated and ready to recover effectively.

Click here to find out how much water you should drink on a daily basis using our hydration calculator!

How to Make Homemade Electrolytes

Table Salt

With all this talk about how expensive electrolyte supplements can be the question I often get is: “Can I make electrolytes at home”, and the answer is an overwhelming yes! And it’s super easy!

Finding electrolytes in your house is as simple as picking up your table salt.

80% of the benefits of these expensive electrolyte supplements is just salt. Sodium Chloride (a.k.a. salt) is all you need to saturate your cells to draw in more water.

Making a homemade electrolyte solution is as simple as sprinkling around a gram of salt (1/4 tsp) per litre of water.

You won’t even be able to taste the salt so don’t worry about it on that end, but if you want to, you can get fancy with your homemade electrolyte solutions by adding coconut water or lemon to add some flavour while getting more electrolytes.

Don’t be scared of a little salt in your water!

Himalayan Pink Salt

If you’re looking to step your salt game up to the next level the obvious choice is Himalyan Pink Salt.

Photo of a Himalyan Pink Salt by Anastasia Zhenina

Outside of just sodium chloride, Himalayan Pink Salt contains over 80 different minerals including relatively high levels of potassium, calcium and magnesium, all important electrolytes that need to be replenished over the course of physical activity to maintain peak performance (5).

Best Electrolyte Supplements for Athletes

I mentioned earlier that 80% of the benefits of electrolyte supplements is simply salt, but what about the other 20%?

Outside of simply convenience and taste, the other 20% of benefits comes from the other minerals that the majority of electrolyte supplements add to their mix.

For example, TB12 adds 72 trace minerals to their electrolyte blend to replenish your other critical mineral-levels. It certainly can’t hurt to replenish all your other minerals, with potassium and calcium specifically, being critical in muscle contraction and the prevention of cramping.

Photo of a TB12 Electrolytes

One note - While TB12’s Electrolytes are not NSF certified the majority of their other product are, and because electrolytes are a low-risk supplement when it comes to banned substances, we still choose to promote and use their products

BioSteel on the other hand jam-pack their electrolytes with a bunch of other useful ingredients like beetroot powder, Vitamin B, and amino acids.

Photo of a BioSteel Electrolytes

BioSteel products are NSF Certified so you can be sure they’ll be safe to use and free of any banned substances.

Beetroot powder contains nitrates which have the power to improve athletic performance particularly in endurance athletes where studies have found that nitrates may increase oxygen use by 20% (2).

Vitamin B plays an important role in “energy production, red blood-cell formation, and muscle building/repair (3). Amino acids on the other hand are the building blocks of protein and have been shown to improve muscle growth and reduce muscle soreness post-exercise (4).

Conclusion

By saturating your cells with sodium, electrolytes improve water retention keeping your body hydrated and as a result, improving athletic output significantly and kickstarting your recovery. Electrolytes should be a tool in every athlete’s toolbox and with consistent use is guaranteed to improve athletic performance.

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References

  1. Armstrong LE, Costill DL, Fink WJ. Influence of diuretic-induced dehydration on competitive running performance. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/4033401/
  2. Murphy M, Eliot K, Heuertz RM, Weiss E. Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22709704/
  3. Brown E, The Truth About Vitamin B Supplements and Athletes. https://www.active.com/nutrition/articles/the-truth-about-vitamin-b-supplements-and-athletes
  4. Van de Walle G, 5 Proven Benefits of BCAAs https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-bcaa
  5. Olsen N, Pink Himalayan Salt https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/

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