Aahhhh, Good ol’ salt, one of the treasures of the ancient world. It seems ironic that wars were waged and nations fell because of the crystals we sprinkle on our cucumbers! The Latin word for salt is sal and our english word salary comes from this root because Roman soldiers were paid in salt, a salarium. You may have heard the expression that one is “worth his salt”, now you know why!
Enough of the trivia.
What I really want to know is how this prized possession of the past has become the poison of the present! Ever since I was young I was told “Don’t use too much salt!”, and the restaurants and stores are touting “low salt” options to their menus and merchandise.
I am learning to love salt, and I think it is as valuable today as it was in days of yore! (OK, I don’t think there will be any military invasions over the stuff) But, I think you may find that the judicious use of salt in your racing and training may do you more good than the $10,000 bike! My story goes like this…..
In 2012 at the World Championships in Kona, I set a personal worst, 11:25:20, after a five hour death march during the marathon. When I crossed the finish line I told them not to hang the finishers medal on my neck or I would drop strait to the ground. I was weak and weary, had severe cramps and nausea, and finally began to vomit. ( I hope you are not reading this over breakfast) My wife dragged me, kicking and screaming, to the medical tent. (A real Ironman does NOT need to go the medical tent! -although I noticed it was quite crowded.) I layed there for hours, with severe cramps lighting me up every few minutes, I was sipping electrolytes, and figured it would just take some time to pass. After resisting repeated attempts to brutalize my body with an IV needle I finally gave in, for the first, and hopefully the last time. As soon as the precious litre (I really like the international spelling) of Normal Saline hit my veins, I started to perk up. In 5 minutes I was ready to start this Ironman over and knock some time off on my 2nd try!! So why the transformation???
Turn around in the town of Hawi, 2016….Check out the Salt lines on my gear!!!
Normal Saline is not a very complicated concoction. It consists of 9 grams or NaCl in a litre of sterile H2O. It doesn’t contain potassium, magnesium. or any other magic or hidden electrolyte or ingredient. Just plain salt. I know, I know they say if you get low on any other electrolyte it will hurt your performance…and it might. But what I do know, is when I go hyponatremic (low sodium), It is like getting hit by a bat across the head, and when I get my salt, the world is a much better place!
I was out for a 140 mile training ride a few years back, point to point, going to meet my family at the terminus. I was about 50 miles in and felt awful. I had no power, my heart rate was low, and my mind was fuzzy. (I don’t know how to define my mental state, but when I don’t want to ride another mile, that’s a good indication something is wrong!) I stopped at a park, layed my bike against a tree and tried to figure out what was wrong…at this point of my training I should have been ripping through mile 50! I counted calories, looked at hydration, I even had noted that I had consumed a commercial sports drink at the outset. At this point, I was new to veganism and had been eating mostly raw. I came to the conclusion, that except for the few milligrams in my sports drink, I had not consumed any sodium in 3 days!! Yea there is some trace amounts in your fruits and veggies, but not nearly enough to power 140 miles in the late summer sun. I went across the street to a convenience store and grabbed a handful of salt packets that sat innocently next to the french fries. I consumed 3 or 4 packets with a chaser of water from the park fountain, and was on my way with new found energy. During the last 90 miles I had recovered the vitality and vigor that was lacking in first 50. I have a ton of personal anecdotes that correlate salt consumption with success in the sun. That doesn’t mean I never bonk in the heat, you can check my Kona times to realize that I still struggle…but I haven’t been dragged off to the medical tent since making this discovery!
Generally speaking, I still don’t train with salt tablets, unless I am going very long or it is very hot. I do however, always add sodium to my morning power potion. And I always keep a few sodium packets or tablets hidden on my bike (and a little caffeine) just in case I find myself in a dark place and need some help getting out! There is a ton of Sodium in processed food, as you minimize this, you may find that you need to supplement or train with it in the heat. I do take a salt tablet or 2 before a race in the sun, and will tape a few to my bike, and the backside of my number. As always, before beginning to take something new, run it by your doctor. (Having a stroke or aneurysm is a sure fire way to screw up your race)
So how much salt should you take??? I don’t know, but using the logic of a litre of Normal Saline, I shoot for 9 grams during an Ironman. Obviously, you may need more than one figurative litre if you use the full 17 hours to cross the line, so another guideline is 1 gram per hour, or 1000 milligrams. Remember salt is only part sodium, the other part being chloride. I take a gram of salt!! There is roughly 400 milligrams of sodium in a gram of salt!
Occasionally, I have read the concern of getting too much salt during a race. Other than getting a little nauseous, I have never had a problem. There is a lot of salt exiting my body during exertion judging from the white crystals on my jersey and shorts! (see the picture above) This is something you may want to figure out before race day! There are lots of marketed brands out there, and if they work for you, great! I buy 1 gram tablets from the amazing internet and they seem to work for me! I find most of the marketed stuff just isn’t quite potent enough and you are reaching for them every 15 minutes or so to keep yourself primed. I have a hard enough time remembering every hour. It does help me to use miles as a reminder, as I always seem to keep close track of the distance to finish line!
I hope this helps you stave off the dreaded “bonk” in the hot summer months! I find that it is even more crucial if you are eating a healthy vegan diet and very little processed food!! When my sodium levels have gotten to the point where I am cramping, weak, and disoriented, I start to understand why a Roman Legion would fight for the stuff. I am not an advocate of violence so, put away your sword and go shopping!