Electrolyte Right

Maximize performance, minimize bloat and supercharge your motor with the proper dosing of these key minerals.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Thanks to decades of hard marketing from folks in the sports drink business, we’ve been led to believe that electrolytes are critical for maintaining high levels of performance on the field and in the gym, which begs the question: What’s an electrolyte?

The path to that answer takes us through the wide world of dietary minerals, the inorganic elements that the body needs to function properly. Macrominerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium form the body’s much-needed electrolytes, which are basically mineral salts that carry an electrical charge (either positive or negative). These highly promoted, little-understood substances help to maintain nerve activity, muscle function (contraction and relaxation) and blood acid-base balance, all of which factor heavily into physical activity.

The importance of macromineral supplements for athletes is commonly overlooked, as most of us tend to believe that we get enough from our diets or that the kidneys can make up for dietary shortcomings by selectively regulating fluid and mineral balance to maintain normal blood pH. Certainly, under normal healthy conditions, diet and kidney function may suffice to balance macrominerals. Yet consuming a high-protein diet, as well as stress from exercise, work and/or caloric restriction, can increase the acidic load in the blood and boost an athlete’s electrolyte requirements. Beyond increased acidic load, heavy sweating during intense training can rapidly diminish blood electrolytes, which can further disrupt the blood acid-base balance.

Maligned and misunderstood no more, electrolytes should regain their rightful place on your shopping list. Then get ready to supercharge your workouts and well-being.

Calcium (Ca) is critical for building muscle. Not only does it maintain bone health, but it’s intimately involved in muscular contraction and relaxation. Research also indicates that adequate calcium ingestion increases fat metabolism, decreases fat storage and aids absorption of macronutrients like protein. In addition, recent evidence shows that calcium can trigger greater anabolic testosterone release after a bout of heavy training.


Sources: Dairy products, legumes, salmon, sardines, tofu.

Signs of Deficiency: Early symptoms include brittle nails, muscle cramps, twitching eyes and yellowing of teeth.

Dosage: For best results, take 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams of calcium citrate, which is generally better absorbed, daily. The body can absorb only about 600 milligrams of calcium at a time, so two to three smaller doses per day is preferable to a single, larger dose. Remember to adjust your dose based on the amount of calcium you get from dietary means. And since calcium can interact with the absorption of other drugs and nutrients, make sure you take it two to three hours before or after taking other supplements.

Magnesium (Mg), the fourth most abundant mineral found in the body, is vital for proper nerve and muscle function. It keeps the heart beating regularly, maintains bone health and supports the immune system. In terms of muscle growth, magnesium is highly involved in regulating blood glucose levels and protein synthesis. Research shows that many North Americans (especially athletes) are deficient in this key mineral.


Sources: Almonds, cashews, green vegetables (like spinach), halibut, legumes, whole grains.

Signs of Deficiency: Fatigue, involuntary muscle contractions, loss of appetite, muscle cramping, muscle weakness.

Dosage: Although there are no reported dangers with excessive magnesium ingestion, you may note stomach cramps and diarrhea with too much. The upper limit is about 350 to 450 milligrams per day.

Potassium (K) is needed for proper muscle, nerve and organ function; it also helps maintain bone health and has been linked to healthy blood pressure. Potassium supplementation has been shown to decrease muscle soreness and aid in maintaining water balance and normal muscle contraction, especially under conditions of caloric restriction (where deficiencies may occur). For those who eat a well-balanced and varied diet, potassium supplements are unnecessary. However, those undergoing strict dieting may find it very useful to supplement with potassium.


Sources: Bananas, citrus fruits, legumes, milk, potatoes, tomatoes.

Signs of Deficiency: Fatigue, involuntary muscle contractions, loss of appetite, muscle cramping, muscle weakness.

Dosage: Taking too much potassium can result in cardiac arrest and be fatal. Be sure to consider your fruit and vegetable intake before deciding to take a potassium supplement. For those on a strict diet that’s nearly devoid of fruits and vegetables, taking up to 300 to 500 milligrams per day in three to five 100-milligram doses should suffice.

Sodium (Na) receives a lot of negative press, as excessive amounts can lead to heart disease and stroke. For those looking to get bigger and leaner, excessive sodium in the diet can result in water retention and a bloated appearance, pretty much the opposite of the desired outcome. However, sodium in proper amounts is necessary for normal muscle and nerve function and body fluid balance, and it takes time to learn how sodium levels affect both performance and aesthetics. Athletes should be aware of their sodium requirements, as electrolytes are lost with sweating. If you replace fluids with only water, a sodium imbalance may occur and result in a potentially dangerous condition called hyponatremia.


Sources: Dairy, eggs, meat, pickles, smoked salmon, soda pop, sports drinks, table salt (NaCl).

Signs of Deficiency: Dizziness, low blood pressure, muscle cramps, muscle weakness.

Dosage: While some physicians advocate a lower intake of less than 2,000 milligrams per day, research has shown that the sweet spot for sodium consumption for most individuals is between 2,000 and 4,000 milligrams daily. Going above or below those amounts has been shown to negatively impact health.