Salt and health have a strange relationship. We’re warned about our sodium intake with food, excising it from our diets could be just as hazardous. Most people struggle with having too much salt in their diets, but athletes–particularly runners–have a different struggle. Runners tend to have lower sodium levels, requiring them to take salt tablets to supplement the loss.
What Do Salt Tablets Do For Runners?
Sweating is usually a good thing for runners–especially those who use running to help them lose weight. But your sweat contains sodium, which you need to maintain your blood pressure–the way water travels through the body. When used as an ingredient, salt tends to make food taste better. Of course, too much sodium in your diet increases the likelihood of high blood pressure. In turn, high blood pressure can lead to diabetes, heart attack, blood clots, kidney damage, and stroke.
While many people struggle with high blood pressure, most runners struggle with the opposite–they struggle with low blood pressure. You see, sodium is an electrolyte. They’re comprised of sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and chloride. Electrolytes not only regulates the movement of fluid in cells, but also nerve and muscle function. When runners run, they sweat. And sweat is filled with salt. Your daily sodium intake should be approximately 2,300 milligrams. Not accounting for factors like hot weather and the different amount people tend to sweat, runners can lose approximately 3,000 milligrams in a one hour run. So this is where salt pills come in.
What are the effects of low electrolytes?
The lack of sodium has unique effects. Streaks of white salt deposits can find their way onto your skin and workout clothes. That means you’re losing a lot of salt. You may have a sudden hankering for salty foods–potato chips, pretzels, french fries, etc.–along with other physical effects.
During your runs, you should always remain hydrated. Water, believe it or not, may not be the best source. Too much water in your body and not enough salt creates a dangerous imbalance. You’re not only avoiding replenishing necessary electrolytes, but the increase of water in your body will dilute the electrolytes you still have, decreasing their efficacy and enabling fatigue to set in faster. When you’re losing a heavy amount of salt you’ll notice the streaks on your skin and clothes, as well as puffiness in your fingers, toes, and around your joints.
For long-distance runners and those preparing for marathons, you’ll likely be sweating more than most. Those doing speed-play exercises will also have high exertion levels. Your electrolytes will literally be pouring out of you. When your electrolyte levels drop too much, you’ll experience premature fatigue in your muscles, and likely have to stop your run early. That’s why sports drinks advertise heavy doses of electrolytes–to help you sustain your run longer.
Over time, if you don’t replenish your sodium to an optimal level, you might develop hyponatremia. Symptoms include vomiting, confusion, dizziness, and muscle spasms. In extreme cases, it can cause seizures, coma, and even death.
Why You Should Seriously Consider Salt Tablets
Take a look around any fitness supply store. Besides creatine and powders and a lot of different forms of snake oil, you’ll find many brands of salt tablets. Athletes often use them to retain the sodium levels they need to keep moving forward. Hell, there’s a great line in King of the Hill, where sour Coach Sauers glares at his players and tells them to take a salt tablet whenever they complain about pain and fatigue. It was dismissive, yes, but it was a reasonable method of keeping his players in the game. Sure, chasing after them in his car wasn’t the best method of making them run faster, but that’s a different argument entirely.
While each brand is different, salt pills generally contain chloride, potassium, phosphate, bicarbonate and along with sodium and assorted other electrolytes to keep you moving and to keep your levels under control. Potassium is also key in helping your body stave off cramps. While that might be a cue for some of you to buy your weight in bananas, you’ll probably get more results from the concentrated potassium in a tablet than a handful of bananas.
Of course, the biggest question surrounding salt tablets is, unfortunately, the most complicated one.
Do salt tablets actually work for runners?
Well, yes. They do. But you don’t always need them.
As a rule of thumb, if your run is less than an hour, you probably don’t need salt tablets. A bit of Gatorade or one of its many equivalents should do the trick.
As we said earlier, long-distance and marathon runners tend to have low sodium levels. They’re the best candidates for salt tablets. But they shouldn’t be taken in a vacuum. They’re a supplement after all. And they pay dividends.
Electrolyte-heavy sports drinks alongside salt tablets can improve your marathon performance. In 2015, the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports conducted a double-blind study. One group of athletes were given sports drinks and table salt before and during an Ironman 70.3. The other group was given a placebo.
Those given the electrolytes and salt before and during the triathlon improved their race times by approximately eight percent. They also experienced less of a drop in body weight. The salt stimulated thirst, which in turn, led to greater hydration during the 70.3. The salt allowed them to retain more of their fluids, making rehydration easier.
The Downside of Salt Tablets for Runners
Well, there had to be one, didn’t there? Moderation is key with salt pills, and moderating them can be difficult. Remember how we said the athletes who were given the salt during the triathlon were thirstier? Well, let’s say you take your salt tablet. You’re going to be thirsty. You can have an electrolyte-heavy sports drink, but electrolyte tablets, powders, and gels are more effective and concentrated than the drinks. You’ll still be thirsty. The sports drinks will only give you more of what the salt tablet has: electrolytes.
That means you could end up having an abundance of sodium in your system. That’ll cause bloating while the water in your body tries to dilute the overabundance of salt in your body. To avoid this, you should drink water. Of course, too much water can then dilute the sodium too much and since you’re so thirsty from the heavy dosage of salt, you drink an increased amount of water, causing stomach discomfort as you continue to run.
In short, if you underdose your sodium, your performance will suffer; if you overdose, your stomach will be in tatters.
Balancing the Salt Equation
This is a tough one. There are too many personal variables we can’t account for. People sweat at different rates. Age, gender, diet, and weight are all contributing factors in determining the correct sodium dosage you should take.
But we do have some suggestions.
The first is trial and error. Like we said, too much will cause stomach discomfort and too little will see your results falter.
Second, you can use your time as a baseline. Let’s say your run is going to be two hours. You need a gram of salt for every hour you plan to run. Of course, this is just a baseline. The aforementioned factor may need you to increase or decrease the tablets as you go, which brings the whole trial and error thing back into it. You can add more sports drinks into the mix, but they usually only contain a small portion–roughly 220 milligrams of sodium per serving, so you’d be spending money and filling yourself with empty calories with little return.
If you have time, there are more precise methods. If you can track down a sports lab in your area, they can offer you a sweat test. During the test, the technicians will measure how many electrolytes you lose during an average run. They can use that information to create a custom hydration/electrolyte plan.
A more convenient method might be going through Leven™. They provide individual sweat test kits that can be shipped to your door. You fill up the packets with sweat, send them back for testing, and in return, Leven will provide you with a hydration/electrolyte plan that will work best for your body. They take different sports and athletes who engage in multiple sports into account and provide different types of sweat tests to accommodate that.
Of course, both going to a lab or ordering a sweat test kit will cost you money, more money than trial and error, but you would be paying for the specificity, accuracy, and convenience.
Salt tablets are a benefit to distance runners. If you’re considering giving them a try, remember, as it is with anything, moderation is key.
And there you have it: everything you need to know about salt tablets.
Let us know if you have any questions or concerns in the comments below.