Hydrating With Sports Drinks While Running

When and why to add a sports drink on long runs

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Proper hydration for running is essential to safety and performance, but runners need to know when they should consume sports drinks and when plain water will suffice. When you run for more than 90 minutes, especially when you are sweating, you should begin to use an electrolyte-replacement sports drink. Depending on the conditions, you may alternate it with water or switch to only sports drinks at that point.

What Is a Sports Drink?

Sports drinks, such as Gatorade or Powerade, contain electrolytes such as sodium and potassium, the components of table salt. When you are running, your body loses electrolytes through sweat. You've probably seen the salt stains on your running hat and tasted the salt in the sweat running down your cheeks.

Since electrolytes help your body retain fluids and may prevent muscle cramps, you need to replace them when running more than 90 minutes. That is also the point where you need to take in more carb calories to maintain your effort, and so a sports drink that provides both carbs and electrolytes is good to use.

Why Runners Need to Replace Electrolytes With a Sports Drink

Runners who don't sufficiently replace electrolytes during long runs or races can risk over-hydration. Hyponatremia, which is low blood sodium concentration, can occur when athletes drink excessive amounts of water and don't replace salt lost through sweat.

The current advice about running and hydration is very simple -- try to drink to thirst. Scientific evidence says that drinking when you're thirsty can help prevent under-hydrating (which can lead to dehydration) and over-hydrating, which can lead to hyponatremia (low blood salt level due to abnormal fluid retention).

How Much Should You Drink During Your Run?

If you're looking for a general rule of thumb for fluid consumption during your runs: You should take in 4 to 6 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes during your runs. Runners running faster than 8-minute miles should drink 6 to 8 ounces every 20 minutes. During runs of more than 90 minutes, you can alternate between sports drinks and water. So, every other hydration break, you should be drinking a sports drink. For shorter runs, hydrating with plain water is fine.

You Need the Carbs in Sports Drinks on a Long Run

Another benefit of sports drinks is that most of them contain carbohydrates, other than those that are low calorie or zero calories and only replace electrolytes and water. Since it's necessary to consume calories during runs of longer than 90 minutes, drinking a sports drinks will help you take in some of these needed calories. Some runners find that it's sometimes easier to get their calories through liquids rather than solid foods, especially during the later stages of a long run or race.

Don't want the calories or expense of commercial sports drink? Try making your own with this sports drink recipe.

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Article Sources

  • Maharam, Lewis, MD, et al. "IMMDA's Revised Fluid Recommendations for Runners and Walkers" 5/6/2006