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Why Do Marathon Runners Drink Sports Drinks During a Race?

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Summer is a popular time of year to hit the road or trails, especially for those athletes training for a fall marathon. In any season, hydration is an important part of a run. However, in summer, it’s an essential element of preparing for a run. Is it the right call for marathon runners to drink sports drinks during a race?

Well, while plain water is sufficient for shorter distances, sports drinks are highly recommended for athletes tackling longer runs. Marathon runners drink sports drinks during a race because they contain electrolytes.

There are many sports drinks on the market designed for runners. Some are focused purely on hydration, whereas others offer a complete fuel source with added calories. It’s important to note that what might work well for one person could be a gut bomb for another. Testing out different brands and flavors during training will help athletes identify what works and what doesn’t, reducing the chances of an unpleasant experience on race day.

Why Are Sports Drinks Good for Runners?

During marathon training, and on race day, as runs get longer and efforts get harder, the body loses electrolytes, including sodium and potassium, through sweat. Sports drinks are good for runners because they help replace these essential minerals to maintain hydration, reduce cramping, and even help speed up recovery.

According to the National Library of Medicine, electrolytes affect how the body functions, including water retention, muscle function, and the blood’s pH levels. In short, they balance the amount of water in the body, as well as the acidity levels in the blood, and help move nutrients into cells. Electrolytes can be found in everyday foods and fluids, but special attention should be paid to increasing electrolyte intake in preparation for, and during a race.

It doesn’t take much to get dehydrated, especially in summer temperatures. There are a few different ways a runner can tell if they are dehydrated, both during and after a run.

  1. Easy runs feel harder
  2. Headaches
  3. Muscle cramps
  4. Feeling tired
  5. Dark urine

Another interesting way to see visual proof of electrolyte loss is when sweaty clothes and skin show white streaks and feel gritty with salt. This is the sodium in sweat drying and crystalizing. Some athletes are saltier sweaters than others. Don’t worry – according to this study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 20% of marathoners experience high sweat salt loss (i.e. it’s not uncommon).

Should I Drink a Sports Drink While Running?

It is generally recommended that athletes should drink a sports drink while running. For those who prefer a drink something without flavor, options can be as simple as sipping on electrolyte-enhanced water, such as Smart Water. It is super easy to stock up in advance or on-the-go.

Those looking to rely on tap water with an electrolyte boost might try LMNT Hydration, Nuun’s Podium Series, or Tailwind. As previously noted, some electrolyte solutions are also a complete fuel source. Tailwind is one of those because it offers both electrolytes and enough calories to replace those burned during the run.

A great way to test these is to head to the local run specialty store to shop their selection. These stores often stock individual packets, making it easy to test a variety of electrolyte supplements. A third option is to pick up a few flavors of BODYARMOR or BODYARMOR Lyte (Coca Cola), Powerade (Coca Cola), or Gatorade (PepsiCo).

These are a great option because they’re easy to find, eliminating the risk of running out of electrolytes and having to hit the road without. Note that these products generally include sugar (with the exception of BODYARMOR Lyte), which can be problematic for health-conscious athletes and those with sensitive stomachs. One thing to keep in mind is the quantity of liquid you drink during a race – too much can cause issues as well.

Is Gatorade Good for Runners?

Gatorade is good for runners, but it comes with sugar. Despite having the electrolytes needed to rehydrate during a run, Gatorade has 34g of sugar in a 20 fl oz bottle of their lemon lime flavor. This represents 69% of the Daily Value of added sugars and 13% of total carbohydrates based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.

Carbs are fuel for the body – virtually everything that can be consumed has carbs. However, there is a difference to the quality of those carbohydrates. Sugar is a simple, or refined, carb. It’s a highly processed food that doesn’t have much nutritional value, and when consumed in high amounts can contribute to health issues.

So, is Gatorade good for runners? As a daily drink, probably not. However, for the purpose of hydrating before, during, and after a run, Gatorade is a good option because it’s readily available at and offers a variety of flavors. In a pinch, it can be cut with water to reduce sweetness, but this also reduces its overall effectiveness by reducing the carbs the body uses as fuel and dilutes the electrolytes for rehydration.

Gatorade is widely used in aid stations at races because it is relatively affordable to purchase and easy to prepare in bulk. For those athletes who want to carry less on their person during a marathon, it makes sense to test out Gatorade during training to assess how the body reacts in a more controlled environment, i.e.–when and where potential stomach upset is easier to manage.


The health benefits of why marathon runners drink sports drinks during a race are simple. The electrolytes in sports drinks are essential for ensuring the body is well hydrated, while also reducing chances of muscle cramps and helping to speed up recovery after the race. Hydration is just as essential as wearing the right shoes, and is important to consider before, during, and after a race.

With so many sports drinks on the market, it should be easy for any athlete to find the electrolyte solution that works best for them.

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About the author

Emily is an avid runner who has tackled distances from 5k to marathons. She volunteers at races whenever possible, and loves to encourage newbies to explore running.

Since 2018, she has maintained her RRCA Level I Certified Running Coach credential to be a more informed member of the running community when participating in conversations about training. In short, she really likes all things running.

Read more about Emily here.