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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.
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.
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 (and carbohydrates). 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 very 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.
I’ll typically guzzle a glass of hydration powder mixed with water before a warm-day ride or pour a scoop into a water bottle 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.
When should you use hydration powders?
Hydration powders aren’t necessary for every ride or workout, 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 bigger rides (10 miles or more), I typically like to carry a bottle filled with a scoop or two of hydration powder mixed with water in addition to carrying 2-3 liters of water in my hydration pack.
For shorter rides, I don’t bother with hydration powder unless I’m feeling dehydrated or I know I’ll be sweating a lot (which I tend to do!)
Best electrolyte powders
1. Tailwind Endurance Fuel
Tailwind Endurance Fuel is my go-to choice for best electrolyte powders. Not only does it taste good (Mandarin is my favorite) but it also has a good ratio of carbs (sugar) and sodium – the two most important components of a hydration powder.
Tailwind is an athlete-owned company based out of Durango, Colorado and their formulas are backed by science. If you don’t need all the sugar (say you’re going out on a shorter or less sweaty ride) check out their Active Hydration packets.
2. Skratch Hydration Mix
Skratch is also a great choice 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.
3. 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.
4. Clif Shot Hydration
Clif 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 Hydration comes in two flavors: Cranberry Razz and Lemon Lime-Ade
5. Nuun Sport Hydration
If you’re looking for a hydration and electrolyte aid that doesn’t come with a lot of sugar, the Nuun Sport Hydration tablets are a good option. They provide quite a bit of sodium (300 mg per tablet) but only 1 g of carbohydrates. Remember, though, intense exercise requires a steady stream of glucose!
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.
What is the best electrolyte powder you’ve tried? Are there any others you’d add to this list? Leave a comment below!