As a runner you likely know that electrolytes are critical to your performance. But you may be wondering when should you consume them and in what quantity.
With the pervasive marketing efforts of the sports drink industry many runners are consuming sports drinks when they are really unnecessary in thinking they should always be consumed when engaging in physical activity. Guidelines as to how much and when are lost in this message as well.
Some also choose to forgo consuming electrolytes altogether putting a runner at risk of decreased performance or in the case of distance events serious medical emergency.
During the summer months, running in warm weather or running for over 90 minutes ensuring a proper balance of electrolytes should be part of your fueling strategy.
Here is a definitive guide as to what electrolytes are, why they are important, when to consume them and how much should be consumed.
What are Electrolytes?
The term electrolytes actually refers to a group of ions that have the ability to carry electrical impulses to keep the body functioning.
The primary ions of electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate, and hydrogen carbonate.
Why are Electrolytes Important?
In runners electrolytes serve two main purposes. Both are critical to your performance.
The first role they serve is to facilitate proper muscle contraction. This is dependent upon the presence of calcium, sodium, and potassium. Without sufficient levels of these key electrolytes muscle weakness or severe muscle contractions (cramping or spasm) may occur.
If you have ever encountered spasms or loss of control of your muscles in a race, a low electrolyte balance is almost always the root cause.
The second role they serve is facilitating hydration. Sodium and potassium serve to replenish the body’s water and electrolyte levels after dehydration caused by exercise.
Runners that engage in three or more hours of continuous running who do not consume electrolytes risk dehydration or hyponatremia if only water is consumed. Electrolyte balance determines your overall hydration, water alone is not sufficient without them.
When to Consume Electrolytes
The manufacturers of sports drinks that contain electrolytes would like you to believe that you should be consuming their products before, during and after exercise. The fact is this is actually unnecessary for shorter duration runs of under 90 minutes.
For runs under 90 minutes muscle glycogen and electrolytes already in your body before you exercise 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. For runs in the under 90 minute time frame it is recommended that you drink to thirst or follow the below guidelines to ensure you are remaining properly hydrated:
For runs over 90 minutes intake of electrolytes are 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
Your electrolyte replacement guidelines will vary depending on your fitness as a runner. As with nutrition and hydration the goal is not to necessarily replace everything lost 1:1 but rather prevent complete depletion and allow you to continue running for the duration of your training or race.
As you can see the more fit and acclimated to running you become the more efficient your body becomes in the use of electrolytes.
Sodium gets the bulk of the attention as it is the most important but it is only one piece to the electrolyte puzzle. The average American adult has enough sodium to last for 3-4 hours of athletic activity. It’s important to not focus on sodium alone as a proper way to replenish your electrolyte balance as it can lead to swelling in warm weather due to excess fluid retention by your body.
Too much sodium in a diet or supplementation can lead to chronic health conditions while too little sodium can lead to a life threatening condition.
In addition to your level of your fitness you should also consider your individual sweat rate. Each individual has different sweat rates in terms of volume and also electrolyte that is lost through sweat. If you are a “salty sweater” your depletion and subsequent need for replacement may be higher than the guidelines above.
Review the electrolyte content of your electrolyte source of choice and taking all of this into account determine your replacement needs. In many cases, consuming a sports drink in place of water every other time you hydrate following the hydration guidelines above will be sufficient to replace what you lose and fuel your running.
When thinking of electrolytes, Gatorade often comes to mind immediately. This is again due to tremendous marketing on their behalf.
There is nothing wrong with this and Gatorade itself is fine in many situations, but there is one issue with it and that is the large amount of simple sugars it contains. These simple sugars are added for carbohydrate purposes to fuel activity however the use of simple sugars such as glucose, sucrose, and fructose not only severely limits the amount of calories that can be efficiently digested and utilized for energy, but also may cause quick bursts of energy followed by crashing.
Simple sugars consumed over a long enough period of time such as a marathon may lead to your stomach rejecting it. This is especially the case in races where aid stations mix Gatorade powder with water.
The mix can often be too heavy on Gatorade and not have enough parts of water to it compounding the problem. Worse, if you consume energy gels or other supplements for carbohydrate along with Gatorade you are contributing to a nasty concoction that will ultimately begin sloshing around in your stomach.
Therefore it it critical to know what ingredients are in everything you choose to consume to fuel your activity.
For electrolyte replenishment I recommend and use Hammer Nutrition products as they are designed to provide your body exactly what it needs and nothing else however there are many good sources.
Here are some electrolyte products from Hammer and others to look into further:
Hammer Endurolytes (1 capsule)
Calcium 50mg, Magnesium 25mg, Sodium 40mg, Potassium 25mg
Hammer Fizz: 10 calories per serving
Calcium 100mg, Magnesium 50mg, Sodium 200mg, Postassium 100mg
Nuun Tablets: 3 calories per serving
Calcium 13mg, Magnesium 23mg, Sodium 360mg, Potassium 100mg
Electrolytes and Carbohydrates
Hammer Heed: 100 calories per serving
Carbohydrate 26g, Calcium 51mg, Magnesium 26mg, Sodium 40mg, Postassium 25mg
Whatever you choose make sure you test it in your training and agrees with your stomach. There is no perfect solution for everyone.
Monitoring Your Electrolyte Balance
While 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 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 times a darker color will reveal itself before performance impacting symptoms occur. It should normally be a light yellow color. If your urine runs clear that is a sign that you are overhydrated.
If you begin to experience cramping that is a signal that your electrolyte levels are empty.
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 late in a race and experiencing cramps or spasms seemingly out of nowhere. While this is the result of a prolonged period of not replenishing your electrolyte balance there is a quick solution that can salvage your race and temporarily get you moving again until you can consume more electrolytes.
That solution is immediate consumption of salt.
An immediate salt infusion into your body should stop the cramping and spasming to get you to the next aid station. The easiest way to accomplish this is to carry a few small table salt packets with you at all times. Think of them as a spare tire would be to your car. You can either buy them at the grocery store or pop into a fast food resturant and grab a few packets.
One or two packets with a small amount of water is all that is needed for quick relief. This small item that packs a tremendous punch and insurance against this situation foiling your run.
How To Implement an Electrolyte Strategy
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 near 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 train with one type of electrolyte replacement solution and then on race day rely on what is provided at the aid stations you may be in for a poor performance. Plan how you will implement your replacement strategy not only in training but for race day itself.
If you decide to rely on what will be available at the race train with it during your preparations so that you can simply execute with confidence on race day.