Are electrolyte and hydration supplements worth taking? Can they boost your performance, and prevent dehydration and muscle cramps, or are they a ripoff? The good news is electrolyte drinks, pills, and powders are well studied, and I’m going to dive into what the science says.
Proponents and companies peddling these supplements claim you lose large amounts of electrolytes (like sodium, potassium, and magnesium) when you sweat, and your performance, mood, and overall health will quickly wane if you don’t replenish these vital minerals.
Do you really need to refresh your electrolyte levels, though, or can you get everything you need from food? And when it comes to hydration, are there any benefits to drinking special, salty water?
Listen to this podcast to find out!
0:00 – My free quiz to answer all your diet questions: www.muscleforlife.show/dietquiz
2:40 – What are electrolytes/hydration supplements?
4:24 – Why do people take these supplements?
7:31 – Do electrolytes affect performance?
9:21 – What is the salty sweater claim?
15:58 – Can electrolytes cure or prevent muscle cramps?
20:28 – Do electrolytes help keep you hydrated?
24:02 Are electrolytes dangerous?
25:08 – What is the final take on electrolytes?
Mentioned on the Show:
Take this free quiz to get science-based answers to all of your diet questions: www.muscleforlife.show/dietquiz
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Hey, hey, and welcome to Muscle for Life. This is your host, Michael Matthews. Thank you for joining me today to learn about electrolyte slash hydration supplements, which are having a bit of a moment. Endurance athletes have been taking these kinds of supplements during workouts and races for a long time now, for decades now, but recently.
They have become more mainstream. They have become popular with everyone from CrossFitters to tennis champions, to weekend warriors, even to couch potatoes. And there are a lot of these products out there now and more and more popping up every month. It seems many are one size fits all. Some. Purportedly are personalized to you based on blood test results, and people have been asking me what my thoughts are on these supplements and why I don’t sell one.
Why Legion does not sell one. Why are people clamoring for these salty pills, powders, drinks, chew and potions. Well, according to the companies pedaling these products, when you sweat, you lose large amounts of electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium. And if you don’t replenish these vital minerals, you will quickly become dehydrated and your performance, mood and overall health will suffer.
Are those claims true though? Do you really need to refresh your electrolyte levels with special supplements, or can you just get everything you need from food? And what about hydration? Staying hydrated? Can you just drink water when you’re thirsty? Or is there a special benefit to drinking salty water when you’re thirsty?
Before we get into it, how many calories should you eat to reach your fitness goals faster? What about your macros? What types of food should you eat, and how many meals should you eat every day? Well, I created a free 62nd diet quiz that’ll answer those questions for you and others, including how much alcohol you should drink, whether you should eat more fatty fish to get enough omega three fatty acids.
What supplements are worth taking and why? And more to take the quiz and get your free personalized diet plan. Go to Muscle for Life show slash diet quiz muscle fo r life show slash diet quiz now answer the questions and learn what you need to do in the kitchen to lose fat, build muscle, and get healthy.
So let’s start this discussion with a quick overview of electrolyte slash hydration supplements. What are they exactly? Well, The technical definition of an electrolyte is a compound that produces positive or negative ions when dissolved in a liquid like water. And an ion is an atom or a molecule with a net electric charge, so negative or positive due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons.
That’s the technical definition of an ion. Now, when it comes to nutrition, the term electrolyte refers specifically to a handful of minerals. The main ones are sodium, potassium, magnesium, phosphate, chloride, calcium, and bicarbonate. And when these minerals dissolve into bodily fluids, they create electrically charged ions.
Now these compounds create an internal environment in the body that is conducive to many important functions including muscle contraction. Nerve function, tissue repair, hydration and nutrient absorption. And so then an electrolyte supplement is simply a product that contains a mix of electrolytes, and it’s typically sodium with small amounts of potassium and magnesium.
Now, most of these supplements that come in a powder that you mix with water and you drink, but you can also buy electrolyte supplements in ready to drink forms, RTDs, as well as tablets. Capsules bars, gels, chews. There are a number of delivery mechanisms, I guess you could say, for different use cases. For example, if you are on a long bike ride, you probably don’t want to have an R T D or three with you.
You’d rather just go with some chews or some gel or some little jelly beans. Now, why do people take these supplements? Well, most of them would say, To stay hydrated. That’s the word, right? And that’s especially important. They are told, and they often think when they’re working out in hot, humid environments.
So here’s the pitch. If you don’t take the extra electrolytes, your body’s store of electrolytes will quickly dwindle when you’re exercising, especially when you’re outside hot, humid. Or inside hot, humid, sweating. And when that happens, you are going to experience worse performance. You’re going to experience brain fog, fatigue, muscle cramps, and you can even experience heat, stroke, fainting, and maybe even death if you don’t take the supplements.
Now, as you can imagine, this has made. These products, a hobby horse among athletes, especially endurance athletes who often do pretty intense workouts and competitions in hot environments and do a lot of sweating. For example, it’s common to see triathletes, cyclists, runners, and tennis, basketball, football, and soccer players sipping on an electrolyte drink during their workouts, during matches, during competitions, and rizing about their many benefits on social media.
Hashtag sponsored, and there’s no question that the marketing works. Research even shows the marketing works. For example, one study conducted by scientists at Loyola University Medical Center found that 58% of the runners sampled said that they drank sports drinks that contained electrolytes to prevent their blood sodium levels from getting too low.
Now, you have probably already guessed where I’m going in this podcast, that electrolyte supplements, hydration supplements are a waste of money. And I have to say that I was disappointed to learn this because over the last six months or so, more and more people have been asking. Legion, my sports nutrition company, why we don’t sell an electrolyte hydration supplement, asking us to create an electrolyte supplement.
And when I decided to look into this, I was hoping that there was good science on the side of these supplements because, It could make Legion a lot of money, and if it is legitimate, it could also help people do better in their training. But unfortunately for me and Legion and many of Legion’s customers, electrolyte supplements are a dud.
They are cut from the same cloth as BCAAs Tasty Water that doesn’t deliver on any of their quote unquote science-based. Promises. The truth is electrolytes slash hydration supplements have been extensively studied, and the weight of the evidence clearly shows that they are no better than just drinking water.
They do not improve performance. They do not prevent muscle cramps, and they don’t help you stay better hydrated. Instead, what they do is give you a tiny dose of minerals that you could just get from food for a fraction of the price. So let’s now dive into the scientific evidence for my claims. Let’s talk about performance, because this is probably the number one reason people drink these electrolyte hydration supplements.
They want to improve their athletic performance. I. Or more specifically, they want to ward off a decrease in performance that they believe occurs when they start hemorrhaging electrolytes during exercise. So, for example, Gatorade claims that there are thirst, quencher beverage is the most scientifically researched and game tested weight or replace the electrolytes you lose in sweat.
Gatorade relies on a number of big celebrity endorsements like LeBron James, Serena Williams, tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, to affirm their product, and that is the substance of most of the electrolyte supplement marketing. You drink or you eat this stuff and you will be a better athlete. It’s a nice pitch because it’s easy to understand.
It is purportedly evidence-based and the solution is. Simple. Just drink this tasty drink. The entire argument though, it hinges on the idea that you lose a lot of electrolytes, especially sodium when you sweat, and that that then leads to poor performance. And while you also lose small amounts of potassium, magnesium, other minerals during exercise, sodium is the main one.
That is often used in studies as a proxy for your overall electrolyte losses. And according to the companies that sell these products, electrolyte loss, particularly harms salty sweaters, you will see these companies refer to people who supposedly lose a lot more sodium on other electrolytes through sweating than average.
And if you are a salty sweater, then you can really benefit from one of these supplements. Let’s start with the salty sweater claim. Even with no science-based standardized definition of what that really means, what a salty sweater is, such conditions still would not be enough to warrant supplementation as exercise physiologist.
Ross Tucker explains in a series of excellent articles on this over on his website, sport scientists.com, even the saltiest of sweaters only lose a small amount of electrolytes when they sweat. In fact, sweat has a much lower concentration of electrolytes than your blood. And in science jargon, your sweat is hypotonic or less salty than your blood.
So specifically, your blood has about 140 millimoles of sodium per liter. And a millimole, by the way, is just a substance that has a lot of molecules or atoms. The number is six, followed by 23 zeros a lot. Your sweat though contains closer to just 2260 millimoles per liter. And when you sweat the concentration of electrolytes in your body, in your blood, it actually rises because you lose a lot more water than sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes.
And so right away you start to question the logic of supplementing with electrolytes when the concentration of the electrolytes in your body is rising. Because you’re losing a lot of water, but not a lot of electrolytes. What’s more the low concentration of electrolytes in drinks like Gatorade, Powerade, Cytomax, and so on, barely moves the needle in actually changing your body’s electrolyte.
I. Chemistry. For instance, if a runner loses about two liters of sweat during a two hour run and then drinks one liter of water, he’ll lose about 4.6 grams of sodium, and that’s assuming he is a saltier sweater than average, by the way. And if he downs a sports drink, he will still lose about 4.2 grams of sodium.
And that’s just too insignificant of a difference to matter. That is too little of a difference to affect his performance levels, for example. And just to put that in perspective, that’s the amount of sodium in about one sixth of a teaspoon of table salt. And that lack of impact was demonstrated in research in a study conducted by scientists at Pennsylvania State University.
They showed that people who drank water or Gatorade during runs wound up with the same blood concentrations of sodium afterward. In other words, while you do lose some electrolytes in your sweat, the amounts are just too small to matter, and they’re easily replenished over the course of the day from eating normal foods.
And this has been shown to be true even in the case of extreme endurance exercise as demonstrated in a study on Iron Man triathletes at the University of Cape Town, and in this case, Scientists divided 413 triathletes competing in the 2001 Cape Town. Ironman into three groups. An electrolyte group that consumed salt tablets, a placebo group that consumed starch, uh, placebo tablets, and a control group that didn’t consume any special supplements.
Each salt tablet contained 620 milligrams of table salt, so just sodium chloride. And the athletes were encouraged to consume one to four tablets per hour. Now, on average, these athletes downed about nine salt tablets during the race, which provided about 3.6 grams of sodium because sodium chloride is about 40% sodium, and the result was all three groups, blood levels of sodium were within the normal healthy range.
Taking the electrolyte supplements, taking the sodium supplements, the sodium chloride made absolutely no difference. And the scientists concluded that sodium supplementation was not necessary to preserve serum blood sodium concentrations in athletes. I. Competing for about 12 hours in an Ironman triathlon.
And in case you are wondering about the conditions of this race, the temperature was about 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the day, and these people lost several gallons of sweat apiece. And again, the salt tablets didn’t. Make any meaningful difference. Further bolstering these findings is a study published in 2018 in the International Journal of Sports Science that reviewed five studies on the effects of sodium supplementation on endurance performance, and concluded that quote, there is minimal evidence to draw a link between sodium ingestion and endurance performance.
In other words, most studies found no benefit to taking. Sodium supplements. Now there are some salty, sorry, couldn’t resist electrolyte zealots out there who sniff at these studies, and they claim that you have to consume much larger amounts of sodium to see the benefits and much larger amounts of these other electrolytes.
But this is silly for two reasons. First, Most studies, including the one on Iron Man, triathletes have found that people who don’t consume electrolyte supplements still have healthy, normal levels of electrolytes in their blood. And there’s no evidence that boosting electrolyte levels above and beyond healthy and normal further improves performance.
And second, even if you could choke down large amounts of salt and other minerals during exercise, it wouldn’t necessarily be absorbed and it could lead to other. Problems as exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist Dr. Stacy Sims has pointed out when you consume lots of salt, this can pull water out of your bloodstream and into your intestines as your body tries to dilute the salt concentration in your digestive system.
And that’s a process known as reverse water fluxx. And while that’s not a big deal at rest, so go ahead and enjoy the pizza or enjoy the salty burger and fries. It can lead to bloating, sloshing, and stomach cramps while working out, and again, it’s totally unnecessary, consuming that much salt. While training does not offer any benefits over just drinking water.
So the bottom line here is electrolyte supplements are a busted flush when it comes to improving performance. Your body’s extremely adept at regulating its sodium and its electrolyte levels during exercise. By controlling your thirst. You don’t lose enough of these minerals during exercise to benefit from supplementation.
Now let’s talk about muscle cramps because this is another off touted claim that you can prevent or you can cure muscle cramps by swinging electrolytes supplements before, during, and after training. And supposedly a loss of electrolytes disrupts muscular signaling in such a way that your nerves short circuit and that leads to workout killing Charlie horses.
It’s often likened to a car that’s running low on oil, and when your electrolyte levels finally peter out, the machine just grinds to a halt. Artful marketing. But piffle scientists still aren’t sure about what exactly causes muscle cramps, what research has shown I. Time after time that electrolyte depletion is not the culprit.
One particularly illuminating study conducted by scientists at the University of Cape Town measured the electrolyte levels and incidents of muscle cramps in 72 runners in the two Oceans Ultra Marathon, which is a 35 mile foot race that snakes around the mountains of Southern Africa. 45 of these runners also had a history of muscle cramps while running, and unlike many studies, which only measured sodium levels, these researchers subjected the runners to a bevy of blood tests before, immediately after, and 60 minutes after the race.
And they measured the runner’s levels of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, as well as various markers of hydration such as blood plasma and red blood cell volume. The result. Yeah, you guessed it. The researchers found no relationship between the runner’s, electrolyte levels, and their incidents or severity of cramping.
In other words, people who experienced frequent severe muscle cramps during the race were no more likely to have low electrolyte levels than people who didn’t cramp, and they also found. The scientists also found no association between cramping and dehydration. One recent scientific review conducted by scientists at the Shanghai Research Institute even suggested that high levels of electrolytes could catalyze muscle cramps.
I. The researchers speculated that since dehydration typically causes plasma electrolyte levels to rise, this could muddle nerve signals related to muscular contraction and that could lead to cramps. Now, that is still just a theory, but most studies have found zero association between cramping and electrolyte levels.
Weather high. Or low. So then if having low or maybe even high electrolyte levels does not cause cramps, what does? Well, scientists still haven’t found a smoking gun. But one of the strongest current theories is that cramps are the result of altered neuromuscular control. So basically there is a disruption in the electrical signals that then cause muscles to contract, which makes them contract for too long.
And at. The wrong times, and it’s not clear what causes this pesky phenomenon, but the most plausible theories include racing at a higher intensity than you’ve trained for. So pushing yourself much harder in competition than normal training in conditions you are not accustomed to. So maybe very hot.
Humid weather when you don’t normally exercise or train in that kind of weather, or not eating enough carbs before or during exercise, and the culprit there would be muscle glycogen depletion. So basically to summarize these theories, you could say inadequate preparation for the demands of the sport or the event or the competition.
Now if you probe around online, you can find many people who disagree with this research, who try to poke holes in it, but look at the details and you will find that it always boils down to anecdotes. My friend’s wife, who’s a doctor and a triathlete, says she always takes electrolytes wall training because X, Y, Z.
Oh, this social media influencer who is also a high level athlete, they swear by this low cost, super high margin electrolyte supplement. Do you think you know better than they do? Or somebody says they don’t care what the science says. They have not had a single cramp since they started taking this electrolyte supplement.
And if you are swayed by these kinds of arguments, then take a flyer on. These supplements, they’re not gonna hurt you, but just know that the science says they are no better than water and that you’ll probably have better luck beating off cramps by just improving your training, not slurping down salty sports drinks.
What about hydration? Do electrolyte supplements help you stay hydrated? No, they do not. Now this is clever. This is a nice little sleight of hand that supplement companies have done because they’ve tried to redefine dehydration as a loss of fluid and electrolytes, and this is why you will often see electrolytes supplements branded as hydration supplements as if they were equivalent.
And we can start to unravel this line of reasoning by flipping open the dictionary. Let’s look at the Oxford English dictionary, which defines dehydration as the loss or removal of water from something and a harmful reduction in the amount of water in the body. I. You notice how electrolyte is not in there?
Well, semantic arguments aside, electrolytes do play a role in maintaining proper hydration levels, but your body has no trouble maintaining adequate electrolyte levels without supplementation, even during extreme workouts, 12 plus hour long workouts in the heat. And if I were trying to sell you one of these supplements, I might counter that and say that.
Well, electrolytes, they don’t directly help you stay hydrated. They indirectly help you stay hydrated by encouraging you to drink more water. And then I would recite a well worn and erroneous statistic that losing even one to 2% of your body weight, which is a proxy for body water, can reduce your athletic performance by 10% or more.
Therefore, if even mild dehydration, banja is your performance and drinking more helps you avoid dehydration and electrolyte supplements help you drink more, then electrolyte supplements help you avoid dehydration. I. So will that be cash or credit, my friend? So sophistry, pure. So sophistry, the first part of this argument is true.
Most people naturally drink more of a salty electrolyte drink than plain water when they are given the choice, but that isn’t desirable. After years of being bombarded with marketing messages about the importance of hydration, many athletes have developed. A monomaniacal focus on drinking as much water as possible.
You will often hear people say that you have to drink big, or you should drink before you get thirsty. By that time, it’s too late or drink enough so you don’t lose any body weight by the end of your workout. This hand wringing over hydration is not only unnecessary, it can decrease performance, and it can even be dangerous because studies have repeatedly shown that mild dehydration, usually around one to 5%, does not impair performance in runners, cyclists, and other athletes, and even emb, balmy hot or humid conditions and forcing yourself to drink more.
Than is just required to quench your thirst, does not improve performance and may even decrease. Performance research also shows that the fastest athletes also tend to be the most dehydrated at the end of races. And one of the most extreme examples of this was a runner who lost 9.8% of his body weight in the course of winning the 2009 Dubai Marathon in a time of two hours, five minutes, and 29 seconds.
So the bottom line is that humans are perfectly capable of losing moderate amounts of fluid while racing and training, and they have no problem rehydrating later in the day simply by drinking to thirst. Now, I mentioned dangerous earlier because guzzling excessive amounts of fluid with or without electrolytes can also quickly dilute the electrolyte concentration of your blood, leading to a condition known as exercise associated hyponatremia.
Also known as water intoxication, and this can be very serious. This condition kills far more people than dehydration, for example, and it’s also harder to rectify once it sets in. The best way to avoid it is to just drink. To thirst, which will usually lead to a small harmless degree of dehydration by the end of your workout or race that will then just naturally resolve itself throughout the day.
Now, I could go on about over hydration. There’s actually a lot more that could be said about that. But in the final analysis, the data shows two things. One, you don’t need electrolyte supplements or beverages to hydrate just. Plain old water is fine. And two, you don’t need to make yourself drink more than your thirst dictates.
And doing so could actually impair your performance and endanger your health if you take it to extremes. So where does all of this leave us? Well, I. Electrolyte hydration supplements. These are cheap and they are aggressively marketed and they taste pretty good usually, and that’s about it. That’s all they have to offer.
Inexpensive minerals, you can get easily from food, usually mixed with some flavoring, some sweetening, maybe some food dyes, and wrapped up in some glittery packaging and that includes Gatorade just as well as about every other sports drink you can think of and all of the gym crack. Hydration supplements that are omnipresent at endurance competitions and that are now.
Showing up in gyms and all over the interwebs, all over social media, and while there isn’t a good evidence-based reason to buy and take these supplements, if you are currently using a hydration or an electrolyte supplement and you just like it, maybe you like how it tastes, maybe you swear that you notice a difference in performance or cramping or something else, even though you know now that the weight of the evidence is against such claims.
Then keep taking the hydration supplement. It’s not going to hurt you unless you overconsume it or if you overconsume water if it leads you to overconsume water. But that is usually only an issue among more hardcore endurance athletes who are drinking a lot of water a lot more than they need to during long workouts or races or competitions.
If you are not one of those people, if you are a a normal everyday gym goer, who just likes to sip on your salty, Electrolyte drink in between sets. Enjoy. And as I mentioned earlier in the podcast, I wish I were wrong. I was actually hoping that this little study of mine was going to turn up a lot of really good evidence for electrolyte supplements, because then I would’ve happily made one.
So I could meet the demand that is in legion’s inbox. Almost every day. Almost every day, somebody asks if we are going to make one of these products, or why we have not made one of these products. Because if we did have one, they would buy it. Same thing goes for BCAAs. We get asked all the time to make BCAAs.
I wish there were a good evidence-based reason to use BCAAs because then I could make a B, C, A A product and give a lot of my customers what they want and make Legion more successful. But I am more interested in sticking to good science and being a good shepherd, so to speak, of the people who are gracious enough to listen to me.
Then making a quick buck. So as it stands right now, hydration supplements, BCAAs and other products like eaas, essential Amino Acids and M C T oil and collagen Protein and testosterone boosters. And. Quite a few others. I have a list of probably 10 to 15 products that Legion does not sell, that there is a significant demand for.
And we don’t sell them because the science just isn’t there. Well, I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful. And if you did subscribe to the show, Because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.
And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have, uh, ideas or suggestions or just. Feedback to share. Shoot me an email, [email protected], muscle f o r life.com and let me know what I could do better or just, uh, what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.
I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you soon.