Electrolytes for Runners – Why Are Electrolytes Important For Runners?
You likely already know that the right amount of electrolytes for runners are crucial to their performance. But you may be wondering when should you consume electrolytes and in what quantity.
When and how many electrolytes you need are often lost in the pervasive marketing of the sports drink industry. Which often pushes runners into consuming electrolyte sports drinks too often and when not needed. The theory often leads to athletes believing that electrolytes should always be used when performing any physical activity. Because of this marketing, guidelines are often forgotten, and actual studies are never read.
But you do also have on the other end of the spectrum, where the athlete chooses to forgo electrolytes altogether. Ultimately putting the runner at risk of diminished performance.
So the question begs, when should you consume electrolytes and how much should you consume?
Why Are Electrolytes Important For Runners?
The term electrolytes refer to a group of ions that can carry electrical impulses to keep the body functioning. These groups of primary ions include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate, and hydrogen carbonate.
Electrolytes for runners serve two main purposes, which are both are critical to your performance.
This includes facilitating proper muscle contraction through the presence of calcium, sodium, and potassium. This means without sufficient levels of these electrolytes, muscle weakness or severe muscle contractions may occur during an event or training. If you have ever encountered spasms or contraction of your muscles during a race, your electrolyte balance is almost always the root cause.
The second role of electrolytes for runners serve is facilitating hydration. Sodium and potassium help to replenish the body’s water and electrolyte levels after dehydration caused by exercise.
So for runners engaging in three or more hours of continuous running, it is important to fuel with electrolytes. Otherwise, they may risk dehydration or hyponatremia if only water is consumed.
Remember, electrolyte balance determines your overall hydration, and water alone is not sufficient without them.
When Is It Best To Take Electrolytes Running?
Manufacturers of sports drinks that contain electrolytes would like you to believe that you should be drinking their products before, during, and after running. The fact is, this is unnecessary for shorter duration runs of under 90 minutes.
For runs under 90 minutes, muscle glycogen and electrolytes already stored in your body are sufficient to fuel your activity. There is little to no advantage to additional supplementation and in some cases, additional supplementation can lead to your body holding excess water weight.
Water alone is sufficient to provide proper hydration for runs under this time frame. But for runs in the over 90-minute mark it is recommended that you follow the guidelines to ensure you are remaining properly hydrated:
For runs over 90 minutes intake of electrolytes is essential for optimal performance. When consuming electrolytes this may also include carbohydrate as a source of energy to prevent fully depleting your glycogen stores.
How Much Electrolyte To Consume When Running?
Your electrolyte replacement strategy will vary depending on your fitness. Just like any nutrition and hydration plan, the goal is not to necessarily replace everything lost 1:1 but rather prevent complete depletion. The goal should be to allow you to continue running for the duration of your training or race.
As you get fitter and more acclimatized to running, the more efficient your body becomes at using electrolytes as you see above. Even though sodium is one of the most important electrolytes, the average American has already enough to last for 3-4 hours of athletic activity.
But don’t just focus on sodium alone. Too much sodium can lead to swelling due to excess fluid retention by your body. Also, too much sodium in a diet or through supplementation can lead to chronic health conditions. So remember to check your intake if you are wondering how much electrolyte to consume when running.
In addition to the level of your fitness, you should also consider your sweat rate. Each individual has different sweat rate in terms of volume and electrolyte that is lost through sweat is different to each person. If you are a “salty sweater” your depletion and subsequent need for replacement may be higher than the guidelines above.
In many cases, consuming sports drinks instead of water while following hydration guidelines, will be sufficient to replace what you lose.
Electrolyte Sources For Runners
When thinking of electrolytes, Gatorade and Powerade often come to mind immediately for the newbie runner. This is mainly due to the tremendous marketing behind these sports drink brands.
Although there is nothing wrong with this and Gatorade itself is fine in most situations. It still contains a high level of simple sugars such as glucose, sucrose, and fructose. Which not only limits the number of calories that can be efficiently digested and utilized for energy. It can also cause quick bursts of energy followed by crashing.
Simple sugars when consumed over long periods such as a marathon or ultra-marathon can lead to stomach issues. This is often seen during the marathon of an Ironman, and the number of people walking with stomach problems.
Therefore, it is critical to know what ingredients are in everything you choose to consume to fuel your activity.
For electrolyte replenishment products like Hammer Nutrition are designed to provide your body exactly what it needs and nothing more. However, many brands on the market are just as good. So we recommended trialing some products and see which works best for you.
Here are some electrolyte products from Hammer and others to look into further:
Hammer Endurolytes: (1 capsule) Calcium 50 mg, Magnesium 25 mg, Sodium 40 mg, Potassium 25 mg
Hammer Fizz: 10 calories per serving Calcium 100 mg, Magnesium 50 mg, Sodium 200 mg, Potassium 100 mg
Nuun Tablets: 3 calories per serving Calcium 13 mg, Magnesium 23 mg, Sodium 360 mg, Potassium 100 mg
Electrolytes and Carbohydrates
Hammer Heed: 100 calories per serving Carbohydrate 26g, Calcium 51 mg, Magnesium 26 mg, Sodium 40 mg, Potassium 25 mg
Whatever electrolyte you decide to choose make sure you test it in your training first. Making sure it agrees with your stomach here is no perfect solution for everyone.
Monitoring Your Electrolyte Balance When Running
When running, it is important to pay attention to clues that your body might be running low on electrolytes. Early warning signs of an electrolyte imbalance include:
– Frequent muscle cramping in your legs
– Side stitches
– Stomach cramping
– Signs that your electrolyte balance has been severely depleted include more pronounced symptoms:
– Muscle spasms or total loss of control of a muscle
– Muscle weakness or a general feeling of weakness
– Extreme fatigue
– Nausea (which can be accompanied by dry heaving or vomiting)
– Dark urine with very little urine output despite having the urge to urinate
– Dry mouth
– Dry skin
Monitoring your urine color and output is one of the most reliable and easiest ways to screen for low electrolyte levels. Often a darker color will reveal itself before performance-impacting symptoms occur.
A Quick Fix for Low Electrolyte Balance
Despite the best plans or fueling strategy sometimes things just don’t go to plan and you find yourself experiencing cramps seemingly out of nowhere. This is usually the result of not replenishing your electrolyte balance. But there is a quick solution that can temporarily get you moving again.
That solution is the immediate consumption of salt.
An immediate salt infusion into your body should stop the cramping to get you to the next aid station. The easiest way to accomplish this is to carry a few small salt tablets with you. One or two tablets with a small amount of water are all that is needed for quick relief. This small item packs a tremendous punch and insurance against this situation foiling your run.
Electrolyte Replacement Strategy For Runners
The time to determine your electrolyte needs and your replacement strategy is early in your training cycle. Evaluate your level of fitness now and re-evaluate during the peak of your training cycle.
Evaluate if you are an overly salty sweater. Then begin reviewing suitable products that can serve your training and race day needs.
If you use one type of electrolyte product in training and then on another during race day, it may affect your performance. Plan how you will implement your replacement strategy not only in training but for race day itself.
If you decide to use what will be available at the race, make use it during your preparations. This will help you execute with confidence on race day.