What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that produce ions, or electrical charges (where are all my former 8th grade students at?!). They are essential for various body functions. Your main electrolytes are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, and phosphate. While you run, electrolytes are lost through sweat. Runners need to replenish these to maintain proper hydration and support optimal muscle, nerve, and heart function (in other words, to keep you alive and performing well).
Why Should I Take Them?
Electrolytes maintain fluid balance within your body and help regulate the amount of water in your cells. Runners know how important it is to stay hydrated. Imbalances in electrolyte levels can lead to dehydration (or overhydration), which is both a health risk and a performance buster. Electrolytes work together with fluids to absorb and retain water efficiently and to ensure nutrients flow through your digestive system properly. During prolonged or intense exercise, sodium, in particular, helps stimulate this process. It is the primary electrolyte lost in sweat, which is why you sometimes “taste salty” or see a residue on your hat, visor or clothing after a hard workout.
Nerve and Muscle Function
Electrolytes help transmit electrical signals throughout your body, including those responsible for muscle contractions and nerve impulses. This means they help your brain send messages to your muscles, telling them to run. Your body needs adequate electrolyte levels in order for muscles to function efficiently and to prevent cramping or muscle weakness. Without those muscles working properly, you can bet on hitting that dreaded wall, regardless of your energy levels.
Electrolytes like potassium and phosphorus play a crucial role in maintaining optimal heart health. Potassium helps regulate your heart rhythm and assists in maintaining a stable blood pressure. Phosphorus contributes to energy production within the heart, helping create ATP, your body’s main energy-carrying molecule. Additionally, phosphorus helps maintain the structural integrity of the heart and regulates its pH. Together, these electrolytes are indispensable to keep your ticker ticking.
When Do I Take Electrolytes?
Top off your stores BEFORE you run, while you are still in the pre-hydration stage. Better to start with a full tank than start your run on empty. It’s also important to consume electrolytes during long runs, or anything over an hour of intense work where you’d be losing them through sweat.
Heat and Humidity
This is especially important when it’s hot and humid out. In high temperatures or humid environments, you tend to sweat more, therefore losing more electrolytes. Take electrolytes during runs in these conditions to maintain hydration, then afterwards to replenish anything lost.
Dehydration or Cramping
If you experience symptoms of dehydration, such as excessive thirst, dry mouth, headache or muscle cramps, consume electrolytes during or after your run to help restore hydration and balance. Make drinking electrolytes a pillar of your recovery routine, especially in hot, humid conditions and after long, intense workouts.
Where Can I Get Them?
Natural Food Sources
There are plenty of runner fan favorite foods that are rich in electrolytes: bananas, dried fruits, coconut water, oranges, avocados, sweet potatoes, nuts, milk, yogurt, dark chocolate, peanut butter, and leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and collard greens. You can get tons of electrolytes in both your meals and snacks with real food your body already knows how to enjoy and digest. Bonus: they’re all delicious and provide you with a ton of other essential nutrients and macromolecules.
Tablets or Powders
These products are specifically formulated to provide a concentrated dose of electrolytes and can be more convenient to carry than food. There are several brands on the market that you can dissolve in water by shaking into your handheld bottle or adding to your hydration pack. With lots of flavors to choose from, there’s something for everybody out there! If you don’t already know what you like, start here, with ucan Hydrate. In addition to these popular mix-in products, you can take electrolytes in the form of salt tabs or mineral supplements in pill form.
This topic is controversial. Many sports drinks contain electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium. They are designed to replenish both fluids and electrolytes during exercise. However, many of them are heavily laden with sugar. Sure that sugar can provide some fuel for your long runs and races, but is it the best way to get that fuel?
Experts are hesitant to give them the green light. In fact, exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist, Dr. Stacy Sims, compares sports drinks to a sofa bed on the Run to the Top podcast. “It’s not a good bed, it’s not a good sofa, because you’re trying to merge two things that shouldn’t be merged.” The problem is that drinking your carbs via liquid pulls water into your stomach to dilute it, hindering your body’s ability to absorb the water.
Real food (think energy bar, waffles, pretzels & raisins, etc) is processed much more slowly, is not as quick to upset the stomach, and allows the water and electrolytes to get where they need to go more quickly. The team at InsideTracker goes one step further and explains why there’s even sugar in those sports drinks to begin with. Spoiler: it’s NOT to keep you from bonking. My advice: use with caution or when nothing else is available.
Individual electrolyte needs may vary based on factors like sweat rate, weather conditions, and personal physiology. Experiment with different electrolyte sources and find a brand, flavor, and strategy that works best for you. Consult with a running coach or registered dietitian who provide personalized advice based on your specific needs and training goals.
The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.