Salt – beneficial in sport, but dangerous for your health?
Various nutrients are a major point of contention in the field of nutrition, and salt is one of them. While in endurance sports, salt supplements are frequently offered, health authorities warn against excessive consumption of salt. So whom should you listen to?
No salt means no life
Salt is a crystal consisting of sodium and chloride, the actual nutrients contained in salt. Both sodium and chloride are indispensable for a normal metabolism. Amongst other things, they're responsible for maintaining your blood volume, the transmission of signals along cell walls and the transport of other nutrients, such as glucose.
In general, the need for sodium and chloride is described as a need for salt, as salts constitute the primary source of both nutrients. Your need for salt rises as you expel large amounts of sweat, while the salt contents of sweat varies significantly – from about 1 to 4 g per litre (on average about 2 g/L).
What do health authorities say?
Maximum daily salt intake is generally indicated to be 5 g a day. In many countries, however, salt consumption is significantly higher, such as in Switzerland, at about 9 g per day. Too much salt is attributed to causing high blood pressure and thus increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. By reducing salt consumption, it is hoped to achieve lower blood pressure and therefore lower risk of heart disease. The scientific reality, however, paints a different picture...
The current range of studies on reducing salt consumption has established no notable benefit with regard to cardiovascular diseases. Moreover, according to these studies, proper salt intake is not found to be less than 5 g, but rather between 7.5 and 12.5 g, a day. In other words, this would imply that the current strategies for lowering salt consumption not only fail to achieve the desired effect, but are superfluous… This is also good to know with regard to endurance sports. After all, in endur-ance sports as well, athletes frequently go easy on the salt shaker, due to warnings against exces-sive salt consumption. That said, particularly in the field of endurance sports, athletes’ need for salt is often high due to increased sweat secretion.
When should you use salt in endurance sports?
Salt tablets are highly sought after, particularly during endurance sports events. Contrary to carbo-hydrates, whose consumption during a physical activity lasting a bit less than an hour can delay the onset of fatigue, salt intake during a physical activity is generally not required. Salt loss through sweat secretion does not, in itself, reduce performance and thus salt does not have to be replaced during a physical activity.
Therefore, the same rule applies as for all minerals and vitamins: Proper salt intake should be en-sured through a normal healthy diet. This is somewhat easier to manage with salt than with other minerals. When preparing your food, you simply have to make sure you use the salt shaker normal-ly. Just don't get carried away and oversalt your food…
During long-duration endurance sport competitions, there are recurring cases of hyponatraemia, caused by physical exertion – in other words, a sodium deficit in the blood. If this condition is not properly detected and treated, hyponatraemia may, in rare, extreme cases, lead to death. The underlying cause, however, is not a lack of sodium or salt intake, but excessive consumption of fluids during a physical activity. The classic case: You're taking a slow pace, not sweating much, but drinking a lot anyway. Your rate of drinking must always be coordinated with your sweat excretion.
It is advisable to be aware of the individual amount you should drink during physical activities lasting around three hours or longer. You can find an online tool for calculating the amount you should drink on the website of the Swiss Sports Nutrition Society: Here.
After physical activity
Dehydration can be more quickly and efficiently compensated for following a physical activity by consuming a bit of sodium during recuperation in addition to fluids. The form in which this is done doesn’t really matter. Common groceries, such as chocolate milk, work perfectly. Chocolate milk is an overall ideal drink for recuperation, as it contains not only water and sodium, but also the other two nutrients necessary for recuperation, namely carbohydrates and protein.
In a nutshell
- Adults’ need for salt is probably greater than previously thought
- In endurance sports, the need for salt is greater due to the secretion of sweat
- During workouts and competitions, salt supplementation is generally not required
- Hyponatraemia can be prevented by drinking the proper amount of fluids, not by taking salt tablets.
- When cooking and eating, treat salt like a normal spice, without worrying about health-related consequences
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