I am not a chemist, nor have I taken a chemistry class since college, which wasn’t even in the past decade (nor the one before…nor, uh, you get the point), so when I was recently asked to speak at the University of Regensburg to a group of gifted high school (gymnasium) students interested in studying chemistry, my first reaction was, What does ultra running have to do with chemistry????
Answer: Just about everything.
After I thought about it I soon realized that not only do endurance sports and biological chemistry go hand-in-hand, but without a basic understanding of our own body’s chemistry, we runners wouldn’t get very far on our feet!
Looking back on my preparations for multi-day stage races, I realized that I’d spent hours determining just what my body needed to function under extreme circumstances because I knew that if my training had been adequate and my mental strength was in good form, then nutrition would be the key to optimizing my performance and reaching the finish line.
So for the chemistry students, I did some research and applied some of their jargon to the runner's lexicon and introduced myself to the endurance athlete's two best friends: Electrolytes and Amino Acids
Let’s start with electrolytes.
Electrolytes are chemical elements which, when mixed with water, conduct electricity and support specific bodily functions. The heart, muscle, and nerve cells use electrolytes to carry electrical impulses to other cells. They function to regulate nerve and muscle action, hydrate the body, balance blood pressure, and even help rebuild damaged tissue.
Electrolytes that are found in the human body include, but are not limited to:
Magnesium: supports heart, muscle and nerve function as well as digestion
Sodium: assists with the absorption of fluids and muscle contraction
Potassium: helps keep blood pressure stable and regulates heart contraction
Calcium: supports muscle contraction, blood clotting and cell division
Chloride: aids in fluid absorption
Electrolytes are lost when we sweat and need to be replaced. A general electrolyte deficit can lead to cramps, dizziness, confusion, an increased heart rate, and nausea, which are (coincidentally?) some common complaints of runners during long distance races.
There are many scientific studies about what the body needs during sport. Depending on many factors including length of exertion, air temperature, humidity, and individual factors, if and how much of an electrolyte supplementation is required varies widely. A general consensus is that an electrolyte supplement is not vital under exertion of less than 90 minutes. That said, during a foot race of 10 km or shorter, we should not require more than water to maintain good hydration. But what if the race is longer? And it is sunny and HOT?
That’s when isotonic drinks come into play.
We are all familiar with the term ‘isotonic sports drinks’, but what does the term isotonic really mean?
An isotonic drink is a drink in which the ratio of nutrients of liquids corresponds to that of human blood, which means that the osmotic value has the same tonicity as human blood and can therefore be digested relatively quickly. Some isotonic drinks have been recommended for restocking levels of electrolytes during and after exercise to help restore lost sodium and potassium as well as to retain water.
As a comparison:
- Isotonic: An isotonic drink has a similar concentration of salt and sugar as the human body, for example, Gatorade and PowerAde
- Hypotonic: A hypotonic drink has a lower concentration of salt and sugar as the human body; the best example of which is water
- Hypertonic: A hypertonic drink has a higher concentration of salt and sugar as the human body, which include energy drinks such as Red Bull and Coke
Most sports gels contain electrolytes but many also have a considerable amount of sugar (carbohydrates), which may or may not be desired. Another means of replacing sodium is by taking salt supplements which are readily available in tablet form specifically produced for athletes. When I ran the 257-km Marathon des Sables across the Sahara Desert, prior to the race all competitors were provided with a bag containing 200 salt tablets and we were required to take two tablets with each 1.5-liters of water that we drank. We were reminded of this at each check-point by the doctors and staff because in that extreme environment a sodium deficit could quickly lead to dehydration and even death.
The message here is that during exertion of several hours or longer when we are sweating, our bodies will require an electrolyte replacement for optimal function and health, the amount of which varies upon the individual and the conditions.
Moving on to Amino Acids…
As opposed to electrolytes, amino acids are not chemical elements but chemical compounds. They are the building blocks of proteins in the human body and serve primarily to build up body tissue. Thus, for the athlete, they are important for recovery and regeneration. In a very long distance or multi-day stage race, an accelerated regeneration is essential to maintain (or minimize the reduction of) performance levels.
Of the 20 standard amino acids, nine are called essential amino acids because the human body cannot synthesize them from other compounds at the level needed for normal growth, so they must be obtained from food. The 9 essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Glutamine is another important amino acid but one that the human body naturally produces; although, intense physical exercise drains glutamine stores faster than the body can replenish them. When this occurs, the body breaks down muscles and becomes catabolic, and performance and recovery can be compromised. Glutamine supplementation has been shown to aid in recovery and recuperation in addition to boosting immune function. The best time to take a glutamine supplementation is right after a hard exercise session since glutamine stores in muscle can be depleted up to 40% after exhaustive exercise.
Thus, unless you are competing in a non-stop multi-day race, amino acids typically do not need to be supplemented during a race, but can be taken following the exertion to help with regeneration. I use them in the evenings during mult-day stage races, after difficult training sessions, a tough race, or regularly during periods of intense training.
Amino acid supplementations are widely available for athletes in the forms of tablets, gels, powders and drinks.
Again, I am not a chemist, a doctor nor a nutritionist. I am a simple engineer and passionate runner who is fanatical about being prepared for extreme events. Please do your own homework* on this topic when planning for your own needs and use your training sessions as your own chemistry experiments.
*Dietary exposure to the non-standard amino acid BMAA has been linked to human neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS.
Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports Health 2012; 4(2):128–138.
Glutamine: Metabolism and Immune Function, Supplementation and Clinical Translation. Nutrients. 2018; 10(11): 1564.
A critical review of the postulated role of the non-essential amino acid, β-N-methylamino-L-alanine, in neurodegenerative disease in humans. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2017; 20(4): 1–47.
Essential Amino Acids: Chromatos / Shutterstock
Aid station: Freepik
Periodic Table: Amazon.com
This article recently was recently published for ASICS on https://www.asics.com/de/de-de/frontrunner/articles/chemistry-and-endurance-what-does-the-body-really-require-to-run-for-hours-or-even-days for which I received a form of compensation.