Public health officials say that a low-sodium diet lowers blood pressure and helps you live a healthy lifestyle—and for the average Joe, that’s true. But what about the football player dripping with sweat after a long, hot practice? Or the ultra endurance runner who is concerned about fatalities related to low sodium in the blood? The sodium needs of athletes are different from those of couch potatoes.
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Sodium helps maintain fluid balance and blood pressure in the body. Muscle tissue and neurons are activated by electrolyte (sodium) activity; and if you don’t have sufficient levels of sodium in your body, your muscles weaken and you can get cramps.
The average person is advised to consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily, which is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of salt. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Americans consume an average of 3,436 mg of sodium daily, much higher than the recommended amount. Some experts believe the number is even larger, between 5,000 and 10,000 mg daily. For the average overweight, sedentary American, this amount of sodium increases blood pressure and can accelerate aging.
For athletes, the parameters are different. You lose a lot of sodium when you sweat. Replenishing it is essential to maintaining athletic performance and avoiding health problems. Learn more about why athletes need more sodium.
Studies following football players and tennis players found sodium losses ranging from 800 to 8,500 mg over two hours and 2,700 to 12,000 mg over one hour, respectively. Unconditioned athletes and those not acclimated to hot weather typically lost the most sodium. Athletes exercising over several hours, especially in hot environments, need to replenish their fluid and electrolyte levels consistently before, during and after exercise.
Fluid and electrolyte replacement is highly variable and should be tailored for each athlete. Unless you’re working with a lab to analyze your sweat, you have to determine your needs through trial and error. A good baseline suggestion comes from the American College of Sports Medicine: 500-700 mg/L of sodium per hour. If you notice salt streaks on your clothes, you probably need more.
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Here’s a snapshot of how you should fuel up with salt when you’re preparing for a game or practice:
30 minutes prior to exercise
Consume 16-20 ounces of fluid together with carbohydrates and sodium/electrolytes from food or sports drinks. Generally speaking, sports drinks contain around 440 mg/L sodium per liter, so you might want to consider consuming an electrolyte gel, as well. You can also add a salty snack like pretzels, popcorn or crackers.
Drink 6-8 ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes from water and sports drinks. Your goal is to consume 30-60 grams of carbohydrates every hour, along with the recommended 500-700ml/L of sodium. This can be done through sports drinks, gels or salty snacks.
Weigh yourself before and after training. For every pound of weight you lose, you need to compensate by drinking 16-24 ounces of water. The next time you exercise under similar conditions, add that much more to prevent fluid loss in the future. If you lose two pounds during exercise, chug an extra 48 ounces during your next practice.
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Fueling Strategies For The Long Term
Eating additional salty foods before and during activities spanning several days or weeks is also important. As such, you should add foods high in sodium to your plate in the two weeks leading up to training camps in the hot sun. Options include pretzels, peanuts, whole grain crackers, popcorn, soup, beans and tuna. You should continue munching on these during camp, as well, to keep adequate sodium in your blood.
Low sodium levels in your blood is a condition referred to as hyponatremia. Minor symptoms include nausea and muscle cramps, which can usually be treated by eating salty foods or drinking a sports drink. Severe symptoms, like seizures or loss of consciousness, require urgent medical treatment. Working with a sports dietitian and a physician is recommended to ensure proper hydration and electrolyte balance during prolonged events and to tailor your sodium intake based on any health conditions.