Metal oxides with a tunnelled structure are attractive as charge storage materials for rechargeable batteries and supercapacitors, since the tunnels enable fast reversible insertion/extraction of charge carriers (for example, lithium ions). Common synthesis methods can introduce large cations such as potassium, barium and ammonium ions into the tunnels, but how these cations affect charge storage performance is not fully understood. Here, we report the role of tunnel cations in governing the electrochemical properties of electrode materials by focusing on potassium ions in α-MnO2. We show that the presence of cations inside 2 × 2 tunnels of manganese dioxide increases the electronic conductivity, and improves lithium ion diffusivity. In addition, transmission electron microscopy analysis indicates that the tunnels remain intact whether cations are present in the tunnels or not. Our systematic study shows that cation addition to α-MnO2 has a strong beneficial effect on the electrochemical performance of this material.