In a recent study, Half Ironman athletes who took salt capsules finished an average of 26 minutes before those who didn’t. (Photo: Getty Images)
You’ve got a hydration pack full of your favorite sports drink, and you endure the gooey mess that is energy gel every 45 minutes, just like the package says. But for optimum endurance performance, you may also need your saltshaker, suggests new research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.
For the study, scientists from the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at the Camilo José Cela University in Spain studied 26 athletes competing in a Half Ironman – which consists of 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of cycling and 13.1 miles of running.
During the race, half of the triathletes drank their regular sports drinks along with 12 salt capsules divided into three doses, while the rest drank their regular sports drinks and took 12 placebo capsules. On average, those who consumed the extra salt ended the competition 26 minutes before those who stuck to sports drinks.
Why? Because they replaced more of the sodium they sweated out during the competition, says lead author Juan del Coso Garrigós, researcher at the Camilo José Cela University. The salt-takers replaced about 71 percent of the sodium they lost from sweat, while the placebo group only replaced about 20 percent of the electrolyte.
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Sodium, for all the bad press it gets, is critical both to performance and staying healthy during particularly sweaty workouts. “When sodium levels get too low, total body water drops and blood volume drops, which leads to fatigue and performance declines,” says board-certified sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning coach Marie Spano. “An athlete may experience muscle cramps, decreases in strength, and hyponatremia – dangerously low blood-sodium levels, which leads to edema, headache, confusion and can cause brain swelling and death.”
“I absolutely believe salt supplementation is not just beneficial, but necessary for athletes,” Spano says. “When I have athletes double the amount of sodium in their sports drinks, the first thing they typically say is that they feel so much better while training.”
Why Sports Drinks Aren’t Always Enough
“By using only sports drinks, it’s impossible to replace all the salt lost by sweating during endurance activities, such as marathons, long-distance triathlons and ultra-endurance trails,” says del Coso Garrigós, who notes that sweat contains two to three times higher concentrations of salt than do electrolyte-placement drinks. “Most sport drinks contain 20 to 25 millimoles of sodium per liter, while it is well-known that sweat contains between 20 to 60 millimoles per liter. Salty sweaters can even lose 100 millimoles of sodium per liter of sodium in sweat.”
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So why do sports drinks, which, after all, are made to replenish nutrients and electrolytes that are lost during exercise, not contain enough sodium to replace what’s lost? Spano and del Coso Garrigós agree: Because it would taste bad.
“Taste is elemental to sport drink sales,” he says. “If companies included more salt in their commercially available drinks, the drinks would be more effective at preventing dehydration and performance decline but, at the same time, the enjoyable taste of the drink would diminish and so would their sales.”
Do You Need More Salt?
Exactly how much salt you need depends on how much salt you’re losing. A lot of variables play into that amount. First and foremost, everyone sweats differently – both in terms of how much they sweat and in how much sodium they lose in every bead of the stuff, says del Coso Garrigós. Meanwhile, your exercise’s duration, intensity and environment (think: hot and humid or cool and dry) all affect how much you’ll sweat.
For that reason, he says most people can stick to sports drinks for any exercise that lasts under two hours. However, if they are big sweaters, into hot yoga or exercising at a high intensity, salt could help them both feel and perform better. For a quick 20-minute strength-training workout, you shouldn’t even need a sports drink. Water is just fine.
If you’re heading out on a long run, bike or other sweat-drenching activity, though, Spano recommends doubling your sports drink’s sodium. Add 100 milligrams (that’s about a pinch) of table salt to every 8 ounces of sports drink in your bottle or pack. So, if you’re planning on chugging 32 ounces of grape greatness during your run, you’ll also want 1/8 teaspoon salt, she says. Keep it in a baggie to eat throughout your run, or just dump it straight into your sports drink. It doesn’t look like much in that measuring spoon, but you should feel a big difference during your workout, she says.
Have high blood pressure or are sensitive to sodium? You may experience a slight increase in blood pressure immediately after supplementing with salt during exercise, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says del Coso Garrigós. When your blood pressure increases, you become thirstier, which helps you to drink more during your workout and stay better hydrated. And if you’re trying to cut down on your overall sodium intake, you can combat the salt taken in during exercise by making your meals later in the day low-sodium, Spano says. Win-win.