There’s been a stigma on salt since the mid-1960s. Sitcoms depict husbands sneaking salty food under the table, met by a scolding wife warning him about what the salt shaker will do to his blood pressure.
And it’s not sitcoms alone badmouthing salt. For decades, salt has been the enemy of health junkies and gym rats, ranked more dangerous than alcohol and sugars in the Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines, making a bland slab of grilled chicken the post-workout meal of choice.
But after my grueling twelve-mile workout this morning, I reached for bacon and eggs. Salt is what I crave when my training starts to ramp up. And, in reality, it’s what I need to recover as an athlete.
Despite the stigma around a high sodium diet, salt is a vital mineral for overall health, with or without exercise. According to neurobiologist Jeff Dale of the University of Missouri, the human body needs at least a teaspoon of salt a day even when completely sedentary. However, with heightened activity, we require greater amounts of sodium to keep our bodies functioning normally.
As Dr. Mark Jenky, director of the Rice University Sports Medicine explains, exercise releases large amounts of salt through sweat. After putting in the work at the gym or on the trail, our sodium stores become depleted which can cause hyponatremia— severe overhydration. [http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/endocrine-and-metabolic-disorders/electrolyte-disorders/hyponatremia] Without sodium, our bodies can’t process liquids, which increases the risk of heat stroke, dehydration and cramping no matter how much water is consumed.
Replenishing salt during exercise is critical for avoiding hyponatremia and side effects including nausea, body swelling, cramping and GI distress.
How Much Salt is Too Much?
The belief that salt can cause hypertension during exercise has been proven false. While too much salt in the body will cause acute dehydration of individual cells, over-salinated blood cells don’t usually last in an athlete’s blood stream during exercise. Studies have proven that instead, the body sweats to cool itself and loses excess salt in the process.
Sports Drinks, Water or Something Else?
On my long days of training, sometimes consisting of eight hour runs in the Rocky Mountains, ingesting salt pills is the most efficient way for me to replenish my sodium store and most effective way for me to stay hydrated. However, salt pills are unnecessary if your runs are under three hours, or if your workout doesn’t take an entire workday. Classic sports drinks have a relatively low level of sodium, perfect to aid recovery and rehydration during a shorter workout.
Real food is key for replenishing salt stores after exercise. While salt pills and sodium replacement supplements are convenient during exercise, full meals consisting of whole foods are usually loaded with additional naturally occurring electrolytes like potassium and chloride. Consuming sodium alongside other electrolytes will help your body regulate hormonal stresses during exercise better than it does when relying solely on a sodium-replenishing supplement.
So enjoy that plate of bacon and eggs. Your next workout will be better for it.