A thirst for salt
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.