A blog by runners. For runners.

Do runners need more salt?

do runners need more salt than other people?

Believe it or not, salt (sodium) is a vital nutrient. It’s essential for hydration because it helps regulate your body’s fluid levels.

Salt often gets a bad rap, though, because most Americans consume much more than the 2,300mg per day recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Too much salt has been linked with high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack.

However, there’s a group of people who often need more salt than the health guidelines call for. You guessed it – runners!

The lowdown on runners’ sodium needs
Sodium is lost through sweat. When we lose too much salt, our performance can suffer. You may cramp up or feel weak. In rare cases, a dangerous condition called hyponatremia can occur if the salt to water ratio in the body becomes unbalanced. Note that this is caused by drinking too much water, not by taking in too little salt.

So, how much salt do you need?

Distance runners’ salt needs vary. It’s impossible to know a precise amount unless you’re a pro – elite athletes take a salt test to know exactly how much salt they lose. But there’s a pretty basic way to know if you need salt during exercise – look at your skin and clothes. If there’s a thin coat of white, you’re a salty sweater.

Salty sweaters can lose a lot of salt – up to 3,000mg of sodium per hour in hot and humid conditions (salt loss is greater in heat and humidity because we sweat more). A typical sports beverage contains nowhere near that amount of sodium – regular Gatorade has 160mg of sodium per 12oz.

Don’t sweat – there’s no need replenish all the sodium you lose through sweat, though. In fact, studies show that there is no difference between runners’ performance when using a typical sports beverage vs. a high sodium one. Keep in mind that high sodium sports drinks also aren’t protective against hyponatremia since the condition is caused by drinking too much water, regardless of salt intake. In fact, taking in too much salt can be bad for your health because it can hinder your body’s ability to hydrate.

The take home message
What’s a sweaty runner to do? In most cases, nothing special. For the majority of us, consuming sports drinks and foods containing electrolytes (think gels and chews) before, during, and after a run is plenty. During a marathon, drink when you’re thirsty but choose sports drinks over water at aid stations so that your electrolyte levels stay balanced. Aim to consume 200mg of sodium after a workout if you’re a salty sweater.

But if you’re an ultra runner, triathlete, or back-of-the-pack marathoner who will be on the course for more than 5 hours, you may need more than sports drinks and typical running fuel to replenish lost sodium. Snack on pretzels or potato chips on the course and consider taking salt tablets. Be mindful when taking salt tablets, though. Experts don’t agree on whether they’re helpful or harmful. Follow the directions on the package carefully.

If you notice that you want more salty snacks during marathon training, listen to your body and give in to the craving – your body likely needs the salt. Don’t worry about your day-to-day salt intake too much. Going over the daily recommended intake is OK for most runners, unless you have risk factors for high blood pressure. Just try to choose healthier salty snacks, like almonds, black olives, and lean deli meats.

Written by Jen Matz.