Buzzword or backed by science? You’ve heard about electrolytes and seen the word imprinted on every neon-coloured sports drink. Here’s how they can affect your performance in the squat rack.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential minerals located in your blood and other bodily fluids. In addition to being vital for the everyday functioning of your body, they’re also needed by your muscles to contract and release and to recover quicker. When your electrolyte levels are too low your muscle contractions will be slower, meaning decreased speed and strength which can turn your next heavy lift into a hot mess.
Each electrolyte has a specific function for your body, here are some of the primary ones.
Sodium: Helps control fluids in the body and impacts on blood pressure. Sodium is also vital for nerve and muscle function.
Chloride: Helps balance electrolytes and is important for digestion.
Potassium: Regulates your blood pressure, while contributing to bone health.
Magnesium: Helps maintain heart rhythm, regulate blood glucose levels and enhances your immune system.
Calcium: Key component of bones and teeth. Important to the movement of nerve impulses and muscle movement.
While every electrolyte is essential, sodium is most likely to have the biggest impact on your performance at the gym, with every rep you perform dependent on sodium for the muscle contraction to occur. It’s also the electrolyte you’re most likely to be deficient in as a result of those daily sweat-soaked HIIT sessions. When you lose too much sodium through sweat, you’ll find that your strength and muscle endurance suffers, especially if your workout lasts longer than 60 minutes. Low sodium levels will also affect your recovery - your blood volume will decrease which means less oxygen and nutrients delivered to help the working muscles repair, and you’ll also retain less water.
So when it comes to adding another plate to your back squat or beating that stair climber record, sodium (and to a lesser extent Potassium) are the key electrolytes you should focus on.
So can I just add a spoonful of salt to my water jug?
Not quite. Remember, when we talk about sodium intake, we’re not talking about your standard table salt. Before you reach for the salt shaker, remember that table salt you pour on your cheat day chips is actually sodium chloride (about 40% sodium and 60% chloride).
Hold up. I thought too much salt was bad for you?
While your body absolutely needs sodium, it’s true that excessive levels can elevate your blood pressure and create an added burden on the heart. However if you’re a lifter hitting high-intensity workouts on a regular basis, it’s rare you’ll reach that level of excess. You’ll be sweating out much more sodium than most, and like most athletes and fitness-conscious people, you’ll probably have minimal sodium in your diet to begin with.
So what can I do to keep my electrolytes in order?
Here’s a few of our top tips to ensure you’re never too low in sodium or other essential electrolytes
1. Leafy greens, potatoes, berries and canned tuna are the foods most rich in electrolytes. Consider adding these into your diet if you haven’t already. Remember if sweaty cardio sessions and leg days are a daily ritual for you (as well as a healthy diet), some extra sodium could be beneficial for you.
2. Ever stepped off the stairmaster and straight onto the scale to find that you’ve shed a few pounds? That’s mostly fluid loss, and you’ll want to replace that to optimise your recovery. On average you’ll need to replenish 230 to 920mg of sodium per pound of sweat lost during your workout, but a good rule of thumb is two grams of sodium for each liter of water replacement, keeping in mind many athletes are under-hydrated to begin with.
3. Women typically have lower sweating rates than men, typically due to smaller body size & lower metabolic rate. This means that female lifters may not need to take in as much extra sodium as males.
4. Check the colour of your urine. If it’s clear and looks like water, you’re probably drinking too much H20 and need more sodium in your diet. The colour you want is a pale shade of yellow, which means you’re both well hydrated and getting enough sodium. Clear urine is an indicator that sodium levels in your body are too low.
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