Electrolyte drinks might just be the solution to a number of your running issues. Yup, things you might have blamed simply on training could be due to sweating out electrolytes and then hydrating with enough water to continue flushing your system!
Have you found yourself craving more salt than normal?
Feeling a little more fatigued than you should during workouts?
Perhaps it’s time to explore electrolytes for runners!
Sugar is the thing I crave during stress or you know after any meal, so when I suddenly start dreaming of potato chips I know something in my body is out of balance.
As I started marathon training during the summer in Miami, this quickly became the case…I wanted salt, but at the same time knew I was actually getting plenty through my natural diet.
I put my hand up on your hip. When I sweat, you sweat, we sweat…seriously in Miami we sweat (circa 2011).During my runs, I started feeling a little lightheaded or just down right fatigued in ways that I had never noticed in any previous training cycle.
A lot of folks kept pointing to dehydration, but the fact of the matter is I drink a minimum of 8oz of water per hour all day long…I could float a ship.
I was actually flushing my body out between the long sweat sessions and all the pure water!!!
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are a super important competent of sports nutrition and one of the easiest to quickly change. They’re known as electrolytes because they’re substances with an electrical charge when mixed with water.
In terms of nutrition, electrolytes refer to minerals that play an important role in the body. They help to maintain the balance of water inside and outside of the cells.
Although most people can maintain a healthy level of electrolytes with a balanced diet, high endurance athletes such as runners usually need a boost.
This great chart adapted from Dr. Axe gives an overview of the 5 main electrolytes and some of the most common issues (not just for runners, but anyone with an imbalance). These are calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, and chloride.
According to research studies, two other important electrolytes include phosphate (or phosphorus) and bicarbonate.
First you can see it’s about more than sodium, so your salty food isn’t enough to keep you balanced.
Second some of the symptoms you might have been attributing to other things and quick drink or electrolyte tablet could get you back to training!
Why Runners Should Care About Electrolytes
A few important reasons to pay attention to electrolytes for runners (beyond these general items):
- Balanced electrolytes prevent muscle cramping, fatigue and decreased performance
- Salt tablets (salty foods) only provide 2 of the 5 that you need to stay balanced
- You can’t replace what you’ve lost all at once, which is why it’s best to consume them during and post exercise
- Runners trots are also though to be caused by an imbalance of electrolytes (don’t over do the sugary sports drinks that could cause issues too)
- Muscle cramps while running is one way your body tries to alert you to a balance issue
Symptoms of Imbalanced Electrolytes
Some of the main symptoms of imbalanced electrolytes to watch out for include:
- Muscle spasms
Other symptoms that you might not be hydrating properly include dry mouth and tongue, thirst, dry skin, dark urine, and muscle weakness.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms but believe that you’re consuming adequate fluids, it may be time to incorporate an electrolyte drink into your routine.
How Do Electrolytes Get Out of Balance?
It’s surprisingly easy, as I shared in my story above I was simply drinking a lot of water and sweating. Nothing crazy!
We also know that being sick can cause it, how many times have you heard someone recommend a sports drink or an oral rehydration supplement like Pedialyte to help you stay hydrated when going through a stomach bug?
Of course, a poor diet could cause it, as can certain medications. In general here, we’re focused on the sweaty runner, which is where we lose sodium and potassium.
Without getting too sciency on you, the main thing to know is these are required to keep everything flowing and working optimally in your body…and yes everyone is slightly different, but all distance runners are going to need some electrolyte replacement.What every runner needs to know about electrolytes! #runchat Click To Tweet
Do electrolyte drinks give you energy?
No, but as noted if you’re electrolytes are out of balance it can result in fatigue or decreased overall performance.
Electrolytes are not like a caffeine boost from a pre-workout supplement. They’re about keeping your hydration and minearls in balance to perform at your best.
When to take electrolyte drinks?
If you’ll be doing a very long run in the heat, taking a SaltStick tablet before you start is ideal. To be clear that is not just a salt block, it’s a pill that’s an easy way to get on top of electrolytes!
Then throughout the run you can either sip a drink with electrolytes or take another tablet as you go. The goal is to keep your body in balance from start to finish (as much as possible).
- Remember to sip, not guzzle
- If you are a heavy sweater, then having them throughout the day can help
- When you are feeling dehydrated, they can also help
Best Electrolyte Drink Options for Runners
What is the best way to replenish electrolytes?
The reason many people even know the term electrolytes is thanks to sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, but let’s be honest you know I’m not going to recommend those!
Not only do they include additional chemicals, artificial sweeteners, and food coloring in there which can cause digestive problems, like runner’s diarrhea, but we’ve got plenty of better for you options.
Electrolyte drinks are infused with vitamins and minerals (potassium and sodium) that help prevent dehydration.
Option 1: Electrolyte Tablets
You can take a Saltstick Electrolyte Capsules (I recommend the non-caffeinated version) or Hammer Endurolyte every 30 minutes during workouts.
Especially while living in Florida and doing long runs these were a staple in my workouts. Now I will use them on high mileage weeks in addition to an electrolyte drink.
These are not salt tablets, you are not a horse, these are electrolyte tablets that provide Vitamin D3, Calcium, Magnesium, Chloride, Sodium and Potassium.
Once I started adding these in during my sweatiest times I noticed:
A. I stopped feeling lightheaded, which was from being so flushed of nutrients during my workouts.
B. I stopped craving as much salt because my body is better balancing my activities with what it needs.
C. I stopped getting calf cramps.
For some reason it feels like this works faster for me than drinking any kind of sports drink and maybe it’s because I really needed the salt.. I mean I am a white chalky mess from my sweat sessions.
For those who don’t live in Miami the truth is these are still a valuable tool to have in your arsenal!
Checkout my research of the best electrolyte tablets >>
Option 2: Electrolyte Drinks
For those who need something quick, I have long recommended Vega Sport Electrolytes.
It’s one that I’ve used frequently and recommend to my athletes along with clean products like Skratch Labs or Hammer Nutrition. When you have a little more time I think it’s fun to make drinks at home because yes indeed you can get electrolytes without a sports powder.
Checkout the recipe I shared for Shalane Flannagan’s electrolyte drink from Run Fast. Eat Slow!
Sugar Free Electrolyte Drinks
- 1 cup fresh watermelon diced or cubed
- 1½ cups chilled berry flavored tea herbal or green such as pomegranate, acai, or raspberry
- 1 tsp fresh ginger minced or solid
- 1 pinch unrefined sea salt or dulse
- 2-3 drops stevia optional
- 1.Combine all ingredients with the basic electrolyte beverage in a blender and blend until smooth.
- As you pour the liquid into your drinking bottle, strain the pulp with a fine mesh strainer.
Option 3: Homemade Electrolyte Drinks
For those of you who are more motivated than I am, there are a lot of great options that you can create yourself! Here are a lot of some of my favorites, including the recipe above.
This allows you to control the sugar content. But you may also need to really think through if there is enough of all the electrolytes.
Electrolyte Energy Drink Bright ‘n Early Recipe from Everyday Roots
Homemade Gatorade by South Your Mouth
DIY Lemon Electrolyte Drink by Raising Generation Nourished
Paleo Electrolyte Drink by The Nourished Caveman
What about Coconut Water for Electrolytes?
A few years ago, coconut water entered the spotlight as the newest health drink with claims ranging from a health tonic to simply “nature’s Gatorade”.
Coconut water, not to be confused with coconut milk, is water harvested from young, green coconuts and then pasteurized for packaging and distribution.
In most cases, it does not contain any added sugars or artificial ingredients unlike many sports drinks, making it a great alternative for replenishing potassium and electrolytes lost during activity.
The benefits are real for anyone who needs to re-hydrate, just be aware that it’s not a 0 calorie or sugar free drink to use all day everyday.
Option 4: Whole Food Electrolytes for Runners
That’s right you can also get electrolytes from whole foods…ok you might have guessed some of that from the drink ideas listed above.
While I usually try to make food my first option, during the summer months when you are sweating a lot and putting in a lot of miles these may not be enough. Your main food sources for electrolytes will be: raisins, bananas, potatoes, spinach…you know all those healthy plant based foods!
Another option that a lot of heavy sweaters (eh hem me) swear by is pickle juice due to the sodium content. It’s a great way to stop muscle cramps!
More questions on how much to drink and when? Check out the Ultimate Running Hydration Guide >>
Do you have a favorite sports drink?
Ever thought about your electrolytes?
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Hi! I've been using nuun tablets to replenish after a run (I don't take it on runs, my longest runs are only 2 hours ish and I just take water so I don't have to be careful about cleaning my camelbak (lazy). What's your view on these?
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Nuun is actually great too, I just never did like the taste :) agreed cleaning the camelbak is wayyyy annoying. Part of why I still use a handheld so often
I've been using Hammer Endurolytes for years. When we moved from California to Hawaii they became my BFF! I love their new Endurolyte Extreme caps – I only have to swallow one per hour instead of three.
My recent post Ford Island Bridge 10k and Tantalus Time Trial
So electrolytes are a very big deal to me and unfortunately played a key role in me not reaching my PR at the NYC marathon last Nov. Or so I thought. I absolutely love this article and, I'm inclined to agree with you. BUT, have you read Jeff Gaudette's piece on Runner's Connect about how runner's really DO NOT need electrolytes? If nothing else, it's interesting. That said, I never thought of making my own sports drinks! What a concept! Thanks Amanda :-)
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I thought I was doing all the right things and that I was just a sucky runner in heat until I threw down a salt packet in the middle of a scorching hot/humid half. Now I know I need to salt up even more at those times. Live and learn. Those homemade drinks look pretty refreshing!htt
Electrolytes are sooooo interesting to me because, as Allie mentioned above, there's some debate on whether they make a difference! I've seen both in research – that they don't make a difference, or that they're responsible for everything that could possibly go wrong in a run. I really like your article here and I think regardless of what *some* research may say electrolytes are important for runners, especially because there haven't been shown any adverse effects. And yes, I love homemade electrolyte drinks! Coconut water + sea salt + lemon is my go to. Thanks for sharing the recipes.
My recent post Comment on Should You Include 20 Mile Long Runs in Marathon Training? by Nicole @ Fitful Focus
I need to MAKE my own energy drinks! Ha! I am a sucker for… GASP… Sugar Free energy drinks. **Lowers head in shame** LOL!!!
I guess you’re very much right that it’s time to explore my electrolytes! Thanks for sharing theses recipes. I’ll definitely try these.
Would you consider BCAA supplements an electrolyte drink? I have been using them for about a year to supplement, and I love them. I have them in a 24 ounce water bottle and use one scoop per workout. I typically sip them during the workout if I’m on the treadmill or at the gym, or if I am doing an outside run I wait until after. I notice a definite improvement during my workouts, and it helps with soreness also! Muscle recovery is key! :)