It’s a question as old as time. Should you drink water or an electrolyte drink when you run?
We all know what water is. It’s that boring, tasteless fluid that keeps us alive. But what are these electrolyte things? Why have we heard so much about them, yet at the same time, still feel like we don’t know enough about them at all?
Then there’s the conspiracy theories.
Is this a big marketing ploy? Should you ‘Be Like Mike’ and drink Gatorade? Are you being scammed?
Is your whole life a lie?
Easy there, cowboy. Before you get too far into Conspiracy Land, let me reel you back in. In today’s lesson, we will discuss this hyper-talked about, yet mostly cryptic subject we call an “electrolyte drink,” and when exactly we should be drinking them instead of plain water.
Let’s get to the bottom of it.
What are electrolytes?
In its simplest form, electrolytes are minerals for your body.
Here are some examples –
The coolest thing about them? They produce an electric charge.
Yes, that’s right. When mixed with water, electrolytes produce an electrical current that flows through our bodies that keeps us alive and in motion. From one zone to the next, these electric minerals transmit signals to our muscles, heart, nerves, and brain to make sure everything is working properly. Then, they shoot nutrients into our cells while simultaneously cleaning out any waste they find along the way.
Safe to say, electrolytes are the true regulators. These bad boys balance out the fluids in our bodies and make sure we’re the well-oiled machine we need to be.
This all sounds great. But before I get too far, I need to address something very important first.
The most important thing to remember
As I stated in the How Often Should You Hydrate On Long Runs post (and I’ll do it again to pound this into your subconscious) everyone is different. We have different body sizes, sweat rates, fitness levels, and the weather is constantly changing around us.
So please note that this topic is extremely variable. It’s not a one-size fits all. Never be a robot and always listen to your body first and foremost.
With all that said, it’d be a cop-out if I left it at that and didn’t address the question. I’m going to appeal to the masses and drop some generic (yet helpful) knowledge on whether you should drink water or an electrolyte beverage before, during, or after your next run.
Before a Run
The thing about electrolytes is that we get them from pretty much everywhere. They’re in the foods we eat and the drinks we drink. For example, electrolytes are found naturally in foods such as fruits and veggies, dairy products, meats (fish and chicken), and plenty of other sources. On the liquid side of things, there are electrolytes in milk, juices, coconut water, etc.
Bottom line, they’re easy to come by and easy to find. Just by mindlessly living our daily lives we tend to get all the electrolytes we need. Therefore, before a run, water will be just fine. There is no need for an electrolyte loaded sports drink before a run.
The verdict: Water only
During a Run
We humans are strange creatures. When we run, our body temperature rises. To combat overheating, our bodies produce a funny little fluid called “sweat” to cool us back down. Sweat is mostly water, but it also contains minerals such as sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
What are those five things called again? Yes, you’ve guessed it. Electrolytes.
Therefore, when we run, we sweat. And when we sweat, we lose both electrolytes and water. This brings us to the following conclusion: the more we sweat = the more electrolytes and water we will lose.
Knowing this, we need a plan in place to replenish those lost minerals on the go. A plan that is quick and easy. And a plan that will keep us powering through on our longer runs.
*Enter the electrolyte drink to the chat*
Aka sports drink – aka Gatorade – aka Powerade – aka those powders and/or tablets that you add to your water designed specifically for this. I’m not going to get into the weeds of which ones are the best (it’s all subjective), but here in the second decade of the new millennium there are plenty of options for you to choose from.
An electrolyte loaded drink is great for those long runs when you will be sweating for an excessive amount of time. However, if you’re running up to an hour, you can get by with just plain water. That’ll be fine.
The verdict: Water only if you’re running up to an hour. Electrolyte drink if you’re going over an hour.
After a Run
Now it’s time to replenish and recover. We know that we lost electrolytes and water when we sweat, but now that we’re home, we’re also losing them when we pee. So on our longer runs, we need a plan in place to replenish what is lost (and still losing).
Our bodies get thrown off track when excessive sweating and dehydration occurs. Therefore, anything over 30 minutes I suggest having 1 pint glass of an electrolyte beverage to make sure we’re back in balance. If it’s anything under 30 minutes, water only will due.
The verdict: Plain water if you ran less than 30 minutes. 1 pint glass of an electrolyte drink if you ran over 30 minutes.
It’s clear that electrolytes are our friends. But so is water. They’re a package deal and we can’t choose one or the other. In order to keep our organs happy, we need a healthy balance of both.
Also, please note that the above is a recommendation based on an average for the masses. It is not tailored to anyone who has any medical issues or complications. As for a little disclaimer – if you’re experiencing symptoms of dehydration (dizziness, fatigue, confusion, etc.) talk to your doctor immediately. He or she would be able to put you on a specific plan that’s suitable for you.
But for the rest of us who enjoy the blanket statement guidance, you know that balance is always the key. We need to balance both our electrolyte and water intake properly.
So should you drink water or an electrolyte drink during your next run?
Well, that depends on how far you’re willing to go.