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Electrolytes: Do I Need Them?

Posted by on Oct 16, 2012 | 12 Comments

Back when I started running ultras, the consumption of supplemental electrolytes was more or less a given. If you were runnign long, you needed to be consuming a product like !S Caps, Salt Sticks, or good ‘ole rock salt. The logic made sense- you lost salt via sweat. When combined with water consumption, runners risked hyponatremia.

I would take one S! Cap about every hour or so depending on temperature. My sweat would get saltier and saltier, which led to burning eyes and chafing (salt deposits around the groin and arm pits is much like having sex on a beach- grit + friction = unpleasant results).

Of course, the electrolytes DID dramatically reduce the danger of hyponatremia. The problem had more to do with an overconsumption of water, and the electrolyte overconsumption was an unfortunate side effect.

I had a lot of friends that read Noaks’ new book “Waterlogged.” I haven’t read it myself, but their ad nauseum discussions pretty muchh summed up the plot: Drink to thirst.

I started following this advice, first at the Grand Mesa 100 miler, then the TransRockies six day stage race, and lastly at the Grindstone 100 miler. In all three races, I cut my water consumption considerably… with no ill effects.

The other benefit- I didn’t require any electrolyte supplementation. I did get some electrolytes from the various gels I ate, along with the half pound of bacon I ate ten hours before the race. Aside from that, I was electrolyte-free.

The result- my sweat wasn’t especially salty. At Grindstone, I didn’t have any salt-induced chafing issues. As long as I didn’t over-drink, I had no need to supplement electrolytes.

But what about symptoms like cramping?

Good question. During the Bighorn 100 miler, I had severe cramping all over my body. I attributed it to a lack of electrolytes or dehydration. I frantically ate salt tabs and drank a shit ton of water. Neither fix solved the problem. What finally did? Cool temperatures. This was the race that led to my “overheating due to moisture-wicking materials” hypothesis (can’t take credit; others have hypothesized this for awhile).

Many in the ultrarunning community seem to believe hot temperatures can be remedied by drinking more water and taking more electrolytes. Unfortunately, the body only has a finite ability to cool itself via sweat (and moisture-wicking materials may dramatically reduce that ability). So… the solution isn’t necessarily drinking more liquid and popping more salt. The solution could be taking steps to cool down. Here are a few:

  • Slow down. Movement generates heat. More movement generates more heat. To cool down, slow down.
  • Seek shade. No explanation needed.
  • Ditch clothes. Unless the clothing is intended to reflect heat (white clothing in the desert) or act as a solar furnace, less is more.
  • Get wet. Dousing yourself with water facilitates evaporative cooling. Cooler water also helps cool the body (via conduction).
  • Expose yourself to a breeze. This also helps facilitate evaporative cooling (via convection).

Reframing the problem from hydration/ electrolyte imbalance to thermoregulation has resulted in great success for me personally. I also have quite a few friends that have toyed around with these ideas and experienced similar positive results. Give these methods a shot. You’ll like the results. ;-)

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12 Comments

  1. Bare Lee
    October 17, 2012

    I used to like the Electric Light Orchestra too. Now I listen to Thirst.

  2. Rebecca @ Runner with an Appetite
    October 16, 2012

    Love this article. I hope to experiment with a handful of new things while training for Umstead. Going to have to consider this while training!

  3. klanger
    October 16, 2012

    Drinking vegetable smoothies before (1-1.5h before) and while running is also an idea to reduce a need for salt and water. The smoothie should be well liquefied.
    Beetroot or cabbage smoothie is perfect for that (+ parsley root).

  4. Dave
    October 16, 2012

    I have had cramping issues in the past, and all were correlated with running at an optimistic pace given my level of training. Perhaps it’s heat related? Maybe. Certainly it’s an area I’d like to see more research in.

    I like using electrolyte tablets in my water, if for no other reason than my stomach and taste buds prefer this to plain water. I wonder if plain water can mess with osmotic balance in the gut, whereas electrolytes may counter this? I could try regular juice crystals, but the tablets are so damn convenient.

    It could also be that I’m overdrinking, but based on weight loss (usually 4-5 pounds for a long race) and low urine output while racing, I don’t think so.

  5. Franklin Chen
    October 16, 2012

    I always had issues with cramping and bloating in long endurance events of a marathon distance or longer. I have not done any such events recently, but experiments in recent years in shorter events in which I have reduced my water and food intake are definitely very suggestive; I now believe I was over-hydrating. I will continue self-experimentation, especially next summer.

  6. bryan
    October 16, 2012

    Thanks for writing this. As you note a lot of these ideas have been around for a while. I remember in the book Running with the Buffalo the Colorado coach told his runners not to neglect water on a hot day saying, “Get some in you and on you, and it’s more important to get it on you.” Inuitively, or perhaps scientifically, understanding thermoregulation’s importance over hydration.

  7. Rob Y
    October 16, 2012

    People often overlook external cooling effects. On warm to hot days think about soaking your body with cool water if possible. On a trail run this could mean utilizing what streams are available to dunk your hat, soak your shirt or even to sit in. In races where the temperatures are expected to soar there will often be buckets of water or sponges available to do the same thing. Worst case I’ll use my water bottle to cool my head and neck off. Another nice remedy is to use a bandana around your neck, roll it up like a burrito around some ice is very nice! At Badwater last year I was largely drinking to thirst (a lot of that) and to just keep my mouth moist (would dry out so quickly!) but mainly focused on the external cooling during the first day. While I did pop a lot of electrolyte pills it wasn’t excessive given the conditions. I think I was getting enough salts in from my main fuel source: Pepsi and Coke. Both have a fair amount of sodium. Probably 95% of my calories/hydration were in this liquid form but diluted somewhat in water.

    • Jason
      October 16, 2012

      Rob, ever experiment with a cooling vest? I’m tempted to pick up two or three and try them for my next long race in hot weather. They’d last longer than the other cooling methods you mention (which I use, too).

      • Rob Y
        October 16, 2012

        I thought about it but I’m a bit old school I guess. Plus they weren’t allowed at Badwater! I’d agree they’d be pretty awesome though. A friend of mine has one and likes it; just looks a little dorky to me but hey if it works right?

  8. Andy
    October 16, 2012

    I’ve heard that cramping may be caused by a dysfunction in the nervous system, specifically a lack of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is made up of choline and acetic acid. When your bodies acetic acid gets used up, the acetylcholine ceases to do it’s job and you experience muscle cramping. If you introduce some more acetic acid, the cramps go away, almost instantly, they say. Acetic acid can be found at up to 8% in vinegar and up to 18% in pickling vinegar. There are those who believe that if you gulp down some acetic acid heavy pickle juice, it will combine with your body’s choline to produce more acetylcholine which alleviates the cramping.
    Have you ever heard of this? Ever tried it? I think you should guinea pig this idea and get back to us.

    • Jason
      October 16, 2012

      I’ve never tried pickle juice when experiencing cramps, but it could be a worthwhile experiment. I think I can stomach pickle juice, but otherwise despise vinegar. I have a serious taste aversion to the taste and smell.

      The Acetylcholine theory makes logical sense. I wonder if a highly-diluted dose of black widow venom would solve the problem. Any volunteers? :-)

      • karen
        October 16, 2012

        Braggs organic apple cider vinegar-there is a recipe right on the side of the bottle. A little molasses to sweeten-yum!