Sodium for Runners: The Top 5 Benefits & Best Sources
Chances are you’ve been warned about consuming too much salt and other sodium foods. In fact, you may have even been told to eliminate sodium from your diet as much as you can. This, of course, is due to the high levels of sodium most Americans get each day. According to research published by Harvard’s School of Public Health, “Americans average about 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day, about 75 percent of which comes from processed foods, while only getting about 2,900 milligrams of potassium each day.” (01)
While the dangers associated with too much sodium are real — including increased risk for cardiovascular disease, water retention, cancer, osteoporosis, and more — those potential consequences should not be viewed as a blanket recommendation to avoid all sodium. In fact, “a meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes, or death in people with normal or high blood pressure.” (02)
This is not to say that sodium poses little risk. Mounds of research shows that many people consume too much sodium, which in turn raises the risk for disease. However, our bodies need sodium to function, and that’s especially true for athletes, including runners. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, low sodium, or a condition called hyponatremia, is dangerous in its own right.
- Digestive issues like nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
- Dizziness and instability
- Muscle weakness
- Trouble concentrating and confusion
- Low energy, lethargy, and fatigue— even if you’ve slept enough
- Mood changes and increased irritability
- Muscle pains, spasms, or cramps
- In the elderly, injuries, and gait disturbances due to instability and weakness
- In severe cases when the condition isn’t treated, brain swelling, seizures. and possibly coma or death can occur
These conditions are, of course, particularly concerning for runners. You can’t run your best when you’re suffering from low energy levels, muscle weakness, and digestive issues. Simply put, without sodium, your body can’t function properly, and there are few things more important to runners than maintaining peak physical condition. Here are a few reasons why runners, in particular, need adequate levels of sodium.
5 Benefits of Sodium for Runners
1. Fluid Balance
Sodium is essential to hydration because it assists the hydration process by increasing the rate of fluid absorption. In addition, it’s been shown to help athletes maintain a higher blood volume, which regulates body temperature and heart rate during prolonged periods of exercise like running. (04)
In addition, research published in the Journal of Athletic Training tested sodium replacement during intense exercise and found that “sodium intake during prolonged exercise in the heat plays a significant role in preventing sodium losses that may lead to hyponatremia when fluid intake matches sweat losses.” (05)
2. Muscle Contraction
Cramping is a major issue for athletes, and it’s common for runners to suffer through them. This is directly related to sodium, as “heat cramping” occurs when the body loses too much sodium during exercise. By maintaining sodium levels, you can combat muscle cramps and encourage the proper muscle contractions that will keep those strides going. (06)
3. Nerve Transmission
I only recommend healthy sources of sodium like those that occur naturally in whole foods, as well as sea salt and Himalayan pink salt, as these sources promote proper brain, muscle, and nervous system function. Sodium is required to transmit electrical signals in the body, thus too much or too little can throw off the entire body and cause cellular malfunction. However, when the communication system is fueled by sodium and sending the proper electrical signals to the brain, muscles, and nervous system, proper nerve transmission is maintained throughout the entire body. (07)
4. Natural Source of Electrolytes
Sodium is an electrolyte in and of itself, and consuming healthy sources of sodium helps provide even more of the electrolytes that are absolutely essential to good health. (08) Sodium works hand in hand with potassium, calcium, and magnesium to keep electrolyte levels balanced, which is vital for runners.
5. Improved Athletic Performance
Due to all of the factors listed above, particularly related to hydration, electrolyte balance, and proper muscle contraction, sodium should be a part of any athlete’s diet. (09) According to research published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, “voluntary hyperhydration can be induced by acute consumption of sodium and has a favorable effect on hydration status and performance during subsequent exercise in the heat.” (10)
Sodium may get a bad rap, but the truth is that it’s vital for the body. Yes, too much sodium poses serious risks, but low sodium is just as dangerous. This is especially true for runners and other athletes because sodium is crucial for proper hydration, along with fluid and electrolyte balance. Without it, runners will be weak, dehydrated, and will struggle to optimize their performance.