Athletes Need Sodium!

August 18, 2015
Young athlete drinking water

We are told that we all need to cut back on the salt. And for most people – this is very prudent advice – especially those who are inactive or eating highly processed diets – which generally delivers too much salt.  Excess dietary salt can increase blood pressure, which is linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart attacks, and can also strain the kidneys. For high risk people, cutting back on high salt foods and increasing the intake of potassium-rich foods could reduce stroke by 21% studies show. (Read: Shifting the balance of sodium and potassium).  Often – just cutting way back on processed foods can accomplish that! 

But is a ‘healthy low salt diet‘ – truly healthier for everyone?

Certain people might actually need more sodium than they are getting – including those suffering from adrenal fatigue/hypofunction, chronically low blood pressure, and endurance athletes.

Sodium is an Electrolyte

Salt is a combination of sodium and chloride – which are two important electrolytes. Electrolytes are electrically charged ions in our blood – they regulate our fluids balance, blood pressure, are needed for the proper functioning of nerves and muscles, and energy production – they are kind of like our ‘spark plugs.’ When an athlete works out – they sweat – which means they lose fluids and electrolytes. So if an athlete gets depleted of electrolytes (including sodium) – they could start to feel fatigued, weak, sore and generally could run out of steam. If allowed to progress – it can become more serious, even life-threatening.

If an athlete has worked out hard for more than an hour – especially in hot conditions – plain water is not likely enough to properly and fully rehydrate. In fact, guzzling a lot of plain water when someone is dehydrated can lead to a condition called hyponatremia – which is a low concentration of sodium in the blood.  Generally chronic hyponatremia (which develops more gradually) produces milder symptoms, while the acute type can be very serious, potentially leading to brain swelling and coma. According to the Mayo Clinic, “A normal sodium level is between 135 and 145 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L). Hyponatremia occurs when sodium levels fall below 135 mEq/L.”

Dehydration can cause muscle aches/cramps, headache, and nausea. If caught early when symptoms are mild, these generally will respond to a rehydration drink or salty/mineral-rich foods paired with water. But if an athlete displays any signs of serious dehydration or hyponatremia – including disorientation, slurred speech, weakness, or strange behavior – seek medical treatment immediately as it can be a life-threatening situation.

Some signs you could be deficient in organic sodium – muscle weakness, spasms, or cramping; loss of flexibility; headaches/migraines; heart burn or digestive issues; stiff or painful joints; fatigue; restless legs; osteoporosis; and hardening of the arteries.

Not all salt is created equal

Foods with naturally occurring organic sodium or a high quality unprocessed salt like pink Himalayan, Celtic, or Real Salt brand are not the same as table salt.  Processed table salt typically has anti-caking agents, and processing removes all of the trace minerals, which makes the remaining sodium and chloride less bio-available to the body – and it is more difficult to excrete excesses too.   It may not be possible to always get the good quality salt – but it is the only kind we use in our house. Note: unprocessed salt generally should have some color – pink, grey, etc.  Potassium-rich foods help to balance out our sodium levels.

  • Food sources of sodium include soups/broths, jerky, traditional fermented foods (like kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles), seaweed snacks, celery, salted nuts/nut butters, coconut products, organic corn chips with salsa, and also sports drinks (just avoid the ones with artificial colorings and flavorings).
  • Food sources of potassium include winter squash, sweet potato, banana, avocado, coconut water, tomato sauce, spinach, yogurt, orange juice, sports drinks and replenishers.

Be Prepared.

The best thing for an athlete to do – is to follow the good ole’ boy scout motto – and be prepared. Come to your workouts and competitions well-hydrated, and have everything you need in your bag to stay that way.

  • Get in the routine of having at least a full 8 oz. glass of water first thing after arising every morning. If you had a hard workout the day before – put a pinch of high quality “real” salt in there, and you could also squeeze in the juice from 1/4 – 1/2 of a lemon (or another citrus fruit). I also like to add trace mineral drops too.
  • A good hydrating pre-workout meal or snack would be a smoothie made with 1 cup of coconut water, 1 tablespoon chia seeds, 1/2 – 1 cup of berries, a half or whole banana and a pinch of high quality unprocessed salt like pink Himalayan, Celtic, or Real Salt brand (brings out the flavors and sweetness too). Another good addition would be half an avocado, or a spoonful of nut butter. Add ice to thicken.
  • Another pre-workout snack could be chia pudding, with some berries and hemp hearts or chopped nuts – and a pinch of good salt – this can be made the night before and grabbed on the way out the door!
  • Avocado toast is another good option – spread 1/2 an avocado on top of your gluten free or sprouted organic toast and sprinkle some Real Salt on top. My kids love this snack for before workouts!
  • Post workout – a protein smoothie is ideal – 1 cup of coconut water, add in a half a scoop of protein powder (I like Warrior Blend vanilla), a Tablespoon of raw cacao powder, 1/2 or a whole banana, a handful of baby spinach, a spoonful of raw honey or agave, a pinch of salt, and some ice. Other good post-workout options are an acai or pitaya bowl, a fresh pressed juice with a handful of nuts, chocolate almond milk, or a coconut water and some nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Magnesium is another important electrolyte – and cacao (chocolate) is an excellent source.
  • Another option is to put a tablespoon of chia seeds and half a scoop of protein powder into a 16 oz. of coconut water after a workout – shake it up and let it hydrate for a few mins before drinking – I call it the “quick pick me up” drink.
  • Get your fruits & veggies! A diet high in plant-based foods supports hydration. Read: Hydrating foods to beat the heat.

Products to consider packing in your bag:

  • Clif Shot Blok – I like these because they are made with organic ingredients, contain no artificial colorings or preservatives, and use Real Salt brand (high quality unprocessed salt). The margarita flavor contains higher levels of sodium than the others (150 mg). These also help to replenish depleted glycogen stores too. Careful – some flavors do contain caffeine, so read the label carefully.
  • Skratch Labs – This brand uses real food ingredients, and doesn’t have the artificial coloring or preservatives, and is easy on the stomach. They also have 3 levels of hydration products – a “daily electrolyte” mix (100 mg. of sodium) for after a light workout, an “exercise hydration” product (350 mg of sodium) for after an intense training session, and also a “rescue hydration” product – that can be used in cases of diarrhea and more serious dehydration (750 mg of sodium). Read more about their Rescue Hydration product.
  • Coconut water – is an excellent source of potassium, a good source of sodium and 3 other electrolytes. Note: Sodium content will vary slightly between brands.
  • Sea weed snacks (40-65 mg of sodium per pack) – check out the chipotle flavor from Sea Snax!
  • Jerky (350 mg. of sodium) – brands that use higher quality ingredients that I like are Krave, Field Trip, and Tanka (no nitrates, preservatives or antibiotics or hormones used)

You could also make your own homemade sports drink by combining 8 oz water (or coconut water), with 8 oz. fresh juice (such as orange), 1/8 tsp high quality salt (300 mg of sodium), and 1/2 tsp honey or your favorite natural sweetener. Here are some other homemade sports drink recipes to consider trying too.

Some other considerations:

  • Athletes suffering from digestion issues (such as loose stools) should not ignore those issues – they could make them more prone to dehydration, nutrient depletion, fatigue, and also could be contributing to chronic inflammation, which can lead to repetitive injuries. If there are chronic digestion issues I highly recommend having a food intolerance panel run as well as a stool test to check for infection, parasite or bacterial imbalance. Another good test would be a Spectracell micronutrient test – to see if there are already micronutrient deficiencies.
  • Athletes should not train if they have had diarrhea or vomiting within the past 48 hours – because in addition to potentially being contagious, it could raise their risk for dehydration. Get well and rehydrated before getting back into your workouts. Working out when you are depleted could actually set your training back.
  • Young athletes should stay hydrated all day long while at school or camp. Unfortunately, not all teachers allow water bottles in class or on desks. It is a surprisingly common practice for teachers to restrict bathroom breaks because they find them disruptive. If your child says they are not allowed to have water bottles on their desk, or use the bathroom when needed – talk to the teacher or principal – and let them know your child is an athlete and needs to stay hydrated throughout the day.

Research shows that the majority of kids today are chronically dehydrated, with 1/4 of all kids drinking no water all day long! Young athletes need to take their hydration seriously. One reason that kids may not be drinking enough water – is because they are not thirsty! You might find that adding a little more sodium-rich foods to the diet can help to re-stimulate the thirst mechanism. On hot days, I often put a small pinch of Real Salt in my kids water bottle that they bring to school, especially the morning after a hard workout. I also like to use a trace mineral supplement called SpectraMin which contains 63 ionic trace minerals and helps support hydration, it also pairs well with a product called Rehydration – which together helps to encourage thirst and get the fluids and electrolytes into the cells.

Some additional reading/articles:


Sara Vance Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book
The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.

*This article is for educational purposes only. The content contained in this article is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons with questions about the above content as how it relates to them, should contact their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before making any changes to their supplements or medications.

©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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