Many people find running to be a fun, enjoyable, and satisfying way to stay active, and even compete in races. Other people hate running and do it anyway. No matter where you are on that spectrum, if you run, you can feel better while you are running and recover faster when you’re done with a smart electrolyte strategy.
Running and electrolytes are a great match, because electrolytes support optimal performance and recovery. Let’s dive into exactly why they work so well.
WHAT EXACTLY ARE ELECTROLYTES?
Electrolytes are a group of tiny molecules that help move electrical current through water. For the continuous transmission of the small electrical signals used for cellular and organ communication, our bodies require a steady supply of electrolytes. These minerals that are found in trace amounts in some foods, but since our modern soils are so badly depleted, we don’t get them in our diet as much as our ancestors would have.
The electrolyte minerals are Sodium, Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Phosphate, and Chloride. You can learn more about what each of them do here.
Electrolytes are absorbed in your stomach from foods and drinks, and dissolved into the bloodstream. They transform into polarized (or electrically charged) salts that begin transporting energy throughout the body. Their primary function is to regulate the volume of fluid entering and leaving our cells, and to support electrical signaling. Hydration and energy, anyone?
Electrolytes maintain healthy physiological function in ways other than managing hydration, and you can learn more about what else they do here. Their functions include things like maintaining normal pH and blood pressure levels, and are also crucial in keeping your muscles, nerves, and lungs working properly.
They're crucial to our well-being, and keeping the electrolyte balance in your body in check is as important as maintaining the tune of any high-powered machine.
WHY DO RUNNERS NEED ELECTROLYTES?
You need plenty of water normally, and that’s before you even start to run. Running amplifies your need for hydration. Some of the reasons for this are obvious, such as losing water through sweating and breathing. Other reasons aren’t so obvious, like flushing lactate from your muscles, which is the substance that makes your legs feel like they’re burning. It also keeps cellular metabolism moving so you produce enough energy to take that next step.
But water alone isn’t enough. When we sweat we lose water yet we’ve all noticed that our perspiration has that special salty flavor. Your sweat is one of the ways your body loses valuable electrolyte minerals. Not only are you losing electrolytes through sweat, but also through waste products you leave in the bathroom.
Time to get into a little bit of science, but don’t worry, there won’t be a test at the end.
Water can get into cells all on its own, but slowly and often not as much as is needed for the cell’s best health, or your own. Each cell has gated channels on its surface that open wider in the presence of the charged electrolyte minerals, which are conveniently bound to water. Electrolyte-bound water can enter cells more easily and in the quantities that support cellular metabolism and removal of wastes. This happens in every cell in your body, from your skin to your muscles. If you think about how many cells are in your muscles that need deeper hydration while you run, you begin to understand why you feel fatigue, burning, and soreness the longer you’re out.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I NEED MORE ELECTROLYTES?
The short answer is, if you didn’t have a complete, balanced electrolyte drink today, you need more of these essential minerals. But there are ways you can know when you’re seriously depleted.
During or after running, there are common symptoms of electrolyte deficiency. Leg or stomach cramps, side stitches, muscle twitching, disorientation, confusion, achy joints, headaches, lack of sweating, or general exhaustion and fatigue are common complaints among runners at all levels. Lots of people assume these to be normal when they run, but in the vast majority of cases, you can resolve these symptoms with one simple and easy solution: an electrolyte solution.
PLAIN WATER IS GOOD ENOUGH TO STAY HYDRATED FOR RUNNING, RIGHT?
Nope! You do need plain water on a daily basis to feel your best and be healthy. But is it enough to keep you hydrated and running at your best? The answer to that question is no.
Since you’re using up a greater quantity of your electrolyte stores when you do any strenuous and sweaty activity, you need to replenish these minerals. The best tactic is to fuel up before your run so you have plenty of electrolytes to use during activity, and to have another electrolyte drink either during or after your run to replenish what you’ve used.
If you’re craving a tall, cold glass of water, go for it! There are few things that bring as much joy after a run as drinking cool, fresh water. But don’t forget to have that second electrolyte drink so you can recover faster, feel less sore, and stay ready for your next run.
It’s easy to assume that the more we sweat, the more water we should drink. The problem is that this could lead to hyponatremia, which is when your blood is too diluted with water and there isn’t enough sodium to carry out vital functions. Some people, for medical reasons, need to restrict sodium. For most people, especially if you’re active and sweating, more sodium is a good thing.
The more sodium we lose and the more water we drink, the more diluted sodium will become. The body's water levels will continue to rise, causing the cells to excrete minerals to balance the blood, but also absorb too much water in trying to find that balance. If it is unable to control the amount of water inside and surrounding the cells, you’ll start to feel dizzy, confused, and off balance, like you might pass out. Some people who have done “water drinking contests” to win prizes have instead paid with their life.
There can be similar consequences for each of the electrolyte minerals, though they can happen over a longer period of time, like days, weeks, or even years. If you or someone you know suffers with constant muscle cramps, headaches, or fatigue, there is likely an electrolyte mineral imbalance behind it. In the same way, if you think running should feel better than it does, or if your endurance isn’t improving, take a look at your electrolyte intake.
Going to go run? Enjoy, and power up with electrolytes before your shoes hit the pavement.