Magnesium – The Essential Mineral for Athletes

Are you looking to boost your performance, gain that competitive edge and improve recovery? Don’t overlook the critically essential mineral magnesium – even small shortfalls in magnesium intake can inhibit athletic performance.

What’s Special About Magnesium?

Magnesium is the fourth-most abundant mineral in the body, with approximately 60 percent of it found in bone and 30 percent in skeletal and cardiac muscle. It is involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body and is crucial for energy production, muscle function, protein synthesis and insulin metabolism. This makes it of critical importance for physical performance. Yet magnesium is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies seen in athletes resulting in reduced performance, lactic acid build up, muscle cramping and poor recovery.
How Does It Benefit You?

Performance: Magnesium is vital for the conversion of glycogen to glucose – the body’s main fuel during exercise. Without sufficient levels the body switches to anaerobic metabolism resulting in a build up of lactic acid and associated muscle soreness and spasms. This means if you are low in magnesium you are likely to feel tired and be low in energy.

Magnesium also influences protein metabolism making it important for strength and power as well as recovery. Research published in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that even small shortfalls in magnesium intake can seriously impair athletic performance.

Bone Health: If you’re concerned about bone health it’s worth remembering that while calcium is important it does nothing without adequate levels of magnesium and vitamin D. Magnesium activates cellular enzyme activity, allowing the body to convert vitamin D into its active form to help with calcium absorption and bone building.

Recovery: Magnesium together with calcium is essential for optimal muscle function. A deficiency in magnesium can result in muscle and nerve twitches, spasms and cramping. Heavy exercisers often experience a build up of lactic acid, shin splints and sore, painful muscles during and after exercise. Having sufficient magnesium helps speed up recovery, reduce fatigue and avoid injuries.

Body Composition: Low magnesium levels will decrease your insulin sensitivity, making it harder for you to lose fat and get lean. So if you are looking to change your body composition make sure you’re getting enough.

Deficiency – why athletes especially endurance athletes are at risk

Magnesium deficiency is actually common and runners, endurance athletes and people who exercise regularly are at a greater risk of magnesium deficiency due to its role in energy production and metabolism. It is also lost through sweat during exercise as well as urine. Various studies including one published in the American Society for Clinical Nutrition have revealed many athletes particularly women are failing to consume sufficient magnesium through their diet.

Signs and Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency

If you experience any of the following symptoms you may benefit from increasing your magnesium levels.

  • Arrhythmia of the heart
  • Asthma, wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Food cravings e.g carbohydrate, chocolate, salt
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle cramps and spasms
  • Muscle twitching or tics
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness in hands and feet
  • Aches and pains after exercise
  • Poor recovery following exercise
  • Low bone density, osteoporosis
  • Feelings of irritability and/or lethargy
  • Frequent mood swings, including depression

What Foods Contain Magnesium?

Top food sources of magnesium include unrefined whole grains e.g whole grain cereals, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), peas, beans and lentils. Some fish such as halibut and mackerel are also good sources. Drinking water can be an important source of magnesium, especially ‘hard water’. But even if you have a healthy diet you may not be getting enough –you would need to eat over 9 bananas just to meet the recommended daily amount.

How Much Magnesium Do I Need?

The UK recommended intake for magnesium is 300mg for men and 270mg for women. The recommended intake can also be expressed in mg/kg and is roughly 6mg per kg of body weight. So if you weighed 10 stone (63kg) this would be 378mg magnesium per day. For anyone exercising your daily needs may well be higher.

What is the Best Way to Supplement?

Not all forms of magnesium are created equal with respect to absorption and bioavailability. You can supplement internally and externally. Some of the best forms of supplemental magnesium are ones chelated to an amino acid such as magnesium gluconate or a Krebs cycle intermediate e.g magnesium citrate, fumarate or malate. One of my favourites is Nutri’s MegaMag Muscleze powder. A more convenient and efficient way of increasing your levels is through a transdermal magnesium spray in the form of magnesium chloride. Try this product by BetterYou. This can be applied to the skin before, during and after exercise. Being rapidly absorbed it makes an ideal supplement for quick results. Magnesium chloride oil or flakes can also be used as a liquid soak either in a bath or footbath. For a cheaper option use Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) which you can get from any chemist. I use a couple of cupfuls in a bath of warm water and soak for 20 minutes. This is ideal following exercise to avoid muscle soreness and fatigue. It may also encourage a better nights sleep too!