What are electrolytes?

We all know it’s important to stay hydrated, but you’ve also probably heard about these things called “electrolytes” that you are supposed to add to your water or take at aid stations. If you’re a new runner, you may be wondering what exactly electrolytes are. If you’ve been running for awhile, you may also be wondering but are hesitant to ask any of your running buddies.

I have been running for 20 years, and have always heard that re-fueling electrolytes can help when you start cramping. I’ve never really tested the theory because I—thankfully—don’t cramp that often. Last August I was running the TransRockies Run (a 3-day, 60-mile adventure through the Rocky Mountains) and was having a rough time on day one. I started cramping so bad that every time I tried to run, everything from my groin to my toes started to tighten up. When I got to the next aid station, I ate a whole banana because I remembered they were high in potassium and thought it was worth a shot. I also ate a handful of potato chips to get some salt in my body. Within a few minutes, the cramping went away. It really works.

But why?

Electrolytes are minerals like sodium, potassium, and calcium, and they keep your body running smoothly. (They technically cause electrical impulses, which is why electrolytes are important for a variety of processes in your body.) When exercising, you lose electrolytes in your sweat, and then bad things can happen, like cramping and hitting the infamous wall.

When you just drink water, you aren’t replacing any of the lost electrolytes and your body can’t replenish them on its own, so you need to add electrolytes to your re-fueling routine. You can add them to your water or consume them in the form of bananas and salty snacks, like I did. It’s really what is the most convenient and what actually works for you.

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