Replenishing Electrolytes

A few days ago it was 109 degrees in south Texas. Thankfully the temperature that day at my house was only 80-something. But the air conditioning was running.

Spring in Texas can bring some very warm days and for a runner like me who sweats a lot, that means I can get dehydrated easily, especially on the rare days of lower humidity.

Dehydration can be mild or a serious problem . Once you get in the state of dehydration, you can get mental confusion, weakness, muscle cramping, headache and irregular heartbeat because your body needs electrolytes to function. Severe dehydration can be an emergency situation.

Not everyone is as susceptible to dehydration as I am , but with enough sweating everyone is at risk .

I’m particularly sensitive to it so I am more cautious. I’ve finished some long, hot runs on the verge of collapse. Because of this , I’ve learned that I must replenish my electrolytes after a run, along with my protein and carbs. One of my favorite ways to do that is to eat a Texas-sized baked potato stuffed with barbecue brisket .

But I can’t eat barbecue every day . So I have found other ways to get the potassium and salt that I need.

I do drink plenty of water, but drinking too much plain water is not a good idea unless you are also eating salty foods and potassium containing foods . Too much plain water can cause hyponatremia.

Hyponatremia is a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in the bloodstream is too low . Athletes and long distance runners who are sweating a lot for hours at a time can drink too much or not enough water throwing off the sodium balance .

The key to avoiding dehydration is to plan ahead when you know you’ll be sweating a lot and make sure to take in enough water and enough sodium . It can be hard to know if you took in too much salt or too much water because both can cause swelling of the hands . You’ll need to think about what you’ve been taking in prior to the symptoms. But if you have muscle cramps , it’s probably low sodium and low potassium.

Another danger of high intensity exercise related to dehydration is rhabdomyolysis. It’s not that common , but it’s very serious and cause permanent kidney damage and is more common in ultra athletes . Dehydration doesn’t actually cause rhabdo but it makes it worse . The lesson here is if you start feeling terrible while exercising, STOP and get checked out by a medical professional. Symptoms include muscle cramps, brown urine, and extreme fatigue.

By the way , you can also get dehydrated on cool , dry days if you don’t drink enough .

As far as food sources for electrolytes , bananas, oranges, potatoes, and avocado are my favorite potassium sources . But if I’m just thirsty, I go for coconut water . Coconut water is very high in potassium, tasty, and thirst-quenching. Salty potato chips or mashed potatoes are a good source sodium and potassium.

Here are some of the products I’ve used as a long distance runner that I recommend. I mostly use the GU Roctane for long runs, which I haven’t been doing lately. Salt Stick are chewable tablets you can eat anytime you’re sweating a lot. I don’t like Gatorade that much, but my it works. Body Armour , pineapple coconut, is my favorite flavor. I’ve had trouble finding it lately so I bought two cases off Amazon.

These are just a few of the many products available. You can also drink Pedialyte or other brands of fluid replacement drinks. When looking for an electrolyte product, you must read the label . Some of them barely have any potassium. Make sure you’re not wasting your money.

Vita Coco
Lemon lime Gatorade

As you can see , coconut water has 979 mg of potassium! Gatorade only has 80 mg.

Not everyone needs as much potassium as I do . You’ll have to experiment. If you’re having leg cramps , you probably need more potassium.

Lastly , I should mention magnesium. I take magnesium every day and I have for years . Many people are deficient. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include constipation, depression, and high blood pressure. Try supplements and see how you feel. Some electrolyte products contain a little bit of magnesium.

I hope this has been helpful. Have fun running and exercising this spring and summer, but be sure to do it safely by monitoring and replenishing your fluids, sodium and potassium.

PS: I didn’t mention carbs in this post, but if you’re just feeling tired and irritable during a long run, you probably need carbs!

12 comments

  1. Excellent advice! My kids think I’m done kind of nutrition guru because I’ll say, “Go eat some salt if you’ve had enough water. You need both.” A lot of people don’t know salt is also necessary.

    I mean, I didn’t know that about potassium and magnesium.

  2. I’m very fond of plain whole milk as my electrolyte beverage. It’s not high in salt, but it does have it, as it’s the only food a baby cow consumes. I think it’s the combination of carb, fat, protein, and minerals that works for me. Having a milk with a portion of potato chips is even better.

  3. Thanks for this Paula. We just had a friend hiking with my husband who was near heat exhaustion. Happens a lot in Phoenix! I’ll pass this great post along.

  4. Great post.
    One of my favorite after-run drinks is chocolate milk. You get cabs, protein, calcium and hydration. Not sure about the electrolytes, but it sure tastes great after a hot run!

  5. When I was super into distance running (on trails), I would put a couple (large) bottles of Powerade in my hydration pack instead of water. After hours of running, I would have a funny crust on my skin from the sweat, but I never felt bad through the whole thing. Sometimes water simply isn’t enough. I’d take orange slices for a lift too.

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