A Look at all Essential Electrolytes
Nutrition is a major component of marathon training. Proper fueling and hydration make a significant difference in performance during training and racing. Many runners have a mindset that they do not have to worry about what and how much they eat or drink since they are running so much. The problem with this way of thinking is that to improve your running performance it takes more than just maintaining a good body weight. The quality and amounts of each macronutrient in the foods we eat greatly impact our outcomes. What impacts our performance, even more, is fluid intake during training. This includes water as well as vital electrolytes that are the foundation of our energy and organ function.
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are natural compounds in the body that keep our organ systems functioning properly. They are in charge of maintaining fluid balance within the body, which is especially important for runners. Without proper fluid balance, performance can be affected by a quick onset of fatigue, muscle cramps, spasms, dizziness, and major weakness—all which can slow us down and ruin our goals. These symptoms are minor compared to the extreme dehydration cases, which lead to coma and death. Given these results from poor fluid balance, runners should pay close attention to keeping proper electrolyte balance in the body.
The first sign of dehydration is usually thirst. Many people will begin to drink water at this point, but if you are out for a long run and continue to chug water, you will end up depleting the body further of electrolytes. This is why it is emphasized to include fluids with electrolytes in them when out for runs longer than 60 to 90 minutes. Sports drinks are an excellent choice to include on your runs, but it is important to choose drinks with more than just sodium and water. Several other electrolytes are lost during sweating that must be replenished in order to perform our best and keep our bodies healthy.
There are several electrolytes required for proper bodily functions, but the most important for runners are sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. When we sweat, we lose these electrolytes during the process. Some people sweat more than others, so sweat rate is oftentimes tested in order to note the number of electrolytes and fluids your individual body requires. Some runners not only sweat more but are considered “salty sweaters”, which you can notice on darker running clothes that are left with white sweat marks. It is important to understand why these electrolytes are vital for runners.
Sodium is mostly found in the blood and around the cells in the body and is lost in sweat and urine. The kidneys maintain a certain amount of sodium and normally control the amount excreted with urine. The body itself does a great job at signaling the kidneys to excrete or retain sodium depending on the situation through the secretion of hormones. Drinking too much water especially in a short period of time, such as when on a run depletes sodium and can cause a condition called hyponatremia. If you are not really thirsty and your urine is a pale color, then you most likely have enough water in your system. It is best at this point to drink a sports beverage with electrolytes during long runs.
Another electrolyte commonly lost during sweating is magnesium. This electrolyte has many roles in bodily functions including maintaining normal muscle function, regulation of glucose to create energy, keeping a normal heartbeat, and maintaining a healthy immune system. Athletes who exercise excessively or partake in sports for long periods of time, such as a marathon, are at risk of having low magnesium levels. It is important to make sure you are taking in enough magnesium in your daily diet with beans, nuts, vegetables, and fish. Taking a magnesium supplement may be useful but it is best to check your actual levels with a doctor before including one. Electrolyte drinks that include magnesium are also extremely helpful before and during distance runs to help keep proper levels during excessive sweating.
This electrolyte is especially important for runners, as it is what keeps our muscles contracting. It does so by allowing fluid and nutrients to pass through cells and maintaining normal calcium levels in the body. Without enough potassium, our energy storage and muscle function will be limited when we need it the most. Many electrolyte drinks contain potassium, but you can easily make your own by adding lemon juice or other citrus fruits to your water, which have a healthy amount of the nutrient.
Most people know that calcium is important for strong bones, but this electrolyte actually has a larger role in the body. Muscle contraction would not be possible without calcium. It gets pumped in and out of cells in order to keep muscles functioning. When levels are low, contraction is limited and can cause muscle cramps. Calcium is also important for fat burning, which is highly important to maintain endurance. When there is not enough glucose in the body, which can happen during long runs and races, the body relies on fat as an energy source. Calcium intake in your daily diet as well as in electrolyte drinks during long runs is important to maintain this role.
Electrolytes play several important roles in the body during running. It is important to include them before heading out for a long run or race, especially if it is a hot and humid day. Many runners ignore the importance of proper fueling and hydration, but it can greatly impact your performance. It is best to practice ingesting electrolyte drinks at regular intervals during long runs before racing. If your body is not used to drinking much during running, you may need to take some time to introduce fluids into your long runs.