There is so much conflicting information out there on the internet about every possible running topic stretching or not, carb loading or not, strength training or not, shoes or not, Electrolytes or not. It is never ending and constantly evolving. As an average runner, with limited or no access to professionals, it can be hard to know what to trust and what to leave on the side of the road.
Whenever anyone asks me about one of these topics, my answer is always, “It depends,” followed by me asking a bunch of questions to figure out what their experiences have been before I can offer any helpful suggestions.
Electrolyte replenishment is a big deal for runners. We have all heard the horror stories of Hyponatremia (dangerously low blood sodium levels). Runners rushed to the hospital near death after endurance events. There are equally scary stories about dehydration.
Today I opened up my email to an article called, “Do Electrolytes Actually Prevent Marathon Cramping? Do we need to replace them at all?” from Runnersconnect suggesting that electrolytes may not be necessary for marathon and some ultra-distances. I pulled out an article I read last year (yes I still have it and know where it is) called “Electrolytes for Runners: The Definitive Guide,” also from Runnersconnect.
I love Runnersconnect. They provide a ton of excellent information and the latest research on many running related topics. In fact, I post many of their articles to my Facebook page, including this recent one.
So the article from “Do Electrolytes Actually Prevent Marathon Cramping?…” cites Tim Noakes’ research, detailed in his book, Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports, (I have not read this book, but I have read his book, The Lore of Running, where he mentions this as well). His research suggests that your body will adjust the amount of sodium it puts out in your sweat depending on how much you usually consume and how much is available in your body. Noakes’ says that the amount of sodium in sports drinks is not enough to stop hyponatremia because the sodium content of your blood is much higher than the amount found in any sports drink.
What I think he is saying is that the amount of sports drink you would have to consume to impact your blood sodium level could lead to overhydration. Noakes’ advocates drinking to thirst and mostly plain water.
But sodium isn’t the only benefit of sports drinks, they also contain carbohydrates that your body needs (unless you’re a low carb runner) to maintain your pace over the duration of your run. Just keep in mind that your body can only absorb so much carbohydrate per hour, and if you take in more you will end up with an unhappy stomach.
The article “Electrolytes for Runners: The Definitive Guide,” suggests that if your electrolytes get out of balance you may experience muscle fatigue, muscle cramping, muscle spasms, dizziness, nausea, constipation, dry mouth, muscle weakness, dark urine, and decreased urine. The four most important electrolytes that keep bodily fluid balanced are sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, so these are the ones that you are looking for in your sports drinks.
Some of this conflicting information can be attributed to advances in research data and collection. After all, Gatorade has only been available to the public, as the first official sports drink, since 1967. The marathon race has been an event in the Olympics since 1896 (the distance was standardized in 1921). So, I suppose it is about time for the pendulum to swing back on sports drinks vs. water as it has in many other areas (Paleo diet and barefoot running).
There are a million different products out on the market, so which one is right? Or maybe none of them are right? I believe everyone agrees some form of hydration is necessary when running more than two hours.
I take my hand held out whenever I’m going out for more than one hour. What I put in my water, if anything, changes depending on distance and temperature. I know that if I go out for a long run in the heat without any electrolytes, I will come back with nausea, dizziness, and muscle weakness. I also know that as a low carb runner, my body retains less water and less electrolyte storage. So if I don’t take magnesium I will get muscle cramps.
Electrolytes are another area where you have to figure out what your body needs through trial and error. I don’t think there is one answer that fits everyone. And my guess is the middle road is probably the best one to travel.