Have you prepared your endurance goals for the New Year? Learn how a well-balanced electrolyte routine could help you break through to the next level. To an endurance athlete, December may be one of the most important times of the year. The absence of available races means there is little chance for a PR, and long training sessions have usually wound down to maintenance mode. This creates a unique opportunity to reflect on the past season and develop a strategy to enhance success next year. As you consider your upcoming plans, remember that athletic performance is largely determined by three things: sufficient physical conditioning, a motivated mindset and a well-balanced nutrition plan. Great athletes maximize all three to consistently make progress. Combined, these subjects have filled entire books, and for the purposes of this article, we are limiting our focus to nutrition.
Nutrition plan fundamentals
Like the factors driving performance, nutrition can also be divided into three core elements: water, calories and electrolytes. Insufficient or unbalanced intake of these groups will inevitably come at the cost of maintaining physical output. In other words, you’ll “bonk,” “hit the wall,” “run out of gas,” or any other euphemism that simply means you cannot keep going at the same pace. While most athletes do consume a mix of water, calories and electrolytes during training and racing, rarely does this happen in a structured way. Instead, it is more common to grab a sports drink before a long run or reach for a packet of gels during a bike ride—with little connection to an overall plan. While these are helpful steps, over time, an unstructured or unbalanced nutritional routine can cause issues. For instance, sweat typically has about 1,000 mg sodium/liter, but due to concerns about taste, a typical sports drink has only 440 mg sodium/liter. Otherwise, the product would taste like seawater. Simple math illustrates that if, during the course of training, you ingest nothing but sports drinks (or worse, water), your electrolyte stores will become too low compared to your water stores, a medical condition known as hyponatremia. In the best cases, hyponatremia causes a drop in performance. In the worst cases, it can lead to severe headaches, nausea, coma or even death. Beyond safety concerns, there are a number of peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate a clear link between poor electrolyte consumption and decreased performance.
Electrolytes and performance
In 2015, researchers at Camilo José Cela University (UCJC) divided 26 medium-distance triathletes into two groups. One group completed a middle-distance triathlon (1.2 miles swimming, 56 miles biking, 13.1 miles running) consuming sports drink, but also consuming SaltStick Caps to help replace sodium. The second group completed the same distance while consuming sports drink, but they received a placebo capsule with no extra sodium. Researchers were aiming to replace about 70% of sodium in the first group, but only about 20% in the second group (the difference solely due to SaltStick). After the race, researchers found the athletes who consumed the SaltStick Caps finished in an average of 26 minutes faster. The increase in speed usually came from improved cycling and running times, which come later in the race after electrolyte levels begin to decline. The results were published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. You can read more about this study in our blog post here. A few years later, in 2018, Scientists at Merrimack College in Massachusetts gathered 15 ice hockey, lacrosse and track & field athletes to test their hydration needs, again splitting them into two groups. For one week of afternoon practices, one group hydrated with a personalized plan unique to each athlete, based on the athletes’ sweat rate and sodium concentrations. The other group hydrated by drinking to thirst. After seven days, the groups were switched and the experiment was repeated. Within the control groups (i.e. the athletes who drank to thirst), jump distances and awareness times expectedly worsened following a moderate to hard training session of 45 minutes to two hours, depending on the sport. However, when participants followed a personalized plan, they jumped a statistically-significant five inches farther, tracked moving objects at around 0.36 m/second faster, and exhibited shorter heart-rate recovery times, compared to the control group. These results were published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. You can read more about this study in our blog post here. In both cases, the evidence lines up: By ensuring a balanced intake of electrolytes, athletes can reduce the severity of performance decreases that accompany long-distance events. There are physical limits to how much nutrition an athlete's digestive system can absorb during exercise, meaning given enough time, some amount of performance decline is inevitable. But the right nutrition plan can significantly mitigate its impact.