Electrolytes For Training and Racing
By Bob Seebohar
Electrolyte use has been a very popular topic among triathletes and not without much controversy. It seems like everything I read in the lay press is contradictory. Some promote using extra electrolytes for training and competition and some not. No matter who you believe or what theory you subscribe to, the hard truth is that we do in fact need some electrolytes to perform well.
We all know that the average Western diet is typically high in sodium. We also know that some triathletes go to extremes of adding copious amounts of salt to their foods throughout the day to try to keep up with the amount they lose through sweat. What is important to remember though, is if the daily diet contains a high amount of sodium, the body requires more sodium on a daily basis to remain in balance. As the amount of sodium increases in the diet, the amount lost in sweat also increases to maintain homeostasis. The body eventually becomes used to this high amount of sodium and requires it day after day, which increases the daily need for more sodium. The end result is that the body will need more sodium on a daily basis to function properly. And this is typically not the best strategy for health or performance.
However, if less sodium is consumed in the daily diet, then it is much easier for the body to remain in balance. Sodium is still lost through sweat during training but it is easier to maintain these levels by implementing sodium supplementation strategies immediately before and during training and competition. The ideal scenario is to follow a lower sodium daily nutrition plan and implement a competition electrolyte protocol. After competition is finished, return to the lower sodium nutrition daily plan once again.
The five main electrolytes that are often discussed when it comes to athletic performance are sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium and magnesium. While sodium, an extracellular compound, gets most of the attention, the other four electrolytes should not be overlooked as they all function to support physiological training adaptations and physical performance. Here is a little information about each electrolyte:
- Both sodium and potassium are important in nerve conduction which helps generate the signals from the central nervous system to the muscles to perform work. Potassium, found inside of cells, also works closely with sodium and chloride in maintaining the body’s fluid balance.
- Chloride binds to both sodium and potassium and contributes to muscle functioning. Chloride is always found in combination with sodium and potassium.
- Calcium is the mineral that is mostly associated with bone health. However, it also assists with muscular contraction, the metabolism of glycogen, neuromuscular conduction and messaging between cells.
- Magnesium is commonly overlooked. It is important in the generation of ATP, muscle contraction and the transmission of nerve impulses.
As can be seen, the role of electrolytes spans far greater than simply maintaining fluid balance or trying to prevent the “mystery” cramps that triathletes sometimes experience. There are many other physiological functions that these electrolytes contribute to and all work in concert with one another to support physical exercise. Having a combination of all five electrolytes is crucial for proper physiological functioning and adaptations to training.
There has been some scientific research that suggests acute sodium loading the night before or morning of a competition can be beneficial in promoting good fluid balance and acclimating to warmer environments. Chronic sodium loading (greater than 2 days), sometimes employed by triathletes, can sometimes produce bloating and weight gain the week leading up to a competition. However, acute sodium loading has been shown to have minimal adverse effects with maximal performance benefits. For triathletes who may have issues staying hydrated and remaining in fluid balance, combining acute sodium loading with low sodium diet may help to improve performance while minimizing any adverse effects.
Here are the take-home messages:
1. Follow a lower sodium diet in your daily nutrition to improve health and help to reduce the amount of supplemental sodium needed during training and competition.
2. All five electrolytes are important and work in concert with one another due to their role in muscle functioning, fluid balance and the formation of ATP.
3. Acute sodium loading may prove as a successful means for improving hydration status for Ironman racing.
These small steps will provide huge dividends for any triathlete but they should be implemented far in advance of the competition date. Get your daily sodium balance in check to lower amounts then try an acute sodium loading protocol at least two or three times in quality training sessions before competition day and enjoy the success of a better race day!Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach. He traveled to the 2008 Summer Olympics as the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian and the personal Sport Dietitian for the 2008 Olympic Triathlon Team. He has served as coach for Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympian, was a performance team member (sport dietitian and strength coach) for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist and was the coach of Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion.