It’s been close to a year since I wanted to write this article. Ever since I cramped like there is no tomorrow back at Cheaha 50k in February last year (and I NEVER cramp). I then repeated the same extreme seizing of every muscle in the lower body, from lower back to toes and everything in-between, 10 feet before crossing the finish line at McDonald Forest 50k in May. Had to research the subject. My interest was also spiked in years prior, when I had extreme bloating during a 50M mountain race – and solved it, by intuition, by laying OFF salt for two hours and flushing my guts with water only.
What am I talking about? Salt. What salt, how much salt, and when not to.
When we talk about consumer salt, we’re talking about NaCl (Sodium Chloride) – table salt. This is the main component that is responsible for water absorption in cells, necessary for maintaining body fluid levels, and body temperature regulation. Sodium helps absorption of carbohydrates through the wall of the small intestine.
But there is more. Many of us have, also, heard about KCl – Potassium Chloride (Eat bananas!), and that is a second ingredient in the cell buffering system.
This is not all either!
We need Sodium and Potassium Citrate to work as neutralizing and buffering agents to maintain pH of the cell and intra-cellular liquid. Then there is Magnesium – aids in releasing energy from muscle storage and helps regulate body temperature. Also Manganese – trace amounts are needed for enzyme reactions in muscle cells and it helps convert protein and fatty acids into energy, therefore, not necessary in 100% carbohydrate products.
Why this Chemistry info? You need all of those components and in a certain combination/amounts to be able to maintain fluid level in your body (inside the cells and outside), maintain pH of blood and cellular liquid, which in turn is needed for aiding absorption of fluids and calories, to be able to allow the signal in neurotransmitters to go from muscle to neurons and back to prevent muscle cramping, fatigue, nausea, bloating, diarrhea, and so much more.
I will not get you into any more details. Instead, I’ll tell you why I finally sat down for this article. One word – Bandera.
Year in and year out I get emails after each of the races I volunteer at and how I “saved their race” or “solved the problems” of so many runners. And I am not alone – we have many extremely knowledgeable volunteers helping at the aid stations. And the biggest mistake – runners do not read (or care to even raise a question) about the label on their “salt pill”. In general most of the runners by now are aware –one needs to take salt to run well (I will not be going into controversial conversation happening lately in many running-related media publications how we can maintain our sodium levels naturally without consuming extra – maybe, prove it to me with something besides science chat, bring examples, and definitely NOT in Texas races!). I will focus on comparing salt delivery systems we as runners have available to us so when we do take it – we know what’s in it, and when we run into problem, we can figure out in a simple way what to add.
First those who came up with “salt pill” substitute needed to figure blood levels of the elements we discussed so we know what we are replacing and then losses of said elements in sweat while exercising.
Athletes who sweat heavily lose more sodium than light sweaters. The amount of sodium in sweat averages about 500 mg sodium/lb sweat (and ranges from 220 to 1,100 mg) If you lose two pounds of sweat per hour for four hours of intense biking, tennis, football practices, etc., your sodium losses become significant (4,000 mg). You should eat salty foods to replace the losses. So, technically, the best way to determine YOUR sweat content is to weigh yourself before and after the run, done in the same condition that your race is going to be (include water consumed into calculations).
Some of us have done that, some – not into it. Let’s average those numbers and say as an adult of 130-150 lbs you lose one pound of sweat at the temperatures of 60-80F during a one hr run, and that will estimate your Sodium loss as 300-400 mg. I will stick with this number, and then you play with it. Potassium is considered about 4-5 times less of a number (roughly) at 40-80 mg (same conditions). And let’s just say traces of Magnesium and Manganese for now.
Without further adieu, the Table of known electrolyte replacement ideas out there.
Note to self: when running Tejas Trails events, and, in fact, most of the events unless advertised at the event website, the “salt pill” you see at the table is Endurolytes from Hammer Nutrition. Hammer is the major distributor and supporter and the cheaper one for race directors to purchase, BUT be aware: the dose is 4 (FOUR) tablets – thus is why so many “run” into problems, when they are certain they are taking one salt tab (assuming S!Caps) per hour.
First, the easiest: Salt pill varieties.
For the table above, remember: the dosage has to coincide NOT ONLY with time (say, 1 tab per hour), BUT WITH YOUR WATER INTAKE! To maintain your electrolyte BALANCE you need both water and salt. That said, if it’s cold outside and you drink LESS than 16-20 oz water/liquid, adjust your salt intake accordingly!
Maybe that’s why some companies came with salt tabs that get diffused/dissolved in a water bottle – this way the dosage stays the same per ounces of consumed liquid. Let’s investigate those.
Table for salt-containing tabs that get dissolved in your water bottle, 16-20 oz.
Some companies make calorie-replacing drinks that contain salt as well, below are the most common:
Last source for salt (and calories) – surprise – gels!
While the majority of gels (like Hammer Nutrition, V-fuel, Gu, Cliff shot, etc) have on average 40-90 mg of Sodium, there ARE gels out there that have as much as suggested hourly norm of Sodium (and some have Potassium) that you have to be aware of when combining your fueling and electrolytes. I have a personal story where I totally blew my salt by over-taking it while combining Powergels and NUUN. I also have a story where I claimed I ran Bighorn 100M in 95F, at altitude, on no salt – when my nutrition contained Powergels and e-Fuel Crank Sport gels. Yep, they both contain Sodium.
More on gels can be found here (Runner’s World article).
More sodium talk by ultra runners on UltRunR.com.
I like Salt Stick because it is the most similar to human sweat. For the average person, 1-2 per hour is a good bet, except when it is very hot, then more are needed.
Now, let me say a few words about magnesium. It is essential in order to keep your gut moving. Basically, too much magnesium and you will get diarrhea and too little and your gut stops and you will need to throw up. Everyone has a different constitution so trial and error will tell you how much magnesium you need. Those with very touchy systems tell me sCaps! work better because there is NO magnesium. You DO get magnesium from almost any food you consume, and this is enough for some people.
Don’t forget that you also get electrolytes in gels and things like that. But, if your kidneys are working well, it is better to have a little too much salt than not enough.
What else to end this compilation of data? READ Karl King’s website!
While he is the maker of Succeed! Caps, this great link tells you symptoms of over-salting and under-salting and you can figure things out from there.
– Olga King
Additional Article Sources:
I have a feeling this topic will open up all kinds of opinions and experiences. Which it should because it is that mix of art and science to find what works for the individual.
Feel free to comment and share.
How do you approach your electrolyte intake?
Do you have an experience where removing or adding electrolytes seemed to make things better or worse?
Do you have a favorite non-supplement source to get your electrolytes during a race?