Should runners be drinking electrolyte beverages?
Picture this: you're finished with a run, you're sweaty, you're thirsty, and you reach for your water. No, your sports drink. No, your water. No.... wait, which one should you choose??
You're thirsty. You want to rehydrate. You want to recover properly. You see athletes on TV drinking sports beverages... you're told you need to replace your electrolytes... are sports drinks always the better option?
Sports drinks and electrolyte beverages DO serve a purpose. They are engineered for athletes - when you're working hard for an extended period and/or you're sweating a lot.
But they also cost money, some have a lot of sugar, and they're not appropriate for every day or every run.
When deciding whether to drink an electrolyte beverage or not, consider these things...
1. You can replace all of your electrolytes through food
One great thing about sports drinks is that they provide electrolytes that you lose in sweat. But some of these beverages don't taste great, and they can be kind of expensive. The good news is that they're not strictly necessary - you can easily eat foods that provide all the electrolytes you need!
The electrolytes we lose in sweat are sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Here are some foods you could eat instead...
Sodium + chloride: pretzels, pickles, olive, soups or broths, cheese, V8, crackers, salted nuts or trail mix, table salt (added to foods).
Potassium: potatoes, bananas, melons, oranges or orange juice, dates
Calcium: yogurt, milk, cheese, broccoli
Magnesium: beans, nuts, pumpkin seeds, spinach, peanut butter
2. Sports drinks shouldn't replace water for everyday use
There is a time and place for sports drinks. Sports drinks are engineered for physical activity and sweating. If you're running long distances and/or you're working really hard and losing a lot of sweat, they can definitely help rehydrate you.
That said, Gatorade (or similar) shouldn't be your main beverage throughout the day. If you're sitting at your desk working, then sports drinks are probably just giving you more sugar that you don't really need.
Plus, water is important for so many processes in your body - maintaining body temperature, removing wastes, carrying nutrients, and protecting organs to name a few.
3. Some beverages are actually low in sodium
You lose more than just water when you sweat, you lose sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes. How much sodium you lose is dependent on your body (the range is huge) but averages out to ~800 mg per liter (which is about a quart).
For comparison, Gatorade has ~460 mg sodium per liter (way less than what you're losing!), a Nuun tab has 300 mg sodium, Clif hydration mix has 125 mg sodium, and UCan SuperStarch has 230 mg sodium.
There are options out there with more salt. Take the time to read the label and choose the best option for you.
So when should you have sports drinks?
If you're going to be doing a hard intensity run (or other physical activity) for over an hour, then a beverage with electrolytes is beneficial. Make sure said beverage has both carbohydrates and sodium, as this will help you absorb the fluids faster (thus replacing what you're losing). It will also help it empty from your stomach quicker, so you're less likely to have "sloshing".
If you're doing a long run and you need fuel but you don't like gels or chews and you prefer not to eat anything, then a beverage that provides carbohydrates (for energy) and electrolytes is appropriate.
And when should you have water?
Pretty much any time you don't need a sports drink or electrolyte beverage, water should be your go-to. Think before, during, and after a run that is 60 minutes or less... with meals... in the car on the way to work or school... before bedtime... etc.
Personally, I drink water most of the time. I sometimes have a Nuun tablet after a long run, but that's mostly because I like the taste. I be sure to drink lots of water and eat salty foods, along with plenty of other foods I mentioned above, to make sure I replace all my electrolytes.
Knowing what option to choose in what situation not only makes you feel better physically, but it gives you confidence in your body and its ability to recover properly. I work with runners who didn't know when (or if!) they should be drinking sports beverages, but are now able to choose what to drink with assurance that they're doing their body good.
If you want to have confidence knowing that you're giving your body the fluids, electrolytes, and nutrients it needs when it needs them, then schedule your runner's nutrition strategy session to talk to me and find out how I can help you get there.