A thirst for salt

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - T1 -

What this means for ath­letes

Ath­letes have dili­gently fol­lowed ad­vice over the years that “salty sweaters” need to in­gest more salt. But more re­cent re­search is chal­leng­ing that idea by sug­gest­ing that salty sweaters are sim­ply ex­cret­ing ex­cess salt, as op­posed to los­ing ex­ces­sive amounts that need to be re­placed. This no­tion has been backed up by other re­search that has shown that in­gest­ing ex­tra sodium dur­ing an Iron­man had no ef­fect on blood sodium con­cen­tra­tion or blood plasma vol­ume.

Salt has also been rec­om­mended to en­durance ath­letes to avert the risk of hy­pona­tremia – a se­ri­ous con­di­tion where there is in­suf­fi­cient sodium in the blood. But hy­pona­tremia has been shown to be caused by over drink­ing of wa­ter, as op­posed to sim­ply drink­ing to thirst, rather than ex­ces­sive loss of sodium through sweat.

Cramps What role does salt play?

Be­cause lit­tle is re­ally known about cramps, ad­vice that abounds is largely spec­u­la­tive, based on pos­si­ble phys­i­o­log­i­cal con­nec­tions as well as on-field ob­ser­va­tions. The com­monly held be­lief is that ex­er­cise-in­duced cramps re­sult from de­hy­dra­tion and elec­trolyte de­ple­tion. But this no­tion is false. A 2011 study pub­lished in the Bri­tish Jour­nal of Sports Medicine found no dif­fer­ence in blood sodium lev­els be­tween cramp­ing ath­letes and cramp-free ath­letes dur­ing an Iron­man triathlon. Sim­i­lar re­sults have been demon­strated across other en­durance sports. In other words, sodium losses and sweat rates are un­re­lated to cramp­ing.

Con­tra­dict­ing this sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture, though, are the vast num­bers of ath­letes who swear that salt sup­ple­men­ta­tion is ben­e­fi­cial. And it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that just be­cause there is a lack of ev­i­dence to sup­port this prac­tice doesn’t mean it is not true. Sur­pris­ingly, though, there is some sci­en­tific weight to the “pickle juice folk rem­edy.” Re­cent re­search sug­gests it’s not the salty brine, but rather the spicy taste act­ing on re­cep­tors in the mouth that some­how dis­rupts the neu­ral mal­func­tion as­so­ci­ated with the un­co­or­di­nated mus­cle con­trac­tions of cramps.

Salt Shake it or leave it?

When it comes to health, di­etary salt in­take may not be as harm­ful as we once thought, nor as im­por­tant as the lack of potas­sium which acts to re­duce blood pres­sure. The av­er­age diet is heavy on high-sodium pro­cessed foods, but falls se­verely short on the potas­sium-rich fruits and veg­eta­bles. The best di­etary ad­vice, then, is to min­i­mize pro­cessed foods and boost your veg­etable and fruit con­tent. Oth­er­wise you can en­joy gen­er­ous amounts of salt on foods (un­less you are hy­per­ten­sive, in which case speak with your health pro­fes­sional).

For en­durance ath­letes who swear by their sodium sup­ple­ments, rest as­sured that there is no ev­i­dence that con­sum­ing salt dur­ing ex­er­cise has a detri­men­tal ef­fect on per­for­mance and a moun­tain of anec­do­tal ev­i­dence that sug­gests it might be ben­e­fi­cial for some in­di­vid­u­als. Sodium con­tained in reg­u­lar sports nu­tri­tion prod­ucts will be ad­e­quate for most and en­cour­age ad­e­quate in­take of flu­ids and fuel by im­prov­ing taste pro­file. If you are prone to cramps, ex­per­i­ment. Sports nu­tri­tion, like most things, is not a one size fits all propo­si­tion: for some, salt seems to play im­por­tant role, even if not backed up by sci­en­tific proof.

Search for salt

Most of the sodium in the av­er­age per­son’s diet comes from pro­cessed and pack­aged foods. In ad­di­tion to salt, sources of sodium in­clude monosodium glu­ta­mate, sodium cit­rate; sodium ni­trate; bak­ing soda; sodium bi­car­bon­ate; and sodium ben­zoate.

Pip Tay­lor is a di­eti­tian, sports nu­tri­tion­ist and pro­fes­sional triath­lete.

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