SODIUM PART OF A RUNNER’S NUTRITION
Pass The Salt?
Too much is bad for your health, too little hurts your running. How much do you need?
When you peel off a sweat-drenched shirt after a hard effort on a warm day, you know you need to rehydrate. The salty lines on your hat or shorts, however, paint a fuzzier picture. You may have a hankering for pretzels or potato chips, but if you’re like many runners, you pause in front of the pantry wondering if you should indulge the craving.
It’s hard not to feel conflicted about sodium. After all, too much salt is linked to high blood pressure. Even runners who avoid such salt bombs as packaged and fast foods still get all the NaCl they need without trying. The recommended daily allowance is just 2,300 milligrams (mg), and if you eat cereal for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and a midday handful of pretzels, your sodium intake would be at 1,600 mg–before dinner.
On the other hand, if it’s hot or if you’re training hard, you can sweat out a lot of salt–as much as 3,000 mg in an hour. Losing that much sodium may be bad news since it is essential to hydration. “Sodium helps regulate the body’s fluid levels,” says Bob Seebohar, R.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of Florida. The loss of salt is also connected to other running problems, including cramping and hyponatremia, a rare and potentially fatal condition in which overhydration leads to low blood-sodium levels. So how much salt should runners ingest?
The answer depends on a variety of factors, including the weather and your physiology. A heavy sweater who has a high salt concentration could lose 1,300 mg of sodium during a 5-K, whereas a light sweater might only lose 155 mg, says Kris Osterberg, R.D., of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute in Barrington, Illinois, one of the few places in the world that measures salt loss. Elite athletes take a salt test to know how much sodium to replace. All the rest of us need to do is look at our skin. If you can play tic-tac-toe in the white residue, consume a salty snack or a sports drink with about 200 mg of sodium per serving after a workout. “Eating something salty after a run can help the body rehydrate better,” says Seebohar.
Some runners, however, including back-of-the-pack marathoners, ultradistance runners, and triathletes, shouldn’t wait until the finish line to take in sodium. “Anyone on a course five hours or longer should replenish sodium midrun, especially when heat and humidity are high,” says Seebohar. When sodium levels drop, so does your thirst, which leads to dehydration. At the same time, studies have shown that replenishing sodium midrun may help to delay hyponatremia. Several manufacturers have recently developed sports drinks with higher sodium levels. But if your race isn’t serving one that contains the recommended 200 mg per serving, snacking on potato chips at an aid station or carrying salt tablets is an easy solution. Additional sodium, however, will not necessarily prevent hyponatremia. To avoid overdrinking, learn your sweat rate (go to runnersworld.com/sweatrate) and hydrate accordingly.
Sodium also enables nerve impulses to fire, and a lack of it can trigger cramping. If you’re a salty sweater and prone to cramps, eating a salty snack before your run and ingesting salt midrun can help.
So if you find yourself staring into the pantry, go ahead and reach for the pretzels. “It’s important for runners to listen to cravings,” says Seebohar. “They’re our body’s way of saying it needs salt.” In fact, runners can exceed the 2,300 mg mark, especially on days when they’re sweating a lot. If you take in more than you need, even on nontraining days, your body will eliminate the extra salt. “Sodium isn’t a big concern for runners unless they know they are hypertensive or have a family history of high blood pressure,” Seebohar says. Reach for savory foods that have additional health benefits (see “Best Salty Snacks,” right). You’ll not only satisfy your taste buds, but you’ll also get a dose of other beneficial nutrients. Just go easy on the beer chaser.
Reach for these good-for-you foods to satisfy salt cravings and get an added nutritional punch. While you’re at it, switch to sea salt, says nutritionist Bob Seebohar. It has more micronutrients, including zinc and iron, than regular table salt.
Black olives (6 olives, 200 mg) are a good source of monounsaturated fat, iron, and vitamin E.
Whole-grain pretzels (2 oz., 116 mg) count as one of three whole-grain servings recommended per day.
V-8 juice (1 8-oz. can, 590 mg) is a bargain at two servings of vegetables for a mere 50 calories.
Cheese (1 oz., 175 mg) typically supplies 20 percent of the RDA for calcium.
Deli turkey (28 g, 270 mg) packs in about five grams of protein.
Chicken-noodle soup (1 cup, 460 mg), homemade, provides a well-balanced meal of protein and carbohydrates.
Salted almonds (1 oz., 96 mg) are high in monounsaturated fat and vitamin E.