The 411 on Electrolytes

Electrolytes are advertised on so many products these days – even your local 7-Eleven is chock full of ’em. So what’s the story on electrolytes when it comes to running performance? Are you getting the right balance? How do you determine the electrolytes you need when training and racing?

Electrolytes Explained

First off, what are these magic “electrolytes”? A group of minerals crucial to your muscle function and proper hydration, electrolytes are involved in the transmission of electrical impulses that signal muscle contraction and relaxation. The electrolytes commonly utilized by the body are sodium (Na), chloride (Cl), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg), all commonly found in the foods we eat everyday.

Why You Might Need More

Electrolyte deficiency can cause all kinds of problems with your performance, including nausea, fatigue, cramping, vomiting, and weakness. A balanced diet will supply the body with enough electrolytes for day-to-day functioning. However, you may need greater electrolyte levels during runs. Since you lose electrolytes through sweat, the longer the run and/or the hotter the day, the more likely you will need to replenish your electrolyte stores on the run.

Finding the Right Balance

Knowing when your electrolyte levels are optimal can be tricky, and finding the right balance is often a process of trial and error. Few runners need electrolyte supplements for runs in mild or cold conditions, or runs under 60 minutes. But there are many cases, such as longer runs in hotter weather, when an electrolyte supplement can help. Also, some runners naturally sweat more than others, and will deplete electrolytes faster.

Runners who are regularly out more than an hour may benefit from a sports drink containing both electrolytes and carbohydrates to refuel the body for sustained activity. But note that fluids with a high concentration of electrolytes and carbohydrates may cause gastrointestinal distress for some runners.

You might want to use a sweat loss calculator and track your sweat rate at different temperature/humidity combinations for a better understanding of how much fluid and electrolyte intake you need. Since no two runners are the same, you’ll have to put in a bit of work to figure out your optimal intake.

Replacing Lost Electrolytes
So if you want to replenish electrolytes, what are some of your options? Before you head out, build your electrolyte levels with coconut water, a good natural source of electrolytes, or add a bit of salt or a drink mix powder to your favorite drink. On your run, you may want to consider:

  • Drink Mix: A good choice to replenish lost fluids and gain energy, a drink mix powder is preferred to a ready-to-drink, because most ready-to-drink products are high in simple sugars, which are broken down and digested quickly. Fluid Performance and GU Brew are popular options containing both carbohydrates and electrolytes. For an electrolyte-only drink, choose Hammer Endurolytes Powder.
  • Capsules: If you prefer to drink water because a drink mix upsets your stomach, or you need a greater amount of electrolytes, you might want to try Succeed S!Caps for electrolytes or SaltStick Caps PLUS for electrolytes with caffeine.
  • Tablets: If you don’t need fuel but do need water and electrolytes, tablets conveniently dissolve in water. They’re easily stowable for longer runs. The Nuun 4 Flavor Variety Pack offers a nice range of flavors.
  • Gels and Chews: Although providing electrolytes is not the main purpose of these types of supplements, you’ll find electrolytes on the ingredient list of most gels and chews. If you’re looking for electrolytes, Clif added 3x the sodium to the Margarita flavored Clif Shot Bloks Energy Chews 18-Pack.