The following is an article written by David Thomas,the guy behind the awesome Eletewater! He kindly let us publish this article that was original published in Functional Sports Nutrition Magazine.
The importance of water and electrolyte balance to athletic performance
(Article sent for publication in Functional Sports Nutrition – Jan 2013)
Water and electrolytes. What is their significance? To put it simply the human body is comprised of a life force expressed as electrical energy through the activity of electrolytes via the medium of water. Consequently, these two materials are essential to life and are fundamental to the optimum performance of athletes.
Water, as most FSN readers will be aware, is an essential nutrient required for life. Water makes up a large proportion of our body weight (60% on average), distributed between the intracellular (inside cells) and extracellular (water in the blood and in between cells) compartments. Water is the major component of body fluids, such as blood, synovial fluid, saliva and urine, which perform vital functions in the body1. Suffice to say the individual requirement for each athlete is dependant on a large number of variables. In order to provide some baseline consideration Kleiner2 suggests to stay well hydrated the average sedentary adult man should consume at least 2,900mL of fluid per day and an average adult woman at least 2,200mL. These fluids should preferably be in the form of decaffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages, soups and foods with solid foods contributing approximately 1,000mL to the total and an additional 250mL coming from the water of oxidation.
From a purely chemical perspective, electrolytes may be considered as substances that become ions in solution and acquire the capacity to conduct electricity. Electrolytes are present throughout the body and their correct balance is essential for the normal function of our all our cells and organs.
Before dealing in more depth with these 2 fundamental materials of life I’d like to consider some basic concepts related to attaining full potential. We can consider ourselves to be part of the pinnacle of the evolutionary development on earth – a process that has taken 4.5 billion years to attain. The ability of the human body to adapt, compensate and adjust to the environment is truly remarkable; and we do this generally without symptoms, which is something the vast majority of people take for granted – only becoming aware of a particular part of our body when it’s sore or mal-functioning.
When an athlete aspires to break personal records the requirement is to push boundaries to the limit in order to enable the body to achieve ever greater performance levels. How this is achieved is best understood by referring to the general adaptation syndrome model of Selve3 (fig 1) where the goal to improve is pushing the limits of Speed, Stamina, Strength, Suppleness and Psychology– before exhaustion becomes obvious.
Adapting Sheve’s model to each training phase there will be an acute phase of alarm reaction (AR) when the general resistance to the particular stressor being considered initially falls below normal. Then, as adaptation is acquired in the stage of resistance (SR), the capacity to resist rises considerably above normal. Eventually, however, the stage of exhaustion (SE) is reached and resistance drops below normal. The aim of each component of a training programme should be to incrementally increase the duration of the stage of resistance in order that this is reflected in performance outcome.
Directly related to this general concept is the need to customise and optimise an individual’s adaptive capacity4.
In this concept – refer to fig 2 – the baseline represents the ‘perfect’ human being. The dotted line represents what we individually were ‘given’ at birth through our genetic heritage – which, of course, will vary from individual to individual. As the body is so proficient at adapting, compensating and adjusting to the environment, each individual may well have a series of biomechanical, biochemical and psychological issues that do not surface as symptomatic problems, however, their very presence may be regarded as reducing their potential adaptive capacity to the less vital and able residual adaptive capacity. Putting this into context, the lack of symptoms does not mean all is well. With specific reference to athletes then, in order to achieve their full potential, there is a need to ensure that their bio-chemical and bio-mechanical integrity and their psychological well being is as close to the ideal as possible and the attainment of an optimum hydration and electrolyte status will be critical to all 3 factors.
Given that it’s taken 4.5 billion years to get to this evolutionary stage there should be no need to concern ourselves about the athletes bodies’ intrinsic ability to meet realistic training challenges. From a biochemical perspective, where concern does need to be directed is towards the quantity and quality of the materials used by the body to enable it to achieve the desired result – and this relates directly to choices made concerning food and drink and general lifestyle. The main categories of essential nutrients include water, minerals, trace elements and ultra-trace elements (often in the form of electrolytes), carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, phyto-nutrients, EFA’s, pro-biotics, and fibre. Water and electrolytes have been mentioned first in that sequence because I regard them as the foundation of the bio-chemical pyramid; without the correct balance here all the rest will not have the desired effect at best and at worse could become non-functional nutrients.
So let’s consider the quality of water. This is a dilemma as there’s no simple answer and the options are many. In the ideal world we would all have access to unpolluted, clear, pure, energised water accessed directly from mountain streams, springs and / or rainwater. However, the majority of us do have direct access, in the UK, to an amazing pubic water supply that guarantees potable water devoid of potentially harmful water borne organisms that could cause disease. The trade off being that the water necessarily contains chlorine and other components that could be considered as adding to the general toxic environmental load our bodies have to cope with that would potentially detract from optimising our adaptive capacity. So what are the alternatives?
The most obvious is bottled spring waters – but these are often expensive, they also have to undergo a processing procedure and the assortment of naturally contained electrolytes will vary – and can be negligible. Reverse Osmosis and basic filtering processes cleans mains water of contaminants but also strips it of all its natural electrolytes and generally leaves it with an acid pH. So one solution would be to re-mineralise with a naturally derived, ionic, liquid mineral and trace element concentrate such as elete water or CMD, thereby helping to ensure that the majority of the water that makes up 60% of the human body is as nutrient positive as possible.
As most readers will be aware the primary physiological role of electrolytes is as modulators of energy production/storage/use (i.e. metabolism) and as regulators of total body fluid level, with the following being considered to be the most important cations:-
- sodium which principally regulates fluid balance and is found outside the cell
- potassium which regulates metabolism and is found inside the cell
- magnesium which regulates the levels of other electrolytes and muscle relaxation
- calcium which regulates muscle contraction and heart rhythm
The dominant anions are chloride, bicarbonate, sulphate and phosphate.
When undergoing a severe training programme or competition there is a huge draw on body stores of vital electrolytes to make sure the stage of resistance can be sustained as long as possible. This will result, initially, in thirst and the need to replenish the water and electrolytes used in creating the energy necessary – with the metabolic waste products being expelled through perspiration, breathing, urination and defecation. One way of ensuring an ongoing, adequate supply of electrolytes is to provide them in water as they do not have to go through any further digestive process and can also assist in the absorption of water. Indeed when a study5 was conducted on 16 Californian wildland fire suppression fire fighters, 8 of whom were given water alone in their CamelBak and 8 were given water plus a naturally derived, well balanced combination of sea water brines (elete water), it was found that after a 15 hour shift both teams were equally hydrated but those that drank water alone had to drink 74% more water than those with elete plus water.
This begs the question “What is the correct physiological balance of electrolytes?” the answer is that balance that is appropriate for the individual concerned i.e. despite considerable physiological commonality we are all bio chemically unique – some athletes will require more of a specific electrolyte than others.
The recognition that there are definitive physiological and psychological roles for trace and ultra trace elements in their electrolyte form, at the cellular level6 (fig. 3), has led many sports nutritionists to recommend to athletes that they pay strict attention to their diets and have as broad a spectrum of fresh, fruit, vegetables and naturally grown grains and reared meats and fish as possible.
Fig 3. An internal schematic representation of a modern cell showing the distribution of some of the essential electrolytes present within the various compartments and the cytoplasm. Each compartment may have the same or different electrolytes as the cytoplasm – but at different concentrations, because they are independently energised and controlled.
One difficulty (again considering optimum nutrition from a purely bio chemical standpoint) is that the micro-nutrient content of foods has diminished historically7,8 – there has been a 62% reduction in copper content in 72 different foods between 1940 and 2002 and, therefore, the presence of potentially vital micronutrients cannot be guaranteed. In addition not only should there be concern about the presence of sufficient micronutrients in our foods but there has been a significant change in the ratios of major electrolytes9. In 1900 the average estimated dietary intake of sodium was 200mg, potassium 6,000mg and magnesium 400mg. By 2000 this had altered to 5,000mg for sodium (25 x’s higher), 2,000mg of potassium and 250 mg of magnesium: as a consequence the average Na:K ratio became 75 x’s higher and the average Na:Mg ratio has become 50 x’s higher. Could this information influence the interpretation of sweat analysis results?
When dealing with nutritional guidance – what is to be considered as the correct diet for the athlete concerned? The stone–age diet? The metabolic diet? The Hay diet? The Atkins diet? or one of the numerous other dietary regimes? The obvious answer is the one most appropriate to the individual. How this can be elucidated would be the result of a combination of intuitive guidance by the athlete together with the scrutiny of the nutritionist and / or appropriate diagnostic tests to determine presence of GI dysbiosis and food intolerances. That these parameters can have a positive effect on performance in top level athletes is best illustrated by the relatively recent improvement in the tennis world rankings of Murray and Djokovic – both of whom have successfully experimented with dietary and food exclusion regimes.
It is also important to understand the actual physical amounts of minerals and trace elements currently considered to be required to promote good health, for example the RDA for magnesium is 375 mg. Magnesium is known to be vital for over 300 enzyme reactions and adjudged by the European Food Safety Authority (ESFA) to be directly contributing to energy metabolism, normal functioning of the nervous system, muscle function, maintenance of bones and teeth and optimum cellular health; 375mg represents about ¾’s of a teaspoon.
The RDA for zinc is 10mg, which represents 1/50th of a teaspoon. Zinc is known to be required in over 200 enzyme reactions and EFSA recognises it contributes to normal fertility, the use of fatty acids, the maintenance of normal hair, nails, skin and vision, aids in protecting cells from oxidative stress and contributes to normal cognitive function and immunity. Not bad for 1/50th of a teaspoon. What about the ultra trace elements such as selenium, chromium, molybdenum, boron, vanadium etc? The RDA’s vary but are about 100mcg which represents – a minuscule 1/5,000th of a teaspoon – yet these micronutrients contribute significantly to normal body functioning and without regular amounts being present in the diet a ‘normal’ person could develop deficiency symptoms; which begs the question regarding athletes who are continually pushing their physiological boundaries – how much do they need?
Sharon Gayter, an unsung hero of British Ultra Distance running, could be a case in point. Last year she broke a world record by running a 222km non-stop race at high altitude (average of 14,800 feet) in Nepal by completing it in 37 hours 34 minutes and is so doing reducing the (men’s) course record by over 11 hours. Throughout the race she ate little but drank regularly from a 500ml bottle of water containing 2.5mL of a liquid electrolyte and 5gms of a neutral carbohydrate powder. She consumed 120mL of the electrolyte during the race (which, among other electrolytes, included a total of 5,400 mg(!) of magnesium) and finished well hydrated – a remarkable achievement and way off the ‘normal’ scale.
The significance of correct hydration and electrolyte balance to performance, then, cannot be under estimated and these materials may be considered as the very foundation upon which all else depends. However, as always, the devil is in the detail: there being many variables to consider with, probably, the quality of the water and the balance and quality of electrolyte replacement being the most significant.
After 30 years as a practitioner I see a very interesting and potentially far reaching process taking place. Coaches, trainers, nutritionists, therapists, researchers and psychologists are collectively recognising the distinctive attributes of each athlete and are gaining from practical experience and through journals such as FSN considerable knowledge of how best to optimise the performance of their athletes. Part of this is the education of the athlete concerned regarding taking personal responsibility for lifestyle choices. Part is (ideally) the involvement of a multi-dispensary team of advisors / therapists who can create an individualised programme incorporating sound training methods, modern diagnostics, technical innovations and a good dose of common sense.
I feel that this approach, driven as it currently is by performance, will provide insights that could ultimately lead to the development of a different paradigm of general health care and the creation of a genuine Health Service. One in which, from birth, the emphasis will be to maximise the individuals adaptive capacity so that that person may express their full potential: rather than, as is currently the circumstance, waiting for the body’s ability to adapt, compensate and adjust to be surpassed before realising something is wrong and then attempting to rectify it. Needless to say I believe that the attainment of correct hydration status and optimum electrolyte balance will be the 2 fundamental factors in the development of such a model.
1. Benelam B & Wyness L (2010). Hydration and Health: a review. British Nutrition Foundation Bulletin. 35:3-25
2. Kleiner S M (1999). Water: An essential but overlooked nutrient J. Am. Dietetic Ass. 99 No2:200- 206
3. Selve H. (1956). The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill
4. Davies S (1991). Scientific and Ethical Foundations of Medicine. Part 1 – Evolution, Adaptation and Health. Journal of Nutritional Medicine. 2:227-247
5. Cuddy J S et al (2008), Effects of an Electrolyte Additive on Hydration and Drinking Behavior during Wildfire Suppression. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. 19: 172-180
6. Williams R J P (2005). Essentials of Medical Geology. Elsevier Academic Press
7. Thomas D E (2003). A study of the mineral depletion of foods available to us as a nation over the period 1940 to 1991. Nutrition and Health. 17:21-55
8. Thomas D E (2007). A study of the mineral depletion of foods available to us as a nation over the period 1940 to 2002 – A review of the 6th Edition of McCance and Widdowson. Nutrition and Health. 19:21-55
9. Seelig M S & Rosanoff A (2003). The Magnesium Factor Magnesium. Avery, Penguin Group, New York, NY.
David Thomas DC, MRNT, MSc DIC won the junior AAA’s 100yds in 1967 and was a member of the 1st GB Junior Athletics Team – a back injury curtailed his sprinting aspirations. David graduated as a Geologist and worked for 8 years in precious and base metal exploration and mining; he was elected as a Fellow of the Geological Society. David retrained as a Chiropractor and became a founding Member of the Register of Nutritional Therapists. This background has provided him with an unusual insight to the origin, therapeutic uses and toxic potential of minerals and trace elements. In 1998 he became the importer and distributor of Mineral Resources International Inc. food supplements in the UK and the EU.