Most long-distance runners know that they need to fuel their long runs with energy gels. But many runners don’t know they also need electrolyte drinks for running distances over an hour—especially in hot or humid weather.
Related: Benefits of Running in Hot Weather
Electrolyte drinks for runners or sports drinks can be crucial for your running performance, not to mention your health. And, you may be surprised to know that energy gels for runners don’t contain the amount of electrolytes you need!
If you’ve bonked in your marathon or experienced muscle cramps when running, I recommend taking a hard look at your hydration while running. Chances are you needed to level up your electrolyte intake.
I recently discovered this after speaking with many registered dietitians and doing research. Taking energy gels and water during runs is not enough—especially if you are sweating.
Chances are you need to take energy gels with an electrolyte drink or take a sports drink for runners that include electrolytes and carbohydrates. If you take energy gels with a hydration drink for runners, make sure the two go together otherwise they can turn to sludge in your stomach.
What? Yes, fueling for long-distance running can be complicated! But I try to simplify it in my guide for hydration for runners here and below in my review of the best electrolyte drinks for runners.
This comes with one big caveat: you have to TRY your fueling plan first! Everyone’s stomach is different—especially when running at intensity over long periods of time. So, try, try, TRY your energy gels and sports drinks for runners combos throughout your training.
Okay, so in this article, I’m going to cover:
- What are electrolytes and the benefits of electrolytes for runners
- When to use sports drinks when running
- What hydration drinks for runners should have and NOT have
- Sports drinks and energy gel tips
- The 8 best electrolyte drinks for runners
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals that have a positive or negative electrical charge when dissolved in water. This helps them regulate chemical reactions in the body like nerve signaling and muscle contractions and maintain fliud balance inside and outside your cells aiding your body in oxygen-rich blood transport to your working muscles.
Electrolytes also support key functions in the body such as muscle and heart contraction and blood pressure, for example.
Why do runners need electrolytes when running?
Runners need electrolytes when they’re running for athletic performance and overall health.
According to registered dietitian Megan Robinson, “sodium has an important role in the body of maintaining the osmolality of the blood, which in turn keeps the balance of water between the inside and the outside of our body’s cells. It also plays an important role in regulating the overall amount of water in the body, by influencing both how much how is lost or retained by the kidneys, and our thirst and desire to drink.”
Electrolytes help maintain our hydration status and keep our blood flowing, joints lubricated, and muscles contracting. An electrolyte imbalance can lead to dehydration, muscle fatigue, increased perceptions of exertion, and poor performance, for example.
- nerve signaling,
- muscle contractions,
- bone health,
- pH level balance,
- water balance in your body,
- heart contractions
- waste product shuttling
- key brain function support
- the elimination waste from your cells,
- and making sure your nerves, muscles, heart, and brain all work the right way.
When should you take electrolytes?
Runners should take electrolytes before, during, and after running.
In short, runners should aim to drink:
- a sports drink of 16 ounces before a run with 400 mg of sodium.
- aim for 12-30 ounces of a hydration drink with electrolytes (400 mg of sodium) per hour of exercise during running,
- and refuel with an electrolyte drink of 16 ounces (400 mg of sodium) after running.
Check out my hydration for runners guide here for details. Note that factors such as sweat rate and weather will impact how much liquid and electrolytes you need for your running.
Related: How to Carbo-load for a Marathon
What kind of electrolytes do runners need?
The electrolytes runners need include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphate:
- Sodium. Sodium, or salt, helps the body hold on to water, keeping you hydrated. The more you sweat, the more sodium you lose which can lead to dehydration, muscle cramping, and poor performance. This is obviously important for runners as dehydration can cause muscle cramping and hurt performance. Sodium is lost in sweat.
- Chloride. Chloride helps maintain fluid balance, blood volume, blood pressure, and body fluid pH levels. It’s also lost in sweat.
- Potassium. Potassium is key for muscle contraction and helps blood pressure regulation, cell, and heart function, and bone loss production, warding off kidney stones.
- Magnesium. Magnesium supports nerve and muscle function, and a healthy immune system regulates the heartbeat, keeps bones strong, and balances blood sugar levels.
- Calcium. Calcium is vital for strong bones, helping muscles move, nerve signaling, the transport of blood vessels, and the release of hormones necessary for key bodily functions.
- Phosphate. Phosphate is important for nerve function, bone and teeth modeling and repair, and muscle contraction.
Note: Sodium is the one that can be the hardest to replace. Large amounts of the other electrolytes are not needed for running and performance.
Related: The 10 Best Supplements for Runners
How do I drink electrolytes while running?
You can drink an electrolyte drink when running by stashing a bottle on your route, wearing a hydration vest, or carrying a handheld bottle like this Nathan one.
For races like marathons, you can also grab TWO cups at water stops.
For the CIM marathon, I ran with one 12-ounce Nathan bottle with NUUN hydration drink and grabbed another at the halfway point from my husband. (I took Maurten gels every four miles).
Should I drink a sports drink with energy gels?
In most cases, you do not want to drink a sports drink with an energy gel because it will cause stomach distress. However, your body needs the carbs from the energy gel and the electrolytes from the sports drink. Energy gels don’t have enough electrolytes to support your running while many sports drinks don’t have enough carbohydrates. So, in many cases, you need to include both in your marathon fueling.
Your fueling options to take both are:
- Take an energy gel that’s a hydrogel like Maurten or Science in Sport (SIS) with a sports drink.
- Take a normal energy gel with water and then take a sports drink several minutes or a mile after. Alternate drinking water and a sports drink.
- Drink a sports drink that has both carbs and electrolytes like Maurten, Gnarley Fuel2o, or Skratch.
- Use an energy gel like Huma Gel+ that has both electrolytes and carbs.
- Use an energy gel with water and take salt tablets or salt chews with water in between gels.
What should sports drinks for runners include?
Sports drinks for runners including electrolyte tablets or electrolyte hydration powders should include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphate.
If you are drinking a sports drink for both its electrolytes and carbohydrates, then it should also include glucose (sugars).
These hydration drinks should have little to no artificial ingredients, chemicals, and added sugar.
8 Best Electrolyte Drinks for Runners
Now, looking at these numbers may stress you out—how can I drink that much while running? Thankfully, there are electrolyte products available that make hydrating while running easy.
Here are the 8 best electrolyte drinks for runners available today. Note that I focus on the sodium contents as that electrolyte is the one that is most lost while running and the hardest to replenish. All these products include the other crucial electrolytes for runners.
UCAN, the company you know for supplying all-natural sports nutrition products with steady-release formulas, also offers one of the best electrolyte powder for runners.
UCAN’s Hydrate electrolyte powder comes with natural sweeteners in watermelon, berry, and lemon line flavors. What makes this electrolyte replacement drink unique is that it boasts a lot of sodium and double the magnesium most sports drinks have. Magnesium is an essential mineral for energy production, bone development, and muscle recovery.
UCAN also offers a Hydrate plus amino acids which includes six essential amino acids to optimize post-workout recovery. Drink one packet of Hydrate plus aminos before, during, or after a workout. Drink one serving of UCAN Hydrate before running, every hour of running, and after running.
Sodium: 300 mg per 12 ounces for one hour of exercise. Also has 100 mg of magnesium and other key electrolytes. Price: $24.95 for a cannister of 30 servings
Save 15% on any UCAN products with code WHITNEY15. Use this link to buy! I am a HUGE can of UCAN!
Related: The 6 Energy Gels for Runners
Gnarly Nutrition Hydrate Electrolyte Mix
Gnarly Nutrition products are NSF-certifiably CLEAN. Their main endurance mixes provide electrolytes and vitamins to help you perform better and recover faster. The below products are powder mixes that you scoop into a bottle and shake.
Gnarly Hydrate Electrolyte Mix:
This mix is Gnarly’s classic electrolyte mix formulated to optimally replace the fluid and electrolytes you lose when you sweat and is loaded with electrolytes and B vitamins to fuel tough runs. It has just enough sugar to effectively transport vitamins and electrolytes without being overpowering. Gnarly’s hydration powder is one of the best electrolyte powders you’ll find, coming in many yummy flavors including their newly released Salted Margarita and Lemonade.
Sodium: 250-500 mg depending on the flavor you choose. Mix with 12-16 ounces of water. You can use this while running in between gels. Aim for two per hour of running plus your gels. Price: Bag (40 servings) $27.45
This is a “liquid fuel” to keep life simple. No need to take in gels and sports drinks—and worry about the two messing up your stomach. Fuel2O is a high-calorie, electrolyte-rich, easy-to-digest, drink mix that is designed to keep you going during endurance-focused activities.
Sodium: 250 mg per 12 ounces for one hour of exercise. Take two (500mg with 24 ounces per runs lasting longer than an hour). It also has 25 grams of carbs. No need for gels. Price: 10 sticks: $8.74
Related: Best Protein Powders for Runners
Nuun Sport Electrolyte Tablets
Nuun is one of the most popular electrolyte tablets out there. They are clean, gluten-free, and vegan, and come in a gazillion flavors and categories. I’m including information for the Nuun Sport.
Nuun Sport electrolyte tablets:
This electrolyte drinks has just one gram of sugar and a light flavor making it easy to drink—especially when dealing with a sensitive stomach from running long. These tablets are also offered with caffeine if you need an extra boost!
Sodium: 300 mg per 16 ounces of water. Drop in the tab and let it fizz. Aim to drink close to two per hour of exercise, plus your gels. Price: $7.49 for 10 tabs
Skratch Labs Hydration Drink Mix
Skratch worked with elite athletes to reimagine sports drinks. The result is a simple sports drink with clean ingredients.
Skratch Hydration Drink Mix:
This drink mix has 4 grams of sugar per 100 ml, and a replacement of the around the average electrolytes you lose when sweating: 800 mg sodium, 80 mg potassium, 100 mg calcium, and 80 mg of magnesium per liter (about 33 ounces). The flavors are light fruity flavors. Price: $19.95 for 20 servings
Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration:
For extreme conditions, Skratch has their passionfruit hyper hydration mix which has a 1,720 mg of sodium! Add contents to 16oz of water. Only drink before extreme exercise, 1 to 2 servings 30 to 60 minutes prior. Mix, drink, sweat (a lot). Price: $2.95 for a single stick.
Liquid IV is best known as the “hydration multiplier”. It’s a sports drink that utilizes Cellular Transport Technology (CTT) to optimize hydration by efficiently delivering water and key electrolytes into the bloodstream.
Liquid IV Electrolyte Drink Mix:
For runners specifically, Liquid IV offers enhanced hydration, improved performance, faster recovery, convenient portability, and great taste in a dozen flavors, says the company.
The electrolyte drink brand has become a fan favorite of runners—and partiers a like. I went to Las Vegas last weekend with my friends from high school and Liquid IV was EVERYWHERE—claiming to help with the hangover.
What makes Liquid IV unique is that it contains more electrolytes than most sports drinks including 500 mg of sodium plus essential vitamins good for the heart and immunity. Sodium: 500 mg mix with 16 ounces of water to prehydrate, per hour of running, and rehydrate. Price: $24.99 for 16 servings
LMNT (aka Element) was founded according to new science that shows that research touting low sodium as beneficial to our health is wrong—and potentially dangerous. And that when exercising, electrolyte balance is crucial. For that reason, LMNT provides a giant dose of electrolytes per salt stick.
This is your serious salt mix. It packs a whopping 1000 mg of salt and comes in a variety of flavors such as grapefruit salt or chocolate salt. It’s keto, low-carb, paleo, and all-natural. No sugar. No gluten. Drop a stick into 16-24 ounces of water. Mix and sip.
This drink is best for before or after a workout. It’s recommended to take about a half-hour prior to your long run or workout. The site says, “A good thing to remember is when it comes to replacing lost electrolytes–preparing ahead of time is much better than chasing them afterward.”
You can use it to replenish after a heavy-sweaty run such as a long run in the summer heat. Sodium: 1000mg Price: 30 pack for $45.
Solpri Sync Electrolyte Hydration Drink Mix
This company was founded by triathlete Jesse Funk who was on a mission to find natural skin and hydration products for athletes.
Solpri Electrolyte Hydration Drink Mix:
This customizable mix is the only one I know on the market that syncs to your sweat level. You can do an official at-home sweat test that they offer or answer a short survey about how much you sweat and how salty it is, and then they supply you with the best electrolyte-level drink mix.
Solpri’s hydration drink mix is zero sugar with a light, sweet, easy-to-go-down taste “formulated to meet your personal electrolyte needs while supporting your muscles and mind.” It asks: How salty do you feel your sweat is?
- Not salty > Choose Low
- Somewhat Salty > Choose Moderate
- Very Salty > Choose High
Solpri makes matching your drink mix to your sweat level easy! And it’s a nice, sweet, easy-on-the-stomach taste.
Then you choose.
Sodium levels range from 500 to 1500 per serving. Price: 60 servings for $39.
Maurten Drink Mix 320
Maurten is quickly becoming one of the most popular sport nutrition companies for runners. It harnesses its hydrogel technology to develop carbohydrate-rich and natural sports drinks and energy gels that are easy on the stomach and easy to take.
Maurten Drink Mix 320:
This is a hydration powder built on its hydrogel technology which means it enables smooth transport of water, salt and carbs to avoid stomach upset.
When mixed with water it has both carbs and electrolytes (so no energy gels needed!). The flavor is like drinking sugar water. Maurten drink mixes are the go-to for Molly Seidel.
Sodium: 200 mg of sodium and 79 grams of carbs with 12-16 ounces of fluid. Aim to take at least one packet an hour. Price: $48 for 14 servings.
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