Electrolytes for runners: The definitive guide
For most areas around the country, spring is in full swing. With spring, comes warmer, windier, and longer training runs, making proper hydration critical to both performance and safety. With the uptick in temperatures, hydration can no longer be at the bottom of your priority list.
Instead of writing yet another useless “news flash” article about how you need to drink more in the summer, I’m going delve into some of the specifics of summer hydration – how electrolytes and hydration go hand-in-hand.
Most running articles discuss hydration and mention that electrolytes are necessary; however, they fail to explain what electrolytes are and why keeping them balanced is crucial to a runner’s health and success. In this article I will explain what electrolytes are, why you need to keep your electrolytes balanced, and some good supplement options that are currently on the market.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are similar to laundry soap in your washing machine; although soap doesn’t make your washer run, it is necessary to get your clothes clean. Like laundry soap, balanced electrolytes are necessary for your digestive, cardiac, muscular and nervous systems to function well.
Electrolytes are sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca 2+), magnesium, (Mg 2+), chloride (Cl-), phosphate (PO4 2-), bicarbonate (HCO3-), and sulfate (SO4 2-). Sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium are the four major electrolytes that maintain the body’s fluid balance. As a side note, the + and – symbols mean these minerals are ionic. Their ionic nature gives the electrolytes the ability to carry electrical energy to keep the body’s systems functioning.
Why is electrolyte balance important for runners?
For a runner, keeping your electrolytes balanced is key for successful training and optimum performance. If your electrolytes are imbalanced, you could potentially compromise the success of your next run because of muscle fatigue or cramping. Along with the more frequent muscle cramps in the legs, stomach cramps or side stitches can also be the result of an electrolyte imbalance.
Other electrolyte imbalance symptoms are: muscle spasms, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, constipation, dark urine, decreased urine output, dry mouth and foul breath, dry skin, muscle weakness or stiff and achy joints.
Bathroom frequency and urine color are often the easiest and simplest way to assess your hydration and electrolyte levels. Although bladder size is a consideration, an average, healthy adult, should urinate 5-8 times a day and the color should be a light straw yellow. This is especially important to note after hard workouts or long runs. You shouldn’t be going 5-6 hours between bathroom stops if you’re well hydrated.
Electrolyte balance and cramping
While running you lose electrolytes through your sweat, mainly sodium and potassium. Potassium permits the movement of fluids and nutrients across your cells’ membranes, thus allowing them to carry on their metabolic activities such as contacting muscles. Without sufficient potassium, your muscles cells can’t generate the necessary nerve impulses that control muscle contraction.
Cramping is the body’s way of letting you know the electrolyte tank is empty and it cannot continue; it’s like a car running out of gas. Even you’ve never experienced cramping, electrolytes need to be replenished after sessions longer than a hour to facilitate optimal recovery.
A note on sodium
Just because sodium is an electrolyte, don’t assume your daily sodium consumption will replenish your electrolyte loss from your run.
First, sodium causes water retention. Consuming sodium alone and not in combination with other electrolytes may cause severe swelling of the hands, feet and ankles.
Second, the body monitors electrolyte losses during the run through hormones. After a run, if sodium is consumed in high amounts without other electrolytes to balance, it neutralizes the hormonal system and disrupts the bodies regulation processes. Sodium should be consumed in combination with other electrolytes to assist proper electrolyte balance.
Now that we understand the function and importance of replenishing your electrolytes, we can discuss the best possible options to replenish quickly and efficiently.
Of course, you can always opt for electrolyte drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, but those often contain high amounts of simple sugar. When you’re replenishing electrolytes throughout the day, you don’t want to be consuming high amounts of simple and artificial sugars. So, here are a few different, high quality electrolyte supplements on the market you can add directly to water or your favorite beverage (Note: These are affiliate links. I have searched the web for the best selection and prices for you. By purchasing from them, you help support our efforts):
Hammer Fizz: Calories 10 (per serving)
calcium 100mg, magnesium 50mg, sodium 200mg, postassium 100mg
Nuun: Calories 3
calcium 13mg, magnesium 23mg, sodium 360mg, potassium 100mg
Nathan Catalyst: calories 0
calcium 26mg, sodium 135mg, potassium 60mg
Hammer Endurolytes (1 capsule)
calcium 50mg, magnesium 25mg, sodium 40mg, potassium 25mg
SaltStick Electrolyte Cap
calcium 22mg, magnesium 11mg, sodium 215mg, potassium 63mg
Individual sweat rates
When it comes to losing and replenishing electrolytes every runner is different. Some runners are “salty sweaters” and some people sweat very little. For example, I personally am a very salty sweater and I have found that the Nuun tablets work best for me. Someone who doesn’t sweat as much, may prefer using the Endurolytes because they have slightly less electrolytes. Luckily, we’ve created a very handy sweat loss calculator for runners that will help tell you exactly how much sweat you lost and give you a much more accurate estimation of how much water and electrolytes you need to replace.
As you try different electrolyte supplements be aware of your body responds. Monitor your thirst after your run and the color of your urine. While I have only listed the electrolytes in each of these supplements, some of these options offer vitamin D3, tyrosine, B vitamins and various other ingredients that may help boost your performance and recovery.
I suggest you experiment with these electrolyte supplements that do not have artificial ingredients or colors to determine if you are a drink or capsule person and which flavors fit your tastes the best.
Electrolyte Imbalance – Symptoms – Better Medicine. (n.d.). Local Health Home Page – Better Medicine. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
Frequent Urination in Men and Women: Causes & Treatments. (n.d.). WebMD – Better information. Better health..
Light Yellow Urine Color. Is it Normal? What it means about your health.. (n.d.). Urine Colors – What is Normal? What does Healthy Urine look like? A Guide to Urine Colors and Your Health.
The Endurance Athlete’s GUIDE to SUCCESS | Hammer Nutrition. (n.d.). Fuels & Supplements for the Endurance Athlete | Hammer Nutrition.
Voluntary dehydration and electrolyt… [Aviat Space Environ Med. 1985] – PubMed – NCBI. (n.d.). National Center for Biotechnology Information.