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The Importance of Electrolytes – What Every Runner Needs to Know

by | 20 Aug 2020 | Running hydration, Running mistakes

What are electrolytes?

Electro-lite-whaat?! (I can hear you ask) Basically, electrolytes are a band of little guys that conduct electricity in water. Our cells and organs use tiny electrical signals to communicate with each other, and so we need a constant supply of electrolytes.

They enter our body as salts, and once digested and dissolved they become polarised (that is ‘electrically charged’) and start to carry energy around the body. Their main job is to control the flow of water in and out of our cells.

Put simply, electrolytes keep you hydrated, and the importance of electrolytes for running cannot be overstated.

They keep your body running in other ways too – apart from regulating hydration, electrolytes are crucial for balancing blood pressure and acidity. They also play central roles in maintaining nerve, lung and muscle functions.

Little fellas are essential for life and our survival, and like with any great engines, in this case our bodies, we need to make sure that electrolytes are maintained properly and balanced well.

sweaty runner at risk of dehydration loss of electrolytes

What is the importance of electrolytes for running? do runners need extra electrolytes? 

When working out water is an essential need. But when we are working out hard and sweating even harder is it simply water that we need to stay well hydrated, or is there something else as well?

When we sweat we lose water but we’ve all noticed that our sweat has that special salty taste. What could that be?

We lose essential mineral salts (our electrolyte friends) that deliver fluids to our cells. And when that is affected then everything from our muscle power to brain function gets affected.

When electrolytes are in check and at good levels we run like well-oiled fast and powerful machines. Well, some people do, as most of us simply run in our own comfort zones. But you get the picture.

So, ladies and gentlemen, please meet sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium. There are others too, but when it comes to running and maintaining hydration through fluid balance these big four electrolytes call the shots.

How do I know my electrolyte levels are low or out of balance?

When a runner starts experiencing unpleasantness like cramps (legs or stomach), side stitches, muscle twitches, dizziness, confusion, achy joints or general fatigue that could mean that we are dehydrated – that our electrolyte level is too low and will need proper balancing.

Can water only help keep hydration in check and dehydration at bay?

Yes it can but only during shorter workouts.

Our electrolytes – provided you have good levels to start with! – are happy to hold the fort for a good hour or so during harder workouts and water will provide a welcome relief, but electrolytes also help make the most of your water, which is the key to avoiding dehydration.

So what happens when we start losing electrolytes?

Let’s go back to sweat. When we lose sodium through excess sweating we start cramping, to put it simply. If we lose more sodium we get more cramps, headaches, fatigue, even seizures and if all goes south, we can even end up in a coma (let’s hope that never happens).

Some think that the more we sweat, the more water we should drink. Trouble is, that could cause hyponatremia which basically means the sodium levels in blood got so low, so badly and dangerously low that we could enter bad news territory.

The more sodium we lose and the more water we drink, the sodium will become more diluted. It then cannot regulate the amount of water in and around the cells, which means that the body’s water levels will rise further and the cells will begin to swell (think bad flooding in your house but with worse consequences). That will bring health issues, from mild (if we catch it soon) to life-threatening (if we carry on pumping up water while losing more and more sodium).

So, no, good old water on its own is very unlikely to keep us well hydrated during long and hard workouts, such as any long run or any sweaty and prolonged workout in the sun, lasting over an hour.

In simplest terms, in addition to replacing lost water we also need to replace electrolytes that we lose through sweating.

How do I get electrolytes when running?

Think of running as if you are driving your car over a long distance. You topped up your oil and petrol but the moment will come when the gauge will drop to red and then all will run out and the car will stop (hopefully somewhere where you can refuel).

Same with our bodies. We go and run, run longer, run very long, we sweat, water and electrolytes evaporate through the pores and, voila, we run no more. We need topping up!

Now comes the homework moment. We are all different and sweat at different rates, some little, some more, some lots.

The more we sweat the more electrolytes we need to replace.

We need to find out what electrolyte replacements work best for us. Sodium tablets dissolved in water? Electrolyte powders? Ready-made sports drinks?

They all work but you need to find out what does the trick for you. Just like many other running related things, what works for one runner may be unsuitable for the next guy.

Be your own judge, do what’s right for you. Take your time deciding, there is no magic formula.

My own experience with electrolytes and staying hydrated

Would I have been able to finish my marathon or ultra marathon without proper water intake and electrolyte replacement? Nope. No way.

Elite runners can. They spend only a few hours negotiating the full marathon but for most of us mere mortals, proper hydration and good planning is essential.

I experimented with various products, tried and changed them until I was happy with my choice and learned how to take them during the run.

You should settle down with something that will not leave you hopelessly fatigued and spent, something that will keep you well and balanced and something that will be gentle on your stomach.

It may take time to find the right product but that may be the best time you have invested.

electrolyte rich diet for replacing hydration loss through running

Photo by Trang Doan from Pexels

Best foods with electrolytes?

Eating well through a clever diet is essential. Fixing things later is sometimes necessary but a quality diet rich in electrolytes is even more so. Let’s make sure we do what we can to keep the daily balance in check.

You should start by eating stuff that is an excellent source of electrolytes and in no particular order here they are: pickles, milk, yogurth, pretzels, prunes, tomatoes, broccolis, spinach, bananas, watermelon, coconut, strawberries, cherries, mango, oranges, potatoes, beans, pumpkins, almonds, tofu, kale and avocado.

Phew, what a brilliant list!

Quite often we tend to ignore simple things that make our lives and health better and let them slip under the radar. Electrolytes are one of those things. If we pay more attention to our diet and quality of our training when running (amongst other physical activities), we will see immediate effects and reap many benefits.

It’s never too late to start your healthy new diet, and to start paying more attention to proper hydration and electrolyte levels, but today is always better than another day.

Cover photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels

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