Salt tablets for runners are one of those confusing topics, not much discussed in the athletic community. Are salt tablets useful or should they be avoided?
There is a lot of controversy about rehydrating products, and electrolyte drinks.
Both of these serve the function of salt supplementation for the athlete who does a normal workout routine, or lives in a temperate climate to some extent.
When Are Salt Tablets For Runners Advised?
However for the athlete competing in ultras, Ironmans or anything else which leads them to lose an incredible amount of sweat, extra salt tablets should be considered.
The essential component within salt that makes it so important for the human being’s body is sodium. Hence, what we should really be talking about is sodium tablets for runners.
When we sweat, we do not just lose water. We lose electrolytes. Many of us have had the experience of taking off your shirt after a race a noticing it is covered in white- salt.
If you just drink water only, you may develop an electrolyte imbalance as your remaining electrolytes will be diluted. Once you have an imbalance, the water that you do drink will not be absorbed by the stomach.
It can seem strange to many people that we have spent years being lectured by mainstream media to avoid salt and reduce salt in our diets as it has been linked to heart disease but that now a common runner’s strategy is to add extra salt to their water (sea salt or Himalayan salt) or take salt tablets.
I personally know several runners who swear that this strategy has made a ton of difference to their marathon, Ultra or Ironman training.
Salt Sticks are well know in the running and triathlon world and also contain many other minerals that we lose with sweat.
They provide 215 mg sodium, 63 mg potassium, 14 mg calcium, 22 mg magnesium, as well as 100 IU Vitamin D to help the body absorb and utilize calcium.
If you do long distance or work out intensely in the heat it is worth trying these and having some on hand. Good salt supplements aim to mimic the electrolyte composition of human blood plasma, so that they replace what’s lost through perspiration.
High sodium diets have been linked to a number of health risks in many Westerners. However, athletes must consider that due to their high volume exercise and excessive sweat production, they are actually at greater risk of having too little sodium in their blood stream during training and competition.
Symptoms Of Hyponatremia
Hyponatremia, is a dangerous syndrome of low concentration of sodium and is prevalent in endurance athletes. The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon at Kona and ultra -endurance races routinely sees 30% finishers with low blood sodium concentrations (hyponatremia) and dehydration.
Adequate sodium balance is necessary for transmitting nerve impulses and proper muscle function, and even a slight depletion of this concentration can cause big problems.
An athlete who only replaces the lost fluid with water will contribute to a decreased blood sodium concentration as the remaining sodium is now diluted.
Studies have shown that athletes can lose 2 (or more) grams of salt per liter of sweat. If you consider that athletes may lose up to a liter (or more) of sweat each hour, you can see that over a long endurance event (12 hour race), it is not unimaginable that an athlete could sweat out 24 – 40 grams of salt depending on sweat rates. Replacing this loss of sodium during the event is critical to both performance and safety.
The early warning signs are often subtle and may be similar to dehydration; nausea, muscle cramps, disorientation, slurred speech, confusion and inappropriate behavior.
At this point, many athletes get into trouble by drinking water because they think they are dehydrated. In fact, water alone will increase the problem of hyponatremia.
At the most extreme levels of low sodium, an athlete may experience seizures, coma, or death.
Treatment Of Hyponatremia
If you know you are training or racing in a hot climate and are doing a long endurance event, you should test out in advance training with salt tablets.
If you are mid race however, at the first sign of nausea, muscle cramps, disorientation, you should drink a sodium containing sports drink, such as Gatorade or eat salty foods. If possible, you should plan ahead and estimate your fluid loss and need for sodium replacement during the event, and stay on a hydration schedule during the race.
For exact measurement of your personal fluid loss and a fluid replacement strategy, grab my book that will walk you through working out your sweat rate. If the symptoms are extreme, a medical professional should be seen.
Prevention Of Hyponatremia
The best way for an athlete to avoid such problems is to plan ahead.
- Use a sodium containing sports drinks during long distance, high intensity events.
- Eat salty foods before and during competition if possible.
- It is important for an athlete to understand his or her individual fluid needs and sweat rate.
- Weigh yourself before and after training and drink enough sodium based sports drink to offset any fluid loss during exercise.
- Increase salt intake by 10-25 grams per day several days prior to competition.
Here are some suggestions for running training in hot climates
How much salt should athletes ingest daily vs a normal adult?
Keep in mind that all athletes respond differently to exercise; fluid and sodium needs will vary accordingly. A general recommendation of approximately 1 gram of sodium per hour of high intensity exercise seems to hold true.
The American Heart Association recommends that a normal adult ingest no more than 1.5g per day. Most Americans actually consume 3.4g per day. Remember though that most non-athletes do very little exercise and have very low sweat rates. Athletes may lose 2g of sodium per hour!
If you are experimenting with the Ketogenic diet, remember you will need more salt initially as your blood sugar levels start to lower. My colleague Charlotte has written a book about it, click the link below:
Elite athletes who go through several tests to identify their exact sweat rates and the concentrations of salt they lose. This helps inform them of their hydration strategy going forward so they do not over-drink or under-drink.
Common sense of course must prevail. If you are doing a simple 5km race, (even if at high intensity, you will not require any supplements (though I often see 5km runners with a fanny pack full of gels, chews and bars!).
If you are running, cycling or exercising intensely over 60-90minutes and in a hot climate, it is likely you will need to replace your sodium. If you do not sweat much, you might be able to achieve this via adding salt to your diet and to your water before and after a run.
If you participate in >3 hour events, it is wise to carry extra salt tablets. Read the nutritional information on any sports drinks you carry and get to know how much sodium they contain,
As always, test and measure. Salt supplementation through diet or salt tablets for runners can be of great help to offset the sodium loss through sweat in an athlete with intense physical activity.
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