The Runners Guide To Electrolytes

Don't make this running excuse

Everbody knows that water is vital for both performance and overall health.

After all, the human body is roughly 80 percent fluid, which means that organs, tissue, and cell require water to function optimally.

But is a bottle of water all you need to keep your body well hydrated?

It couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, you also need electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, to run at your best.

Here’s the truth.

Electrolytes, the electrically-charged minerals like potassium, sodium, and the rest are key for keeping your body functioning like a well-oiled machine.

So what are electrolytes, and how do you get enough of these all-important minerals? Keep on reading

In today’s article, I’ll dive deep into the electrolytes, their importance, roles, and how to get enough of the minerals.

Sounds great?

Let’s get started

What are Electrolytes

If you feel drained for the rest of the day following a long run in the heat, then a lack of electrolytes might be to blame.

Electro what?

Electrolytes consist of minerals that conduct electricity in the water and are key for the nervous, cardiac, muscular, and digestive systems function.

Electrolytes are mostly in charge of regulating muscle contractions, nerve impulses, and regular fluids balance within the body—to name a few functions.

This makes them especially important to a plethora of biochemical processes such as blood pressure, blood chemistry, and the proper function of nerves, heart, and muscles.

The Major Electrolytes

The main electrolytes include:

  • Sodium (Na+) – helps keep fluid balance within the body
  • Calcium (Ca 2+) – Helps regulate heartbeat and aid in muscle contraction, bone and tooth strength
  • Potassium (K+) – Assist in muscle contraction, impulse conduction, acid-base regulation, and heartbeat regulation
  • Magnesium (Mg 2+) – key for various chemical reactions within your body as such as supporting muscle contractions, regulating heart rate, the conduction of nerve impulses, etc.
  • Phosphate (PO4 2-), key for bone and teeth strength as well as energy production for cellular repair and growth.
  • Chloride (Cl-) – Helps maintain a balance of fluids on the inside and outside of the cells.
  • Bicarbonate (HCO3), essential for regulating the heart and keeping a healthy pH.

All in all, you might only need four major electrolytes to maintain your body’s fluid balance, and these consist of potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium.

The Importance of Electrolytes For Runners

Exercising hard, long, and very often? Keeping your electrolytes balanced is essential for optimum performance and successful training, regardless of your goals.

Let me explain.

Just like any other compound in your body, electrolytes should stay within a specific range for optimal health.

If you lose too many electrolytes, you’ll start to suffer from a range of negative symptoms.

These may include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle cramping
  • Headaches
  • Appetite loss
  • Confusion
  • Visual disturbance

Note – Expect to come down with more serious symptoms in extreme cases.

Experience two more of these symptoms? It could be an electrolyte imbalance. If symptoms persist for more than an hour, it’s key to seek medical attention. Beware of the shock risk. Better be safe than sorry.

Does Having Plenty of Water Helps?

Trying to replenish your electrolytes needs by drinking a lot of water alone isn’t enough.

It can actually be quite unproductive since water has a neutral pH.

In extreme cases, having too much water without adequate electrolytes can force sodium levels to drop to dangerous levels, leading to hyponatremia. This is a condition where sodium levels in the blood drop too low, causing all types of complications.

For these reasons, and some, maintaining balanced electrolytes is key for both performance and health.

I cannot emphasize this enough.

How Many Electrolytes Runners Need?

If you don’t exercise that much but follow a healthy and well-balanced diet, you might already be getting enough electrolytes from your food.

But that might not be the case if you like to run hard and/or long, especially in hot weather and high humidity.

Still not convinced?

Here’s how much in mg the average person loses in one liter of sweat:

  • 900 mg of sodium
  • 200 mg of potassium
  • 15 mg of calcium
  • 13 mg of magnesium

That’s quite a lot.

The Factors That Impact Electrolyte Loss

Many variables impact how much electrolytes you lose while running.

In fact,  losses vary for each runner, and sweating from training isn’t the only culprit behind electrolyte loss.

The main factors include:

  • Sweating: Sweating is the main mechanism by which your body loses electrolytes. You might sweat more than others. If it’s the case, you’re at greater risk for electrolytes imbalances.
  • Temperature: Running in the hot weather increases your fluid losses through sweat, and training in the cold may limit your body’s ability to pay attention to re-hydrating since you won’t be sweating as much.
  • Running duration and intensity: Logging endless miles means that you’ll need to take in more water and more frequently to stay well hydrated.
  • Altitude: Training at altitude boost up your fluid losses, thus, increase your electrolyte needs.

Some individual factors that also have a say include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Fitness level
  • Diet
  • Hydration status
  • Body size and composition
  • Clothing worn during exercise
  • Medical issues
  • Previous conditioning history

For these reasons (and some more), if you’re highly active—as in log 20+ miles per week plus cross-training—consider supplementing with electrolytes needs—or at the very least, pay attention to your daily electrolyte intake.

What you Need

The most common electrolyte losses in sweat during training are chloride and sodium, with less significant amounts of potassium, magnesium, and calcium.

Sodium chloride, or what’s often referred to as salt, is key as it helps keep fluid balance and nerve function, which regulates muscle contraction. During training, you can lose up to 1,000 milligrams per hour.

Most electrolyte tablets pack around 200 to 800 milligrams of it to get back some of the salt lost through sweat.

How To Have Enough Electrolytes When Running

Now that you have an idea about the importance of getting enough electrolytes let’s look at some of the ways to quickly replenish them.

Most runners assume that the best way to replenish electrolytes in the body is by drinking a sports drink.

It couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, electrolytes can be replaced in a variety of ways—and not just through sports drinks (don’t let those sketchy ads lure you in; they just want your money).

What’s more?

Even though sports drinks do contain electrolytes, it’s typically in small quantitates, along with a lot of refined sugar—and you don’t want that.

Instead, the best way to help regain your electrolytes is to by eating the right foods.

Here are the main sources.

To replenish Sodium

  • Canned vegetables
  • Soup
  • Vegetable juice
  • Deli Meats
  • Smoked Salmon
  • Salted Nuts
  • Crackers
  • Pretzels

Note – Keep in mind that you might be already taking enough sodium through your diet.

To replenish Chloride

  • Celery
  • Seaweed
  • Tomatoes

Note – just like sodium, and you might not be lacking in chloride if you follow a typical western diet.

To replenish Potassium

  • Bananas
  • Coconut water
  • Oranges
  • Potatoes
  • Citrus
  • Avocado
  • Halibut,
  • Legumes
  • Spinach

To replenish Calcium

  • Yogurt
  • Milk
  • Spinach
  • Leafy greens
  • Almonds
  • Fortified Cereals

To replenish Magnesium

  • Avocados
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Nuts
  • Whole Grains
  • Peanut Butter

Elites With High Mileage

Most likely, if you run for less than an hour—especially at a slow pace—your electrolytes losses are negligible. In fact, water might be all you need.

However, if (1) you run more than an hour, (2) train in really hot weather, or (3) are a heavy sweater, you should consider electrolyte supplements.

Let me explain more.

Electrolyte Tablets

When it comes to electrolyte tablets, you got many options.

But I’d recommend Salt stick Electrolyte Capsules—preferably the non-caffeinated version—every 30-45 minutes during training.

This is more important if you’re living in a humid state and doing long runs regularly.

These electrolytes tablets pack in lots of calcium, Chloride, Magnesium, potassium, Sodium, and Vitamin D3.

Sports Drinks

If you’re looking for something quick and tasty, and sports drink might be what you need.

Sure, you can always choose electrolytes drinks like Powerade and Gatorade, but keep in mind that these pack in a lot of sugar and might cause cravings —I won’t recommend them.

Make Your Own

If you’ve more time on your hands, I’d recommend making your own electrolytes drinks at home.

Yes, you heard that right. You can make your own sports drinks in the comfort of your own home and using your own ingredients. It is simple and a healthier choice.

Here are a few of my favorite recipe

When To Take Electrolytes While Running

In my experience, the best time to take an electrolyte supps is before you start, especially if you’re doing a very long run in the heat.

Next, during your workout, you can either sip an electrolyte-rich drink or take another tablet as you go. Your aim is to keep your body in balance from start to finish.

When To See A Doctor

Consult a doctor or a physician immediately if you’re coming down with severe dehydration symptoms, heat exhaustion, or heatstroke.

Hyponatremia is another dangerous condition and the most common problem that requires immediate medical attention, sometimes as far as getting an IV line.

Main symptoms include severe headache, confusion, swelling of the hands and feet, and vomiting.

Proceed with caution.

During your medical visit and check-up, get answers to some of the following questions:

  • How much water to drink each day?
  • How much water to drink when running?
  • What’s the best to stay well hydrated?
  • Do I have any existing conditions that make me prone to electrolyte imbalances?
  • Etc.