The performance-enhancing benefits of salt, explained

-
The performance-enhancing benefits of salt, explained

A new study suggests that athletes who consume enough salt can jump farther, react faster and recover more quickly than those who don’t. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you probably sweat a lot. For more than ten years, SaltStick has served athletes who push the boundaries of human endurance in triathlon, running, cycling, hiking and other long-distance activities. These efforts require a copious amount of training, and with it, a well-designed nutrition plan that replaces calories, water and electrolytes in an optimal manner that sustains performance. Additionally, as we mentioned in our previous blog post about sports drinks, as training volume increases, nutritional precision must also increase or performance will break down. In other words, an athlete cannot rely on a universal standard to provide success and must instead tailor nutrient intake to his or her unique needs. As a follow up to this previous post, we have provided a summary of research recently published in the June 2018 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which suggests that tailoring an athlete’s hydration plan to his or her unique physiology can result in a variety of measurable performance improvements.

 

The study:

Scientists at Merrimack College in Massachusetts gathered 15 ice hockey, lacrosse and track & field athletes to test their hydration needs. As collegiate athletes, the participants displayed high levels of physical fitness and were currently engaged in practice routines that featured 45-minute to two-hour practices six days a week, sometimes twice a day. Most participants reported feeling somewhat or very dehydrated after a typical training session. To gather the data, the scientists measured athletes’ key performance statistics, such as jump distance and heart-rate recovery times, before randomly dividing participants into two groups. One group was instructed to hydrate with a personalized plan unique to each athlete, which was based on sweat rate and sodium concentrations that the researchers had previously measured. The other group was told to follow normal hydration protocol, which included drinking to thirst by consuming whatever beverage the participants preferred. Both groups participated in a normal afternoon or evening practice session for their respective sport, after which the researchers re-measured the key performance statistics. After seven days, the experiment was repeated again, but this time the groups switched protocols, with the personalized group relying on normal hydration practices and the control group adopting a personalized plan.

 

The results:

When participants followed a traditional hydration plan, their 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 normal hydration group. These results show that when athletes consumed enough salt, they were more explosive, more alert, and less fatigued after a hard workout.

 

Why this matters:

Every athlete recognizes the need to follow good hydration practices during exercise; however, there is currently much debate about what “good hydration practices” actually means. “There is no one universal hydration strategy that athletes can utilize to mitigate dehydration-associated performance declines because each individual sweats at a different rate and loses a unique amount of sodium through this sweat,” the authors write in the paper. As we’ve noted in previous blog posts, sweat rates and sodium concentrations can vary quite widely, and some endurance athletes’ sweat can include up to two grams of sodium per hour. Yet this pales in comparison to college sports such as American football. In a 2010 Journal of Athletic Training study, researchers found that some American football players can lose up to six grams of sodium per hour – nearly triple the rate of “heavy sweaters” in the endurance community. The difference is mainly due to increased body mass and high amount of clothing and equipment, which hampers sweat’s ability to evaporate and cool the body. In all cases, sodium concentration in sweat is typically much higher than what is found in sports drinks, due to taste considerations. An optimally-balanced solution would be more akin to seawater, and many manufacturers have opted to select flavor instead. “This prompts the question of whether it is worthwhile to create a hydration plan tailored to the individual athlete or if a more universal strategy is adequate,” write the authors of the June 2018 study.

 

It’s not just the carbs!

A second key takeaway from this study involves the researchers’ efforts to separate electrolytes from carbohydrates. Previous studies have examined the benefits of sports drinks to athletic performance, often concluding that these products do enhance output. However, many of these studies compare the drinks to plain water. Because sports drinks contain both electrolytes and carbohydrate, it is impossible to determine if the boost in performance is the result of more salt, more sugar or more of both. This study fixes that problem by only analyzing the difference in sodium and water consumption, removing carbohydrates from the picture and demonstrating the effectiveness of electrolytes by themselves. Of note, in a previous study that sought to isolate the impact of sodium consumption, researchers found similar results. Specifically, a 2015 scientific paper reported that triathletes who consumed adequate amounts of sodium in the form of SaltStick Caps finished middle-distance triathlon in an average of 26 minutes faster than those who relied on sports drinks alone. The mean time taken to complete the triathlon was 333 ± 40 min for the participants that ingested the placebo capsules during the race (i.e. the control group). The group of triathletes that ingested SaltStick capsules during the race completed it in a significantly lower race time (307 ± 32 min; P = 0.04). This 26 minutes difference is likely worth more than a few spots in the rankings! You can read more about that study here. Ultimately, all of this indicates that electrolytes play a crucial role in an athlete’s nutrition routine and cannot be overlooked. “For elite and amateur athletes looking for every possible safe method to improve performance, the results of this study support commercial sweat testing in order to develop optimal hydration strategies,” the authors conclude. “This may hold especially true for athletes engaged in longer sporting events such as a marathon or triathlon, where the loss of fluid through sweat is substantial. Based on these studies and others, the longer an event, the more critical it appears to be to have an adequate hydration plan in place that considers sweat rate and composition.

Conclusion:

We do recognize that this study, while significant, does have a few drawbacks. For instance, out of concern for rigorous practice schedules, researchers only measured the effect of the personalized hydration routine on athletes once per participant. Additionally, the study took place during the winter months of Massachusetts – quite different from the hot and humid summers familiar to most athletes. Still, even with these restrictions, the study adds to the growing body of evidence that electrolyte supplementation is vital to optimal performance, and a smart athlete will ensure it is part of his or her routine.