You may have heard of potassium, but did you know that every cell in your body needs potassium to function properly?
Potassium—represented by its chemical symbol "K"—is required for nerve and heart function, blood pressure regulation, muscle contraction, bone health, fluid balance, and more.
To sustain maximum performance, athletes must replenish the potassium lost through sweat during exercise. This is especially important after prolonged physical activity or when training in hot environments.
Here's everything you need to know about this essential mineral, including benefits, signs of deficiency, and potassium-rich foods to incorporate into your daily routine.
- Potassium is essential for many bodily functions, including muscle contraction and relaxation, proper nerve transmission, and blood pressure regulation.
- Physical performance and recovery rely on normal potassium levels, making it especially important for athletes.
- Too little potassium in the diet can lead to muscle cramping, weakness, and fatigue. Athletes who sweat a lot may want to consider an electrolyte supplement with potassium to keep their levels within normal range.
Potassium is a mineral that is found naturally in foods or can be added to foods and beverages. It's commonly found in salt substitutes (AKA low-sodium salt) because of its salty taste.
Considered an essential nutrient, Potassium cannot be produced by the human body, meaning we must acquire it from our diets.
Excessive potassium loss can occur through vomiting or diarrhea, but the most common way the body excretes potassium is through sweat.
So, how much potassium do you need? According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, the minimal daily intake is:
- 2,600 mg of potassium for females ages 19 and up
- 3,400 mg of potassium for males ages 19 and up
The demand may be even higher for for athletes who sweat a lot or train in warmer environments.
Some experts suggest that around 160–390 milligrams of potassium are lost in each liter of sweat. Sweat rates for prolonged exercise can range from 0.5 liters to 2 liters (or more) per hour.
Example: A runner who loses 2 liters of sweat per hour may lose anywhere from 320–780 milligrams of potassium through sweat alone.
Potassium has many functions, but some of the most important are:
- Fluid balance
- Regulation of the heartbeat
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Muscle contraction
- Bone health
Let's talk about each of these.
1. FLUID BALANCE
Potassium works with sodium to help maintain normal fluid balance inside and outside your cells. Potassium is the primary intracellular electrolyte. It regulates the amount of fluid inside your cells. In contrast, sodium is the main extracellular electrolyte and regulates the fluid outside your cells.
2. REGULATION OF HEARTBEAT
Since potassium is an electrolyte, it sends a signal to the heart to tell it when to beat and push blood throughout your body.
When the heart beats out of rhythm, it is called an arrhythmia. This can happen when potassium intake is too low or when there is too much potassium that is not excreted by the kidneys.
3. REGULATION OF BLOOD PRESSURE
Potassium helps to push the sodium into the urine, which can then lower blood pressure. It also helps the blood vessel walls relax, which helps further lower blood pressure. Improving high blood pressure can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and chronic kidney disease.
4. MUSCLE CONTRACTION
Like the heart regulation described above, potassium helps to send nerve impulses for the muscles to contract. As athletes, we rely on these contractions to power through our workouts.
In addition, potassium is important for energy metabolism and protein synthesis, which is needed for muscle growth and repair.
5. BONE HEALTH
You probably remember being told to "drink your milk for strong bones" as a kid. However, a higher potassium intake can help keep the bones strong by decreasing the amount of calcium pulled from the bone and lost in the urine.
In addition, keeping the calcium in the bones where it belongs reduces the risk of kidney stones, which can happen when minerals and salts combine to form hard deposits in the kidney.
Less urinary calcium loss means we lower our risk of osteoporosis-related diseases.
BEST SOURCES OF POTASSIUM
Potassium is not hard to find in foods, as it is located inside all living cells, both plant and animal. This means all fresh, whole foods are excellent sources of potassium—especially fruits and vegetables.
However, the American diet is low in fruit and vegetables and high in processed foods. This results in a lower potassium intake compared to sodium intake. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2020-2025 identified potassium as a nutrient of concern—because it offers health benefits, yet most of the population does not have an adequate intake.
High potassium foods to boost your intake include:
- Prune juice, orange juice
- Cantaloupe, honeydew melon
- Mango, papaya, peaches, kiwi, nectarines
- Yams and potatoes
- Leafy green vegetables
- Legumes, nuts, seeds
- Milk and yogurt
- Meat, poultry, some fish
Higher dietary potassium intakes are unlikely to cause harm in healthy adults with normal kidney function because excess potassium is excreted in the urine.
SIGNS OF DEFICIENCY
Hypokalemia (low serum potassium) is not usually due to diet alone. Our kidneys do a great job of regulating our potassium levels.
Instead, it often results from sudden potassium losses, such as fluid losses that occur with diarrhea or vomiting, and prolonged and extreme sweating. Certain medications can also lead to increased potassium excretion.
Some symptoms of hypokalemia (low potassium) may include:
- Muscular weakness
- Tingling sensation or numbness
- Nervous irritability
Severe hypokalemia can cause more extreme symptoms, such as
- Muscular paralysis
- Low blood pressure
- Arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat)
POTASSIUM FOR ATHLETES
Most healthy people get enough potassium with a balanced diet. However, athletes alter their blood potassium levels through exercise and sweat.
This is why it is even more important to eat the right foods and take potassium-containing supplements to fuel workouts and recovery—so that you are refreshed and physically ready for your next workout.
Now that we know potassium helps with fluid balance and staying hydrated, which is crucial for training, performance, and recovery, it's no wonder that "K" is a big deal.
POTASSIUM IN SUPPLEMENTS
Potassium supplements come in different forms, including potassium gluconate, potassium citrate, potassium chloride, and more.
They all contain different amounts of elemental potassium and are metabolized differently by the body. However, research has not shown any form to be superior to the others.
Potassium is commonly found in electrolyte replacement drinks/powders. Some multivitamins also contain small amounts of potassium.
Our LYTES zero-sugar electrolyte mix is the perfect combination of potassium chloride, salt, and magnesium, offering 310 mg of potassium and all of the benefits of hydration and muscular activation in just one stick. LYTES is sweetened with 100% organic monk fruit—containing zero carbs.
LYTES can help delay fatigue, reduce cramping, and replace the potassium lost while trying to get your fitness on.
The body requires potassium, but it cannot produce it on its own.
You must get potassium through foods and supplements. Potassium is especially important for athletes because it plays a major role in fluid balance and muscular contractions and relaxations. A potassium deficiency can lead to muscle cramping, fatigue, confusion, and weakness.
Increasing your fruit and vegetable intake, in addition to supplementing with a high-quality electrolyte replenishment beverage, can give you the right amount of electrolytes you need to be fully charged.