BY BRIAN FRANK
There has been a debate going on in the sports nutrition industry for the past 25+ years. The opposing sides consist of the high sodium advocates and the low-sodium advocates. Until 1996, high sodium advocates had the stage all to themselves with an abundance of sweat studies to point to as evidence to support their side. Leading the low sodium side, we had a lot of anecdotal information from athletes, but not much more. That’s all changed, and I’m happy to share this exciting new data today. You significantly improve your ability to tolerate heat stress by lowering dietary sodium intake!
With the introduction of Hammer Nutrition’s Endurolytes® formula in 1997, a full-spectrum, all-chelated, proportionately balanced electrolyte replacement supplement, athletes finally had an alternative to the “salt pills” and the idea of consuming massive amounts of dietary sodium.
Being an innovation- and education-centric company, we introduced this innovative and revolutionary product in 1996 and began educating endurance athletes about the perils of a high sodium diet and high sodium replacement during heat stress exposure. The science supporting the myriad health benefits of eating a low-sodium diet, as well as the negative health consequences of eating a high sodium diet, is overwhelming and convincing: High sodium diets have long been associated as direct or supporting causes of high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other medical conditions prominent in this and most other western countries.
Despite all of this data, high sodium advocates somehow reason that if you are an endurance athlete exercising in heat stress environments, somehow magically sodium is now your friend, and you should consume it freely all the time. Wait, what? Perhaps it’s my bias, but I’ve always found this illogical argument to be laughable and totally indefensible.
The sodium debate also brings a whole series of questions with it such as: Are some athletes naturally prone to high sweat rates when exercising in heat? Are some athletes also naturally prone to hemorrhaging large volumes of sodium during exercise in heat, when others do not?
More importantly, can an athlete who has historically shown excessively high perspiration rates and sodium losses change these tendencies through dietary intervention or any other means? To me, this is the “$64,000 question!” And surprisingly, one that not very many people are interested in answering.
Historically, if you did an event in the heat and you had cramps or other heat stress related illness, conventional wisdom said you didn’t drink enough and you didn’t consume enough sodium, so the next time just take more!
This vicious cycle of confusion around the cause and effect of high sodium intake caused more than a few athletes to suffer terribly during and after their hot events—the pain and suffering of cramps and GI distress as well as IVs in arms and trips to the hospital for hyponatremia.
Amazingly, this is still what some so-called experts in the high-sodium camp, which includes most competitor sports drinks and products, are still telling athletes today.
Conversely, we have argued since the 90s that an athlete’s sodium losses and perspiration rates during exercise are nothing more than a reflection of their recent dietary sodium intake habits—high sodium diet begets high sweat rates and large sodium and therefore high losses during intense heat stress exercise. Just like they used to say at IBM, “GI-GO: garbage in garbage out.” I like the IBM analogy for sodium because it puts it in proper context, the more you consume, the more you will excrete.
Over the past 25 years, we have worked with thousands of athletes and have seen the universal reports coming back—lower dietary sodium reduces perspiration rates and electrolyte losses during intense heat stress events, allowing the athlete to perform to their true potential despite intense heat and humidity. “But where’s the data?” the skeptics ask, as they munch on a bag of salty chips.
Unfortunately, in the 90s and up until very recently, no data existed to support our position. No study that I have found sought to prove or disprove this hypothesis. One would need to take a group of athletes, establish baseline data, go through significant dietary modification, reducing sodium and sugar intake, and then post testing.
On the other hand, the high sodium camp can refer dozens of sweat studies in which perspiration rates and sodium concentrations were measured in athletes performing tests to exhaustion in laboratories. What did the athletes eat for days or weeks before they did the tests? Doesn’t matter according to the high sodium camp.
Quite possibly an even bigger flaw in these studies than not recording or even considering an athletes dietary sodium intake prior to the test, is that they conclude that just because you lost X amount of sodium during a one-hour heat stress test, that you will continue to lose that same rate of sodium on an ongoing basis during multiple hours of competition. Wait for it…And thus, your sodium intake during exercise should match this number!