Electrolytes without the extra pounds

I’ve complained about my excruciatingly sweaty outdoor runs here in Houston enough, so now it’s time to give you some insight on how I actually deal with all that sweat loss. We have discussed hydration, and the fact that you only need a full-blown carbohydrate sports drink if you’re exercising vigorously for over an hour in the heat. By this guideline, the majority of my runs don’t require regular electrolyte drinks. Even an 8-miler that leaves me soaking wet and salty doesn’t warrant carbohydrate drinks, because while I definitely do burn through some glycogen, it’s not enough that my performance will suffer without the sports drink.


Let’s examine the reason for a sports drink: first and foremost, they’re designed to enhance athletic performance. Origianally, they were created for the University of Florida (Gators) football team. These guys are all suited up in pads and helmets in the Florida heat, sweating their asses off at practice and games, which last a long time. Add to that the fact that they were probably doing doubles in the summer to prep and you’ve got some seriously depleted dudes. They are burning calories like crazy. They are sweating out sodium and potassium. They need some help. Enter: Gatorade. A sugary beverage enhanced with both sodium and potassium, the electrolytes that we lose most of in sweat, which can have an impact on muscle fatigue and athletic performance.

Your body functions best on glucose, a simple form of carbohydrate. Your muscles function using glucose, your brain functions using glucose, it’s really just the all-around best way to make stuff work. When you eat carbohydrate, whether it’s bread, quinoa, fruit, or candy, it’s absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose, where it can be ferried around to your cells to use. If you haven’t just eaten carbohydrate, your blood sugar won’t drop to zero because your body realizes that it’s in need, so it goes and gets some from storage. You keep a supply of carbohydrate in your muscles stored as glycogen. Glycogen is pretty easy to break down, but you have a limited capacity (~1500 calories’ worth), so your body supplements this by breaking down other storage forms of energy. Your most rich source of stored energy is body fat, but it’s not nearly as easy to use so it takes a little bit for this to kick in. Basically, your body waits a while to make sure it actually needs to bring out the big guns, then it begrudgingly begins the tedious process of ramping up energy production from fat stores, which gradually increases while percentage of energy from carbohydrate gradually decreases (this is VERY GENERAL).

Since it’s more difficult to break down fats for energy, it helps to have an external source of carbohydrate to keep your blood sugar up. Your muscles can then make use of this glucose instead of dipping further into your glycogen stores or breaking down fats, which is inefficient. Sugary drinks are a perfect way to achieve this because they absorb so easily, spiking your blood sugar way, way up so your muscles can work real, real hard. This is excellent news for a person who is running for a couple hours or more, racing a marathon, etc. This is not such great news for someone who is exercising for weight loss or for less than an hour.

If you’re on the fence about whether to choose a sugary sports drink, consider:

  • Is your workout longer than an hour?
    • If no, you don’t need the carb
    • If yes, continue
  • Is athletic performance one of your goals?
    • If no, you may not need the carb – if you’re going excessively long, like 3+ hours, continue
    • If yes, continue
  • Will you be consuming gels, gummies, or some other form of carbohydrate?
    • if NO, reach for a carbohydrate sports drink


You are still losing electrolytes in your sweat. Maybe you don’t need the glucose kick, but if you still are salty enough when you come home that the dogs treat you like a human popsicle (is that just me?) – you need some electrolytes. What are electrolytes, you ask? They’re chemical compounds that become ions (charged particles) in solution! Right, obviously… Basically, don’t worry about exactly what they are and how they function because it takes a decent chemistry background just for introductory information. BUT, you should know what dietary vitamins and minerals are used by your body as electrolytes. Those are mainly sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride. The ones we lose the most in sweat are sodium and potassium, so these are the ones you need to try to replenish.

Luckily for us, there are beverages on the market that not only help you replace water you’ve lost, but also contain electrolytes without a ton of added sugar. All include those two main electrolytes, but after that content of vitamins and minerals varies. Here is a handy dandy chart to compare different low-carb electrolyte beverages, and my thoughts on several different products.sports drinks

Powerade Zero: I’ve been drinking a lot of Powerade Zero because it’s easy to find, tasty, and Kroger has had 32-ounce bottles on sale for 59 cents a lot lately. Interestingly enough to me, when I started doing my research to write this I found that P0 has the least as far as sodium and potassium go – 10x less potassium than a half cup of potato or medium banana. The sodium content is also nothing special. I do, however, still love it and will probably continue to drink it because in fact, I do feel better. The company claims that its “ion 4 technology” adds 4 crucial ions in the same proportions that they are lost in sweat. What are the other two ions? Calcium and magnesium, though it’s “not a significant source of magnesium or calcium”. Hmmm.

Gatorade G2: G2 contains some carbohydrate, with 7g carb and 30 calories per serving. Other than that, its facts are very similar to P0, with 10 mg more of sodium and potassium than the other. Basically, same stuff with a tiny bit of sugar.

Nuun: Nuun is an Alka Seltzer-like tablet that dissolves in a bottle of water to turn it into electrolyte water! It comes in a little tube with 12 tablets and is available in a bunch of different flavors. There are a few varieties with caffeine in them for those mornings when you need a little somethin’ extra (every morning). I have four different flavors in the pantry and I like it a lot. Nuun actually has a decent amount of calcium (12.5mg) and magnesium (24mg), as well as vitamin C and B2.

Zym: Zym is pretty much the same thing as nuun, except with twice the calcium and magnesium, and almost 5x the vitamin C (though vitamin C is overrated anyway). I actually had never heard of Zym until researching for this article, so somebody tell me if they like it!

Coconut Water: No links here because coconut water is (or should be) the liquid stuff inside the coconut. There are plenty of brands out there competing for recognition, but of course we are shooting for one without added sugar. Coconut water has a pretty standard amount of sodium, but an exorbitant amount of potassium. Calcium and magnesium are also present in significant amounts. By the numbers, it’s got the mostest.

Salt Tablets: Salt tabs are another option – they’re capsules of electrolytes that you can pop with water. Most of the time, people take these while doing things like running marathons, but you could potentially take them if you feel you’re a really super salty sweater. However, I don’t recommend it unless you’re participating in endurance athletics.

Bottom line:

  • If you’re exercising outside in the heat and losing a lot of sweat, you need to replenish more than just water
  • If your goals are NOT performance-related, and/or if you’re not exercising for over an hour, choose a low-carb electrolyte beverage

6 responses to “Electrolytes without the extra pounds

  1. Great, informative info. Thanks. Quick question: If I do a speed/hill work lasting just under an hour (in Houston), do I still need electrolyte replacement drinks/supplements? (understand I don’t need the sugar and hence I just drink water during the workout and come home and eat a banana for the K). Thanks, in advance.


  2. Pingback: Race Week Nutrition | How to Eat, R.D.·

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