What’s the best electrolyte drink? What about the best electrolyte supplement I should be taking? Let’s review why electrolytes for runners are so important.
This is the 4th installment in the spring sports nutrition series. If you’re interested, here are the first three posts:
The Boston Marathon is just around the corner. This post is a little more science-y post, but really important during long distance training seasons. I originally wrote this post a few years ago, but I’ve since updated it with newer research and products.
Electrolytes for runners is a topic that often comes up in my counseling sessions. We seem to know about hydration, but little about the importance of electrolytes. And then there’s questions like, “What’s the best electrolyte supplement,” or “do I need a natural electrolyte drink?” so let’s dive into those.
Another impetus for this post is the really hot and sunny weather here to the point where I don’t feel hydrated no matter how much water I’m drinking. Warmer weather puts us at a higher risk of losing more electrolytes through sweat. Many of us exercise outdoors and as the weather warms up, I thought it would be helpful to talk not only about the importance of hydration, but the importance of adding in electrolytes as well.
What Are Electrolytes?
When we talk about electrolytes for runners, we’re talking about the minerals found in our blood, urine and body fluids. Electrolytes produce electrically conducted solutions when dissolved in liquid.
Why Are Electrolytes Important for Runners?
There are many benefits of electrolytes!
- Allow the exchange of nutrients and waste between cells and the external fluid environment
- Improve performance
- Help restore equilibrium in the body
- Helps body maintain fluid balance in and out of cells
- Regulate nerve and muscle function
- Regulate blood pressure
A key takeaway is that after high intensity exercise, or exercise over a long duration, drinking only water is not effective for re-hydration. For our body to actually retain the water and be able to use it, it must be consumed with electrolytes. Especially if you’re in marathon training mode, or training for a long distance race, you should be practicing fueling with electrolytes as well as carbohydrates.
Unbalanced electrolyte levels are very dangerous, as I will touch upon below. They can lead to weak (or severe) muscle contraction and spasms, irregular heartbeats, bone disorders, twitching, seizures, nervous system disorders, blood pressure changes, and obviously, fatigue and lethargy – so obviously you can see why having balanced proportions of these minerals is essential!
What Are The Main Electrolytes for Runners?
When we sweat, we lose more than just water. The main electrolytes we’re referring to through sweat loss are sodium and chloride. To a lesser extent, we lose magnesium, calcium and potassium as well. Let’s review the main ones in further detail and how to replace electrolytes.
Sodium is a primary regulator of our fluid balance. When sodium builds up and our kidneys can’t get rid of the excess, this can lead to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for a myriad of other health conditions. Conversely, if we don’t have enough salt in our diets (or we lose excess through sweat), water is drawn out of our cells, which may lead to low blood pressure and/or dehydration.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, the average American gets more sodium in their diet than needed. The American Heart Association recommends 1500 mg/day (just under 3/4 tsp). The CDC reported that 90% of children eat more sodium than recommended, and 1/6 children has high blood pressure. Sodium is hidden in packaged foods, soups, breads, cheese, and mixed dishes – this accounts for 75% of the sodium we eat!
However, athletes are different from the general public – we generally need more salt, which is why we’re talking specifically about electrolytes for runners.
What About Electrolyte Tablets for Runners?
Now, I’m not telling you to load up on the packaged foods, but getting enough sodium when you’re exercising intensely or sweating a lot is important. Many of the gel’s and gu’s have sodium and some electrolytes in them – there are endless options for electrolyte tablets. My personal favorites are the Huma gels and of course, NUUN tabs or GU tabs. I have one every day, regardless of exercise. It’s a pretty good habit to get into, especially leading into the warmer weather. Electrolyte tablets can be very convenient and easy!
If you’re someone who doesn’t like swallowing things or would prefer a spray for your mouth or drink,enduropacks are very popular (important to note that there is less sodium than in a gel). Finally, if you’re a salty sweater, it’s also probably a good idea to consider a salt tablet. These salt tablets for runners are great ones I recommend.
How to Replace Electrolytes: Sodium Rich Recipe Ideas
Replacing electrolytes doesn’t have to come solely from electrolyte tablets. You can also make an easy natural electrolyte drink by adding a pinch of salt, lemonade or juice and honey. Chocolate milk is another option for a natural electrolyte drink.
Unlike sodium, which is an extracellular electrolyte (outside of the cell), potassium is an intracellular electrolyte, primarily found within the cell. The recommended amount (RDA) is 4700 mg/day. Having too little or too high levels of potassium (hypo/hyperkalemia) can lead to muscle weakness, cramps, and abnormal heart rhythms. Most Americans overeat on sodium and undereat on potassium, so including lots of fruits and vegetables is an excellent addition to any lifestyle.
Good sources of potassium are bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, lima beans, winter squash, avocado, and leafy green vegetables.
How to Replace Electrolytes: Potassium Rich Recipe Ideas
- Banana Peach Baked Oatmeal
- Easy Sweet Potato Turkey Burgers
- Crockpot Potatoes
- Sweet Potato Blueberry Bread
Magnesium is an intracellular electrolyte that probably deserves more credit than it receives. It helps the body use energy and is necessary for proper nerve, muscle and enzyme function – it’s involved in hundreds of reactions in our bodies and even helps regulate other minerals (i.e. calcium, potassium, zinc, copper). The RDA for adults is 310-420 mg/day. Magnesium helps the muscles relax (after calcium helps them contract) and is such promoted for relaxation of the body and bowels (it’s a main ingredient in laxatives).
Hypomagnesia (usually from poor diet, malnutrition, diuretics) may cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, weakness. Additionally, loss of appetite, muscle spasms and seizures can be symptoms also. Hypermagnesia, on the other hand, is more rare, and is more related to kidney diseases, hypothyroidism, or excessive intake through supplements.
Get your magnesium through leafy greens, whole grains, seeds, nuts and fortified cereals.
How to Replace Electrolytes: Magnesium Rich Recipe Ideas
Calcium isn’t a major electrolyte we lose through sweat, but still important to be aware of. While it’s probably most known for its role in bone building and preventing osteoporosis, calcium also has many other purposes. It helps the muscles contract (important for exercise), helps promote growth, helps blood clotting and helps with hormones. Calcium also keeps our hearts beating, among other functions.
Our bones have stores of calcium so if our blood levels get too low, our bones release calcium to normalize the levels. However, if our levels of calcium get too high, it can cause hardening of arteries and other bone structures and even kidney stones. The RDA for calcium is 1000-1200 mg/day.
For the best sources of calcium, eat dairy, soy, greens, and canned fish with bones. You can also get a good chunk of calcium in chia seeds! And don’t forget – Vitamin D helps promote the uptake and absorption of calcium! 1 cup of Unsweetened Almond milk has 45% of your RDA of calcium, while 1 cup of low fat cow’s milk has 30% (Note: this may vary by brand). Smoothies with milk products can also be a great way to get calcium.
How to Replace Electrolytes: Calcium Rich Recipe Ideas
Natural Electrolyte Drink Options
You don’t just have to rely on sports drinks for electrolytes anymore. It can be so easy to make your own!
- 1 cup water/coconut water + 1 T honey + lemon juice + 1/8 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup orange juice, 1/2 cup water, 1 T sweetener, 1/8 tsp salt
- 2 cups water + 1/2 cup orange juice + 1/4 tsp salt + lemon or lime juice + 2 T maple syrup
How do our bodies keep electrolyte levels balanced?
Our bodies are super smart. Under normal conditions, our kidneys will filter out any excess levels of electrolytes. However, if we fall out of balance or don’t consume necessary levels of electrolytes, we may experience consequences. The most serious being hypernatremia (too much sodium) or hyponatremia (too little sodium). One can also experience hyperkalemia (excessive potassium) or hypokalemia (low potassium levels).
The good news is many foods like leafy greens, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables, provide multiple minerals and electrolytes. This is why a varied diet is important, and why we don’t need to only rely on the “best electrolyte supplement.” Electrolytes for runners are so important, no matter how you get them in. The best electrolyte drink is the one you’ll actually drink!
To stay safe, replace fluids and electrolytes when you’re exercising even if you’re not thirsty. By the time you realize you’re thirsty, it’s often too late and dehydration has already struck. It’s recommended that if exercising for an hour, one should consume a minimum of 20 to 40 fluid ounces per hour. You should replace lost electrolytes at a rate of 200 to 500 mg per hour if hydrating at the recommended rate.
Just make sure to add in electrolytes for those longer runs and workouts to ensure the water can be efficiently used in your cells. Remember, your performance will suffer without adequate electrolyte levels!
More Nutrition Posts for Runners:
- Pantry Staples for Runners
- How to Prepare for Race Day Nutrition
- Hydration for Summer Running
- Tips to Help With Indigestion with Running
Please note that the above links may include affiliate links, from which I make a small percentage but does not affect your purchase price. However, I personally use the above products and will only recommend something I continue to use myself. You can see more about my policy here.
Do you have any favorite ways to replace electrolytes?
Have you ever experienced dehydration?