You’ve probably heard time and time again that too much sodium in your diet is bad and contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease.
That can be true for the average person having difficulty eating the right foods and exercising regularly.
But sodium is an essential nutrient your body requires to function properly, and endurance athletes who lose sodium in sweat must replenish it to maximize performance and prevent sodium deficiency.
Sodium Lost in Sweat
General sodium recommendations don’t apply to most athletes, especially endurance athletes who are constantly losing sodium through sweat.
The Coaching Association of Canada says runners may lose up to 3,600 milligrams of sodium (or more) in three hours of running, which exceeds intake recommendations of 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams per day for the average adult. In the heat, sodium losses are greater during workouts.
What Sodium Does
For athletes, sodium is more important than you might think. This essential mineral and electrolyte aids in proper nerve and muscle function, which is crucial for competitive athletes seeking to maximize performance.
The American College of Sports Medicine says sodium is the electrolyte lost in the greatest amount compared with other electrolytes when you sweat, and that sodium not only helps maintain fluid balance in your body, but it also promotes the uptake of fluid in your gut and improves hydration.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism says supplementing with sodium bicarbonate enhances aerobic capacity, may improve endurance and strength in athletes, leads to greater muscle contraction, and enhances energy production, thereby lowering fatigue.
Are You a Heavy Sweater?
Some athletes naturally sweat more than others, so the sodium content of sweat varies. The Coaching Association of Canada says athletes sweat an average of 1,200 milliliters per hour during exercise, and sodium content of sweat varies from 115 to 2,000 milligrams or greater in every 1,000 milliliters of sweat.
Signs you’re a salty sweater (have a higher concentration of sodium in your sweat) include seeing salt crystals on your skin after exercise, muscle cramping that doesn’t go away after exercise, and white streaks on dark-colored clothing post-training. If this is the case for you, be sure you’re getting plenty of sodium from sports nutrition snacks and drinks after sweat sessions.
Getting Too Little Sodium
Getting too little sodium can cause a deficiency in athletes — and unpleasant (even dangerous) side effects.
These include heat illness, muscle cramping, inability to properly hydrate, diluted sodium levels in the blood (hyponatremia), nausea, vomiting, confusion, headache, fatigue, loss of energy, irritability, seizures and even coma. Electrolyte deficiency is a serious condition that if left untreated can be deadly.
When and How Much to Ingest?
Generally speaking, events lasting longer than 60 minutes require electrolytes including sodium to replace sweat loss. The Coaching Association of Canada suggests looking for a sports drink containing at least 500 to 700 milligrams of sodium per liter. A 2015 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine also suggests choosing electrolyte solutions that contain 500 to 700 milligrams of sodium per liter for exercise lasting more than 60 minutes and increasing sodium supplementation to 1,500 milligrams per liter of fluid if you experience muscle cramping.
Carb recommendations for events lasting longer than one hour are 30 to 60 grams (or 90 grams per hour for events lasting longer than 2.5 hours).
Many sports drinks contain sodium and carbs (sugar) in concentrations needed to maintain a good balance during distance runs. Other snacks, like energy bars or gels, will do the trick as well.
The 2015 review in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism recommends boosting sodium three hours before an event (or consuming smaller sodium doses several days prior to events) to avoid gastrointestinal symptoms that can happen from sodium ingesting during events.
Carrying Your Nourishment
Carrying sodium-containing nourishment with you is a must when you’re out on long runs. Several pieces of gear can help ensure you have plenty of storage space for bars, gels, trail mix, or sodium-containing energy drinks to replace losses in sweat.
A hydration pack not only carries your water, it’s got space to hold soft flasks (perfect for energy drinks). Marathon packs are perfect for storing sodium-containing snacks during longer training sessions and races, as they offer a variety of different pockets and pouches — even gel loops and gel trash stash pockets! Training or racing in a shorter 5k race? Try an ultra-light 5k waist belt or low-profile zipster waist belt to stash your snacks in.
What to Eat Post-Exercise
After a heavy sweat session, it’s time to nourish your body and replace electrolytes (including sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium). Having an electrolyte-rich snack (electrolyte drink or energy bar for example) within 30 minutes of working out, especially after endurance runs, is key. If you’re a salty sweater, high-sodium snacks can help replenish sodium losses quickly.
Examples include pickles, olives, pretzels, hummus, salted nuts and seeds, beef or turkey jerky, turkey bacon bits, canned soups, vegetable juices, tomato juice, cheese and cottage cheese. Just one teaspoon of table salt contains a whopping 2,300 milligrams of sodium.
Within several hours post-workout, eat a well-balanced meal containing protein, nutritious carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, legumes, or veggies and heart-healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, seeds, nut butter and plant-based oils. Doing so will help your body heal and recover as quickly as possible post-workout.
Listen to Your Body
Sometimes when it comes to getting enough sodium in your diet to replenish sweat loss, your body will let you know when it’s time for more. You may get severe salt cravings after sweat sessions.
If so, listen to your body. Signs of sodium deficiency (muscle cramping, dizziness, fatigue and confusion, for example) are indicators blood sodium levels might below.
Olivia James is a part-time dog mom, and a full-time digital marketer and content strategist with United Sports Brands. Although, Olivia has a pretty full schedule between her dog parenting responsibilities and her career, she makes time to explore her new home state of California on the weekends as well as go on a hike or two.