As a mountain biker, I wasn’t always a firm believer in hydration powders and electrolytes. I thought they were just another marketing gimmick for a product that I – and you – don’t need. Water is fine, right? But let me tell you, my attitude has changed! After a few big 30+ mile Tour de Valley’s and some sweaty, sweaty days in the saddle, hydration powders are a firm staple in my pantry.
I’ll typically guzzle a glass of Skratch before a warm-day ride or pour a scoop of Lemon-Lime electrolytes into my hydration pack if it’s going to be a big outing. Even just a small amount of electrolytes and sugar can make the difference between finishing strong and bonking halfway through the ride.
Not all hydration powders are created equal, though, and as someone who despises artificial sweeteners, dyes, and flavorings, I’m pretty picky about the powders I’ll use. In this post, I share tips on what to look for in a hydration powder and some of my favorite brands.
Tired of feeling slow and dehydrated on the trail? In this post, learn more about the science behind hydration powders, ingredients to look for, and a few of my favorite brands on the market.
(There’s a good chance that affiliate links are sprinkled throughout this post. If you click on one I may receive a small commission at no extra charge to you and I’ll definitely be using it to buy bike gear.)
The science behind hydration powders
Hydration powders (or tablets) are water-soluble supplements that are formulated to help keep your body hydrated by infusing it with electrolytes. Electrolytes are tiny particles that carry electrical charges and help cells retain water by keeping a pressure balance inside and outside of your cells (it’s a lot more complicated than that, but this is just the basics). Electrolytes also play a big role in regulating muscle function.
When you sweat, you not only lose water but also electrolytes.
Depending on how much you sweat, how long your workout is, how much water you drink, and what you have to eat, your electrolyte balance can get out of whack, which can exacerbate dehydration and cause muscle cramping among other symptoms. We can replenish electrolytes through food, but if you’re sweating a lot and not eating enough, your electrolyte balance can be affected.
In short, electrolytes help your body retain fluids and play an essential role in keeping your muscles functioning optimally.
Common Hydration Powder Ingredients
The key electrolytes in your body and in hydration supplements are potassium, magnesium, calcium, and especially sodium.
Sodium is the most important electrolyte to consider during long, sweaty workouts or bike rides because its losses through sweat are greater than any other nutrient. Sodium helps to maintain fluid balance in the body, nerve function, muscle contractions, and acid-base balance. Excessive sodium loss can lead to cramping and in serious cases, a condition called hyponatremia which can occur after high water intake without sodium replenishment.
Many people know of the electrolyte potassium for its help in reducing muscle cramps. For most people, though, potassium stores within the body are plentiful and there’s typically not much risk of becoming potassium deficient during a workout.
Calcium is the most abundant nutrient in the body and it helps to regulate all muscle contractions including skeletal, heart, and smooth muscles. Calcium is an essential electrolyte for athletic performance, and most people have plenty circulating in their bloodstream.
Whereas calcium helps muscles contract, magnesium helps muscles relax. It also aids in the breakdown of glucose for energy, so it’s a very important electrolyte to be aware of. Many people find that supplementing with magnesium helps with muscle cramps, among other benefits like stress relief and better sleep.
Most hydration powders contain some form of sugar in one form or another. Arguably, sugar and sodium are the two most important ingredients in a hydration powder for long, intense workouts. Sipping on carbohydrates provides a steady source of glucose to the blood that helps keep blood sugar up and energy high and can prevent bonking mid-ride.
When should you use hydration powders?
Hydration powders aren’t necessary for most people or workouts, but if you are doing a high-intensity workout or bike ride for 90 minutes or more OR you know you will be sweating buckets, then supplementing with a hydration powder could be beneficial for both the electrolytes (sweating) and carbohydrates (intensity/duration).
For big rides, I typically like to carry a bottle filled with a scoop or two of Skratch mixed with water along with my 3L water-filled hydration pack. For shorter rides, I don’t bother with hydration powder unless I’m feeling dehydrated.
My favorite electrolyte-packed hydration powders
1. Skratch Labs
Skratch is usually my go-to for hydration powders. It tastes great and is super thirst-quenching, especially on hot, sweaty rides. You can buy Skratch in individual packets or in a 20-serving bag that comes with a scoop. Each serving has about 80 calories of carbs, a good hit of sodium (380mg), and trace amounts of other electrolytes. My favorite flavors are the Lemon-Lime and Strawberry Lemonade.
2. Untapped MapleAid
I’m from Vermont, so obviously I love the Untapped MapleAid! It’s a hydration powder made out of, you guessed it, dehydrated maple syrup! And it’s delicious. Maple syrup naturally has other nutrients in it including magnesium, calcium, and potassium. I love the Lemon Tea flavor and they also have Ginger, which I haven’t tried yet.
If you want to try some of their other products like waffle snacks or pure maple syrup shots (yummm….) try their sampler pack.
3. Clif Shot Hydration
Clif Shot Hydration is very similar to Skratch Labs, so if you prefer Clif Bar as a brand, this is a great option. These mixes do have slightly less sodium than Skratch and I found them to not dissolve quite as well either, but they taste good. Clif Shot Hydration comes in two flavors: Cranberry Razz and Lemon Lime-Ade
Nuun comes in tablets as well as powders and they have products for everything from ‘sport’ to ‘immunity’ to ‘rest’ to ‘endurance’. I’m sure a lot of it is marketing, but I do like their Sport and Endurance tabs/powders. The Sport tabs contain mainly electrolytes and can be used casually while the Endurance hydration powder has a moderate amount of sugar as well as electrolytes and is best used for long, sweaty workouts or rides. You can also get either with caffeine for an extra boost.
5. Laird Superfood Hydrate Coconut Waters
Yes, Laird of Laird Hamilton, the world-famous surfer. He has his own line of superfood-infused products including a hydration powder called Hydrate. It’s made from freeze-dried coconut water and Aquamin, a proprietary blend of marine minerals that is high in calcium (essential for muscle function) and 72 other minerals in trace amounts.
Hydrate isn’t super high in sodium (one serving only has 5mg), so I wouldn’t recommend it for big, sweaty workouts or rides, but it’s a great hydration powder for everyday use or mellower activities.
Hydrate comes in four flavors: original, pineapple mango, matcha, and orange guava.
Vitalyte is the adult version of Pedialyte 🙂 It’s an electrolyte replacement drink that helps your body retain fluids and keep electrolyte levels topped up, especially sodium (each serving has 135mg). I personally haven’t tried Vitalyte, but it gets great reviews! It comes in four flavors including citrus, grape, fruit punch, and lemon.
Check price: REI
6. Hammer Nutrition
If you don’t want the added sugars of many hydration supplements, Hammer Nutrition offers a few sugar-free or low-sugar options (remember, though, your body needs carbs to keep blood sugar high. Low blood sugar = bonking. If your workouts or rides are long and intense, don’t skimp on the carbs).
Personally, I don’t love Hammer Nutrition products because I’m very anti-artificial sugars including ‘natural’ ones because I think they taste terrible and they can actually cause stomach issues for some athletes. But I’m just here to offer suggestions 🙂
Their HEED High-Energy Electrolyte Drink has both real sugar in the form of maltodextrin as well as low-calorie xylitol and stevia and a slew of other electrolytes and nutrients. If you’re just looking for electrolytes, they have them in capsule form, which get great reviews.
Do you have a favorite hydration powder? What is it and what do you love about it? Do you think electrolyte supplements work? Leave a comment below!