For the average person, taking a sensible approach to salt consumption as part of a balanced diet is all that is needed. But what about the football player who’s dripping with sweat after 90 minutes, the runner training for a big race, or the cyclist who’s on the road for hours?
For them, salt isn’t just important, it’s vital. People who exercise heavily, lose a lot of salt in their sweat, and some people are more at risk to the effects than others.
But is being a salty sweater a big deal?
Low-sodium levels can cause dehydration, muscle cramps or even organ failure. On top of that, salt is critical to performance too. When sodium levels get too low, total body water drops and blood volume decreases, which leads to fatigue and performance declines.
Athletes can manage these risks by taking a sensible attitude to how much salt they sweat and need to replenish, but exactly how much salt you need, depends on how much salt you’re losing.
Four signs you’re a salty sweater:
– Sweat tastes salty / stings eyes
– Salt stains on clothing / skin
– Frequent muscle cramps
– Dehydration problems
As the weather warms up, salty sweaters are more likely than others to suffer from heat-related illnesses. Although they lose about the same amount of chloride, potassium, calcium and magnesium as non-salty sweaters, their sodium levels become an issue. Usually, the average male body sweat contains 500mg sodium/lb. If during training you lose two pounds of sweat an hour, the sodium losses become significant when training for a marathon. If you aren’t used to exercising in heat, you could even lose up to 1,100mg sodium/lb of sweat, This means that if you are training in cool conditions for an event that occurs on a warm summer day, you will need to think about extra sodium during the event.
The scientific evidence
Research by Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise (Vol. 39) has shown salt-loading before hard training/competition can improve performance in heat and reduce the adverse effect. The study investigated the effects on eight distance runners and found that sodium loading increased the runner’s plasma volume and resulted in increased exercise capacity as well as reduced feeling of perceived strain.
What to do about it
Tom Hollis, dietitian at nutrition brand Supplicity, explains: “Salty sweaters need to increase consumption of healthy high-sodium foods, such as pretzels, peanuts and soups to preserve sodium levels. Good salt is your friend; use soy sauce to perk up rice, vegetables or beef, cook rice or pasta in regular chicken or beef stock instead of plain water. Make sure to avoid the unhealthy foods such as packaged meats, pepperoni and fast food.”
If you’re preparing for a big race, check out our top training tips.