We all know the importance of staying hydrated while being active. But, sometimes hydrating with plain water isn’t enough! Electrolyte drinks can be a great way to both rehydrate and replace lost electrolytes when you’re doing those long training sessions, or working in extreme heat.
Most of the time we can drink just plain water to rehydrate. But in certain cases, an electrolyte replacement drink is beneficial. Read more here: Sports Drinks vs Water: Which Suits Your Hydration Needs Best?
But, with so many brands, varieties and differing ingredients, how do you know which one to choose?
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals including sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate and chloride that are essential for maintaining the body’s fluid balance. They also are key for nerve, muscle, and brain functioning.
What are electrolyte replacement drinks used for?
Water and electrolytes are lost when we sweat. This can be during a long run, shorter runs on really hot days, or while working outdoors. Sodium is the primary electrolyte we lose in our sweat, so it is the most important one to replace.
The amount of electrolytes you lose depends on many factors including the intensity or duration of the activity, the temperature or humidity, and how much you sweat. Genetics also play a role, in that some runner’s sweat contains more salt than others. But, a rough average is 300-800mg of sodium per 1 litre of sweat. Some runners can lose more than that though, especially in hot temperatures we’re not acclimatized to.
When our body doesn’t have the right ratio of electrolytes and fluids in the body, this can lead to dehydration, muscle cramping and spasms. In extreme cases, our cardiovascular system or brain can be impacted by these imbalances, which can be fatal. This is the reason why electrolyte replacement is essential for runners!
Ingredients in electrolyte replacement drinks
Electrolyte drinks contain water, electrolytes and sugar/sweeteners. Each drink contains specific amounts of each ingredient in order to help replenish glucose, fluids and electrolytes lost during exercise.
Water is the base of all electrolyte drinks which helps to replace fluids lost during exercise and rehydrate the body. Some products come as a powder, which you then mix with water before drinking.
As mentioned before, electrolytes are also lost through our sweat when we exercise.
The primary electrolyte we lose through sweating is sodium, followed by potassium, which is why they are included in all electrolyte drinks.
Sodium also makes you feel thirsty. By including it in electrolyte drinks, it can help increase the amount you drink, thereby helping you take in more water to rehydrate.
Sugars and Sweeteners
Sugars and/or sweeteners are also included in electrolyte drinks.
Believe it or not, sugar plays a role in the hydration process. Besides providing our body with energy in the form of carbohydrates, the right amount of sugar can help water be absorbed more quickly from the GI tract. A 6-8% carbohydrate solution is best for quick digestion and absorption. More than that or less than that can slow down how quickly the fluids leave our stomach. This can contribute to the development of GI issues.
Some brands make electrolytes drinks with no sugar, and instead use sweeteners. But, without any sugar, it can actually be harder for your body to absorb the sodium and other electrolytes.
Unless you’re bringing another carbohydrate source on your long runs, the sugar in your electrolyte drink is great for keeping you fueled!
The downside to including sugar in electrolyte drinks is that some can be too concentrated if mixed with too little water. This is more common with powders or gels where the runner needs to add water on their own. Too much sugar can make it difficult to consume the drink while running, and can actually slow the absorption of water.
Choosing a drink with the right amount of sugar will allow for quick absorption, and help you drink more!
Some drinks include extra ingredients like caffeine, or other vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, vitamin C or zinc.
What form of electrolyte drink should I use?
Electrolyte drinks come in a variety of forms such as ready-to-drink, tablets, powder or liquid enhancers that you just mix with water. Many brands such as Gatorade, Biosteel, Pedialyte and Hydralyte have both options available. Once mixed with the correct amount of water, tablet and powder versions have very little nutritional difference than ready-to-drink options.
The mixes can be much less costly than pre-made options and may just be a great way to save some money in the long run! They’re also lightweight, which is great for a race where you can get plain water at the aid stations.
Read more about the different types of electrolyte drinks below!
Gatorade is probably one of the first things you think of when you hear the words electrolyte drink. It includes the electrolytes sodium and potassium, and is sweetened with dextrose. It’s sugar content places it right around 6%, optimal for fluid absorption and to minimize GI distress.
Gatorade does makes G2 which has 50% less sugar, as well as G Zero which has no sugar and is sweetened with sucralose.
Check out the chart below for a comparison of their nutrition content!
Powerade is another popular electrolyte drink. The electrolytes it contains are sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Similar to Gatorade, it is also about 6% carbohydrate, but sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.
Additional ingredients that Powerade contains are B vitamins.
Biosteel Sports Drink
Biosteel is another brand that has increased in popularity in the sports world as it provides fluid and electrolytes required to stay hydrated during or following activity.
It contains 5 electrolytes – sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chloride, to help replenish what was lost through sweat, and contains vitamin C as well.
It is also marketed as a sugar free electrolyte drink as it is sweetened with the natural low-calorie sweetener, Stevia.
Pedialyte can be found in a pharmacy or grocery store. It is targeted more towards replacing fluids while sick. However, it can also be effective for rehydration after exercise.
It has more sodium, potassium and chloride compared to a typical sports drink, and also contains zinc to support your immune system. If you’re a ‘salty sweater’, this may suit your needs better than another ready-to-drink brand.
It also has a lower sugar content and includes some artificial sweeteners.
Hydralyte is also marketed for recovery after a GI illness, but can work well for runners too. The electrolytes it contains are sodium, potassium and chloride.
It is sweetened with glucose and stevia, and has 75% less sugar than a typical sports drink.
%DV = % Daily Value
Powder Mixes, Tablets and Liquid Enhancers
Powdered mixes can be sold in single pre-measured packets or in bulk containers, and are available from a variety of brands. Tablets or liquid enhancers are also options that come in a convenient tube or bottle for on the go.
Whichever one you decide to use, if mixed correctly with water, there is little difference in nutrition compared to pre-mixed drinks.
Gatorade Electrolyte Powder
Once mixed with the proper ratio of water, Gatorade electrolyte powder will have the same nutrition content as the pre-made bottled version.
Nuun makes tablets that are meant for you to drop into your water bottle. Once dissolved, it turns into a flavored drink that provides sodium, potassium, chloride and calcium.
They are very low in sugar as they are sweetened with stevia, and have a variety of flavours and tablets for different functions such as sports, immunity and endurance.
Nuun also offers some of the sport tablets with caffeine for an extra boost of energy.
Biosteel Hydration Mix
The Biosteel Hydration mix comes in a powder form in a tub or single serving packets. It has the same electrolytes as the bottled version and is also sweetened with stevia to rehydrate without any carbohydrate.
The powdered form also contains a blend of B vitamins, amino acids and minerals to support hydration, energy production and muscle strength and recovery.
Vega Sport Electrolyte Hydrator
Vega Sport Electrolyte Hydrator is a powder sold in a tub. Mix a scoop of it into 2 cups of water to create a drink that contains all electrolytes plus added vitamins and minerals.
This product has 0g of sugar and is sweetened with stevia leaf extract.
Pedialyte Powder is sold in a box of single serving packets. Perfect for on the go. Once mixed into a bottle of water, the nutrition content is very similar to the bottled version.
Hydralyte Electrolyte Powder
Hydralyte also sell boxes of single serving packets. This product has the same electrolytes and sugar content as the pre-mixed bottle if mixed correctly, but the powder packets might just be a more convenient option.
Liquid IV comes in single serving packets that you add to water. A more concentrated mix, each packet contains 3 times the electrolytes (sodium and potassium) of a typical sports drink.
This product uses something they call ‘Cellular Transport Technology’ to enhance absorption of water and nutrients into the bloodstream to quickly rehydrate. It sounds super fancy, but it’s really just about including the right amounts of carbohydrate and electrolytes to optimize fluid absorption.
It is sweetened with dextrose, cane sugar and stevia, and contains vitamin C and B vitamins.
Mio Sport Electrolyte Liquid Water Enhancer
Mio Sport is a liquid water enhancer that comes in a small bottle. Squeeze about ½ tsp of the product into your water to not only enhance the flavour, but replace electrolytes that have been lost through sweat.
This product contains the same electrolytes as a typical sports drink (sodium and potassium). However, one serving (1/2 tsp) has about half the amount of electrolytes compared to other products.
There are added B vitamins, and the liquid enhancer is also calorie-free as artificial sweeteners sucralose and acesulfame potassium are used.
The nice thing is that you can squeeze a little more or less to give you the strength of flavour that you want.
Check out the chart below for more about the nutrition content of these different products!
|15||4g||1g||300mg||150mg||25mg||13mg||40mg||Optional: 40mg Caffeine|
|5||1g||0g||140mg||30mg||2 %DV||2 %DV||Vitamin B|
|4||1g||0g||100mg||400mg||40 %DV||20 %DV||4 %DV||Vitamin C|
%DV = % Daily Value
Which product is right for you?
Each runner has different fueling needs, different sweat rates, and different sodium-sweat rates. There is no one perfect product out there, it’s about finding out which one is the best for you! Your needs may also change season to season, so it’s ok to use various products throughout the year.
A ‘salty sweater’ is someone who loses a lot more sodium when they sweat. Signs that you might be a salty sweater is when you can visually see white streaks on your skin or clothing, sweat stings your eyes or burns open cuts, or your sweat tastes salty. Some salty sweaters can lose upwards of a full teaspoon of salt in 1L of sweat!
Some extremely salty sweaters may even bring along salt tablets to help maintain hydration and electrolyte balance. If you aren’t sure of your fluid/electrolyte needs, work with a Sport Dietitian to create a personalized strategy for you!
Salty sweaters benefit from an electrolyte replacement drink with a higher sodium content, such as Nuun, Pedialyte or Liquid IV. They run a higher risk of developing low blood sodium or ‘hyponatremia’ if they only drink plain water during training.
If you’re a typical (less salty) sweater, an electrolyte drink might only be needed on long run days or in hot and humid weather. Even then, you can get away with a lower sodium option.
Electrolyte replacement drinks are most beneficial for those performing intense activity for long durations of time. Other factors to consider are the temperature and humidity, and how much you sweat. If you’re training for longer than 90 minutes, electrolyte replacement is strongly recommended.
It’s ideal if it also contains a small amount of sugar to help absorption, but not too much to slow absorption and intake of fluids. If you’re a salty sweater, you may benefit from an electrolyte drink with a little more sodium.
There really is no significant difference in pre-made drinks vs powders, tablets and liquid enhancers, so choose the form that is most convenient for you!
Do you need a personalized nutrition strategy to level-up your running? Click here to learn more about my Fuel Train Recover Program and apply to work with me!