Electrolytes for Runners

  Apr 8, 2019  |  #Nutrition
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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. 

Electrolytes for Runners

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.

Why Electrolytes are important for runners

 

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?

  • sodium
  • chloride
  • potassium
  • magnesium

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

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.

Bowl of salt

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.

cup of chocolate milk after running

Potassium

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.

bananas and sweet potatoes provide potassium

How to Replace Electrolytes: Potassium Rich Recipe Ideas

Magnesium

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.

Bowl of greens with half a sandwich

How to Replace Electrolytes: Magnesium Rich Recipe Ideas

Calcium

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.

Strawberry smoothie with electrolytes

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:

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?

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50 responses to “Electrolytes for Runners

  1. Excellent post, Sarah…
    I have tried (and liked) many of the electrolyte additives just put into a water bottle.

  2. A also never knew that potatoes are a source of electrolytes. After reading this post I’ve just realised that I’v been limiting my sources to bananas and water. i’m glad I read this post. Thank you.

  3. Yeah you are right electrolytes are very important and crucial for our body. And I always take a dose of ORS or salt/sugar mixture to maintain it. Never knew that sweet potato is also a source for electrolyte I just love them.

    Thanks for sharing this useful information.

  4. Wow! This post is packed with so much valuable information. Electrolytes are essential to maintain a healthy body and lifestyle. You give a good insight here as to the different kind of forms electrolytes take. A lot of people may not realize the different sources of electrolytes that are out there, so this was a really informative read! Nicely done!

  5. Great post! Some of us sweat more than others too (like me!). After being plagued with cramps during races, I finally tried Saltstick electrolyte capsules. They definitely help during a race. I love just about all veggies and have no problems getting the recommended requirements. I do pay consume more potassium rich foods when leading up to a race. Thanks for linking with us Sarah!

  6. This is perfectly explained – really great job!

    I remember in high school having to take salt tablets when we would have 2-a-day softball practices in August. I’d get killer headaches! Now days, I probably could use more potassium. I love my daily Natural Calm for extra calcium and magnesium before bed. It definitely makes a difference for recovery.

  7. I agree on Denver being tricky. You don’t sweat much here because it’s not that humid, but getting in the water is important because it’s so dry. I think I haven’t been as vigilant about electrolytes in exercise, and I need to keep this in mind. :))

  8. Love the detail and science-y tone of this post! Thank you for providing such a clear explanation of electrolytes. I struggled in my first marathon possibly due to electrolyte imbalance (it was “hot” for fall in the PNW, which means it was in the 60s ha) and have prioritized them since then. I love Enduropacks for training and either that or Nuun if it’s available for racing!

  9. Great article and with the temps on the rise this came at a good time for reminders to drink drink drink!
    I always seem to do better in the hotter months with my water intake just because I am more thirsty. I drink Nuun a lot, since I’m an ambassador but also cause I like it.

  10. Any thoughts on Salt Caps or Salt Sticks? I haven’t used them, but heard of so many people who do. I thought they might be a good option for those of us who are very salty sweat-ers. Which I know that I am. Seems like they might be easier on the stomach to take than a gel?

    Is it necessary to replace all electrolytes while running or is sodium the big one & all others can be balanced with a varied // normal diet?

    You talk about 20-40 oz of water per hour, what would your hydration strategy for a half marathon or 10K look like then? Does this theory change for things like races?

    I really like your more RD oriented posts. There are a lot of things you talk about that I would never think to ask about or research myself until I see you open the dialogue.

    1. If you’re a salty sweater, I would definitely recommend salt tabs, at the very least. Sodium is probably the most important, but all have purposes to keep your body functioning and able to perform! Hydration can definitely be individualized and can change for different races/distances, and with what fuel you’re taking in also.

  11. Awesome post, thanks for the info! I’ve never thought too much about electrolytes as my activity level is not very intense on a daily basis, I exercise more moderately and I think I can replace those electrolytes with food!
    Would there not be a concern for an average person to consume those electrolyte gel packs? That would seem to just add on to the sodium being consumed, or do the benefits outweigh the sodium content?

    1. If you’re not super active or sweating alot, I don’t think additional electrolyte gel packs would be necessary for you, especially if you get alot of electrolytes (particularly potassium) in your diet, which I’m sure you do. If you’re a salty sweater, though, it wouldn’t hurt to add a salt tab or NUUN tablet to your water every so often.

  12. I played a soccer tournament in Arizona in the middle of summer. Not one of my finer moments. I not only become dehydrated but also got heat stroke and blacked out. Oops! I guess 4 games of soccer in 100 degree weather will do that! My mom started packing me some electrolyte gel packs after that so that she could toss me one as I was running by on the field. They helped!

  13. I’m pretty good about hydrating in warmer temps but forget about it when it’s colder out. I need to get in the habit of carrying my handheld with me on long runs regardless of the temps outside. I love using Nuun tablets for hydration!

  14. This is great! I always knew I was “supposed” to consume electrolytes, but never really knew why. Especially living in Denver, where I feel like I can’t get enough water as is, I’ll definitely pay attention to this when I’m working out.

    Thanks for the tips and for passing along your smarts. 🙂
    XO, Jessica

  15. This is great! I’ve always known that I’m “supposed” to have electrolytes, but never really knew why. Living in Denver, where every day is dry and I feel like I can’t drink enough water, this will absolutely be something I pay attention to when I’m working out.

    Thanks for the tips and for passing along your smarts. 🙂

    XO, Jessica

    1. Denver is so tricky. I remember visiting there and not thinking I was ever sweating because it is so dry. Definitely make sure to sneak some electrolytes in with your water! 🙂

  16. Is coconut water good to drink if you’re really dehydrated after a workout? I try to stick to regular water but have heard that coconut water can be even better when you need to re hydrate quickly.

    1. It can definitely provide some electrolytes that plain water can’t. I would just be mindful that it does have some sugar and calories can add up quickly, but I like a little bit of coconut water after a long workout!

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