Hydrating, It’s Complicated.

Staying hydrated is essential to being able to sustain a good pace on race day. Too much or too little water can cause serious problems for runners. Maintaining optimal hydration is more complicated than we’d all like.

There are many factors that play a role in your hydration during training and races. We all hear the pervasive message of 8 glasses of 8 oz of water a day, but is that right for everyone? It’s not even close. It’s difficult to calculate exactly how much fluid a person needs each day. Some factors that impact your recommended fluid intake are: the type of food you eat, your activity level, your body fat percentage, and your acclimatization to the heat.

Another recommendation we hear a lot is to drink to thirst, but once again the phrase, “it’s complicated,” rears it’s head. When you’re exercising, especially for extended periods of time, your body may not signal you to drink because of imbalances in your system. You need to be looking at other objective measures such as the amount of fluid you are taking in, the temperature, the color of your urine (we’ll talk about this more in a few paragraphs), and any GI issues you’re having.

You’re unlikely to need to hydrate during a 5k or 10k event. For a 1-2 hour run, you’ll need water, but not electrolytes. If you’re running five plus hours, you’re going to need some form of electrolyte replacement strategy. If you’re between the 2-5 hour range, water is necessary and electrolytes would be helpful but are not necessary like they are after 5-6 hours. Electrolytes are helpful in the 2-5 hour range because they help you hold onto the water you’re consuming rather than it just going straight through you.


Most ultrarunners use some type of electrolyte supplement during training and in races. There are lots of options as far as different sports drinks, powders, and tablets/capsules. It’s likely that you’ll want a variety of options when you’re racing because things change and some times something that has worked throughout training suddenly stops working. Sports drinks usually do double duty by providing you with both carbohydrate and electrolytes, so make sure you have options for both when the drink doesn’t work so well. Aid stations typical fare will consist of foods with both carbohydrate and with sodium, the main electrolyte you need, so keep a mental note that you’ve taken in some electrolytes there too.

After a run or a race, there’s no need to ingest a sports drink to replenish your electrolytes. Your body will be able to balance it out within the next 24-48 hours. If you have another run within that time frame, however, drinking a Gatorade is probably a good idea.

One way runners often judge their hydration is through urine color. The problem is there are a lot of things that impact your urine color, so it’s not always the most accurate. You can have clear urine because your body doesn’t have enough electrolytes to hold onto the water so it just spits it back out. The best time to judge hydration with urine color is when you first wake up in the morning because it’s had time to accumulate. The first urine in the morning tells you about your hydration the day before. So if you track your hydration and exercise, you’ll get a good idea of what your body needs for different workouts.




Just when you thought you had it figured out…

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.