To Salt or Not To Salt?

Salt generally gets a bad rap, given that high sodium diets are linked to quite a few health problems like high blood pressure and ultimately, heart disease. But that doesn’t mean that all salt should be avoided, and rings especially true for athletes. 

Since athletes are engaging in a lot of physical activity and producing a ton of sweat, they actually pose the threat of not having enough sodium in their bloodstream. So, it makes sense that athletes have different necessities when it comes to sodium intake. When we sweat, we lose sodium, therefore making it apparent that high intensity activities that make us sweat will require a replenishment of sodium.

A little bit about salt

Salt is made of two electrolytes (electrically charged particles): sodium and chloride. Sodium is what is responsible for maintaining the right balance of water inside and outside of your cells, as well as in your blood. As you can imagine, that balance is pretty important.

While exercising, if you’re hydrating a lot (which is important, obviously), you can eventually run into the problem of diluting the amount of sodium outside of your cells. Because water wants to move from an area of high concentration of water (outside of the cells, in this case) to an area of low concentration of water (inside the cells in this example), water will rush into those cells and cause them to swell. And this happens in the brain, too, which is where symptoms like feeling weak, groggy, nauseous, and incoherent come into play. If this is too extreme, athletes can even stumble around, experience seizures, end up in a coma, or at worst, have fatal consequences. 

This is referred to as hyponatremia and it is extremely dangerous.

How to avoid and prevent hyponatremia

  • Drink a sodium-containing sports drink not just after exercise, but during long bouts of physical activity and bursts of high intensity 
  • Load up on salty foods before and after a competition
  • Get to know your own fluid/sodium needs – there is no end-all-be-all approach for every athlete
  • Have an idea of how much fluid you’re losing before and after exercise by weighing yourself to gauge a baseline
  • Increase your salt intake by around 10-25 grams per day on the days leading up to competition 
  • Steer clear of things like aspirin and ibuprofen because these medicines have been linked to increasing the risk of hyponatremia in athletes

As an athlete, all food groups, nutrients, and minerals are extremely important. Finding out the appropriate balance for your lifestyle and sport is key. A marathon runner, an Olympic lifter, or a lacrosse player each has differing needs, so pay attention to your body and never underestimate the power of sodium!