Don’t Forget the Salt!

Howdy Peeps! I hope you are crushing workouts and coming up with creative comps during this very unique summer season. How we train and compete during the pandemic continues to evolve, and it is the innovative, versatile, and durable beast that adapts most effectively.

All that stated…it is indeed summer, and with warmer (or hotter) temperatures, humidity, and increased time outside, a Lifetime Athlete needs to take some things into consideration. Fueling and hydrating for peak performance and optimum recovery should always be on our minds. We need to have enough calories, in the macronutrient distributions that we’ve found to work best for our unique beast. And we require enough water to maintain physiologic function and homeostasis. Fortunately, we have the mechanisms of appetite and thirst to help guide our intake. But what I want to talk about today is something that may actually be a game changer for hard-training athletes in hot weather. That special something is salt. 

Whether you consider it a superfood, a supplement, or a decoration on your table, salt is perhaps the most underrated, misunderstood, and even feared nutrient for the Lifetime Athlete. First, let’s break down what we are talking about when we mention salt for the athlete. Table salt, or sodium chloride, is the substance we are discussing. Salt is approximately 40% sodium by weight and 60% chloride. Many of the various sea salts or rock salts which are popular today also contain trace amounts of other minerals, such as potassium, iron, zinc, and magnesium. But it is really the sodium that we need to maintain metabolic and systemic health, fluid balance, neural function, muscular contraction, and most operations within the human organism. In many ways, sodium is the master electrolyte which helps to regulate and balance other minerals. This is especially true when the Lifetime Athlete eats a healthy, Planet-Based Diet (PBD) that is nutrient-rich.

Now we need to consider the “average” American versus the healthy, hard-training Lifetime Athlete. The CDC recommends that everyday folks (whatever that means) consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Since salt is 40% sodium, that equates to 5,750 milligrams of salt per day. There is about 5 grams of salt in a teaspoon, so the non-athlete really may only need a teaspoon of salt per day to hit the sodium requirement. This occurs naturally in many foods and adding just a pinch or dash of salt here and there in cooking and dining easily meets, and often exceeds this recommendation.

But athletes are different in this respect. Sure, we are still human, but exercising moderately hard in warm weather usually results in sweat loss of 1-2 liters per hour, and salt excretion in that sweat of roughly 1-2 grams per liter…with significant variations among individuals. Said differently, some athletes are heavy sweaters while others perspire at a lesser rate. And…some folks dump sodium in their sweat in large amounts while others have a more sodium-sparing sweat presentation. Now add to this intra-exercise sweat loss the additional sweating of just being outside and active in the summer, and living in the absence of air conditioning (which many of us do). There is an acclimatization, or accommodation, process in which the athletic body adapts to chronic hot weather training and dumps less sodium in sweat over time. This takes several weeks and the degree of adaptation is again variable among athletes. 

The easiest way to measure sweat loss is to weigh yourself before and after exercise, subtracting the post-training weight from pre-training, and adding back the volume of water consumed during training. It is not uncommon for a prodigious sweater to drop 3-4 pounds in a workout. And if you are one of those folks whose skin and clothing appears salt-crusted after a session, you may be a natural sodium-dumper. You probably already know these things about yourself.

A hard-training athlete can require 5-10 grams of sodium per day. By hard-training, we are talking about someone who trains with a high sweat rate for several hours, day in and day out. If you do a 40-minute morning jog or bike ride when it’s cool, and follow that up with a few minutes of indoor exercise in an air conditioned gym, you probably won’t have extra sodium requirements. But if you are banging out big WOD’s in the box, 50-mile bike rides, 15-mile runs, or 2-hour team sport practices, you’ll probably require some extra sodium in your diet. At roughly 2 grams of sodium per teaspoon of salt, we are talking about 3-5 teaspoons of salt per day in the truly athletic beast…at least on the days when you are really getting after it. Failure to get this much sodium can result in low-grade hyponatremia (low sodium levels), causing headache, fatigue, irritability, and decreased performance capacity. And in extreme cases of medical emergency, when athletes chug excessive amounts of plain water, they can dilute their blood sodium concentrations to fatal levels. There have been numerous athletic deaths in this very tragic instance.

We also have to make the assumption that every Lifetime Athlete is metabolically healthy. Otherwise, pounding a ton of salt may not be a good idea. In fact, my position is that one should not embark on truly hard training until lifelong health has been optimized. If a person eats a crap diet (not a PBD) with high amounts of processed and refined carbohydrates and seed oils, he/she will most likely have insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. This will cause the kidneys to retain sodium and not excrete excess in the urine — leading to increased blood plasma volume and the potential for hypertension. This is the “salt-sensitive hypertensive” profile for whom a low-sodium diet is most appropriate. But fixing the diet and metabolic health may very well eliminate the salt sensitivity and free this person for a healthier and more athletic existence. This isn’t medical advice, so check with your health care provider if you have questions. 

It’s probably worth bringing up the whole muscle cramp thang. There are a number of theories in operation, all of which have some degree of validity. Cramps can possibly be related to electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, and protective mechanisms in which the brain shuts down or locks up a muscle to prevent irreparable damage. Again, there is some substantiation for each of these, as well as other potential mechanisms. But here is the truth…we really don’t know what exactly causes muscle cramps in humans. Like the brilliant inner beast…it’s complex. But I can make an observation. After over 40 years in athletics, both training and competing as well as coaching and rehabbing, I’ve seen a lot of cramp-prone individuals become basically cramp-proof by increasing their salt intake. I’m not biased enough to believe that this is the only answer…but it’s definitely worth experimenting with some extra salt in the diet.

Quick story. Was at the track the other day with a few training partners. A fairly hot day for Montana and we were training in bright, arid conditions just before lunchtime. One of my comrades ripped a particularly fast 200m in spikes. We were recovering in the shade, sipping some water, when he let out a howl as his left calf balled up like a striated baseball. The dude was able to get his leg straight and let the cramp subside before he went into some type of Altered States contortion (it was close). I casually asked “Have you been eating enough salt?” He retorted “I put salt on my steak last night!” I suggested “Might not have been enough!” I won’t repeat what he said after that.

That example drives home a common situation. Even what you think is heavily salting your food may not provide enough sodium for the hot weather athlete. Sodium and fluid balance depend on threshold levels for proper function. Until you get enough…it’s not enough. And what you think is plenty, is paltry in some cases.

Here’s what I recommend. Get an estimate of how many teaspoons of salt you might need per day to support your hot weather training. Through trial and error, it will probably be 1-5 teaspoons. The trial part is basically adding in enough salt until you notice your hydration, urinary output, power, and recovery all seem to be ideal. The error part is if you go over, your healthy (assumption again) kidneys will just excrete the rest, plus a bit of disaster pants (I probably don’t need to describe what happens there). For athletes I coach, I tell them to spoon that amount into a small cup every morning, and then make sure it gets consumed throughout the day. Sodium-loading, as in taking a salt bolus pre-exercise, is one of my preferred methods. I just mix a teaspoon of salt into a few ounces of water, add a squeeze of lemon, and then shoot it. The lemon cuts the sea-water experience, and a few ounces of cold plain water as a chaser does the trick. Alternatively, I’ll mix a teaspoon of salt in a water bottle for sipping during a workout. 

Some athletes will swear by pickle juice or commercial electrolyte products. That’s all good, but many of those products do not have a high enough concentration of sodium. And trying to get your salt in some sports drinks can give you more sugar than you need (in some circumstances). I don’t recommend smashing a bag of chips or mixed nuts post-workout, as this comes with too many calories and an unhealthy dose of seed oils in most cases. Your body will instinctively keep eating (pounding) those products to hit your salt requirements (the body is brilliant) but it’s easier to just hammer the salt in liquid bolus, rapidly-absorbed forms. Or be really diligent about salting your food where that is palatable. And…if you are not training hard and often, and it’s not too hot…you probably don’t need to do all this salt-loading. But it can make a huge difference when you regularly do inferno workouts in a blast furnace. Let me know what you think!

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