The Truth about Taking Salt Pills During a Spartan Race

By SGX Coach Mark Barroso, NSCA-CPT

SHARE THE SALTY WEALTH

It’s an unwritten Spartan rule: carry salt pills—capsules filled with sodium chloride—with you on the course, especially during Spartan Beasts and Ultra Beasts. In fact, those who carry salt pills on courses tend to have dozens on them so they can share with other cramp-riddled Spartans on the course. But this article isn’t about cramping, since we’ve covered that before; we’re going to break down how to hydrate to avoid dehydration and why sodium is the most important electrolyte to consume.

To find out more about hydration during races, we reached out to Yancy Culp, ACE-CPT, Spartan SGX Coach and Amy Culp, RD, CSSD, LD, and Assistant Athletic Director of Performance Nutrition at the University of Texas.

SHOW UP KNOWING YOUR SWEAT RATE

The key to knowing whether you’re hydrated is calculating your sweat rate, which is the number of pounds of sweat lost per hour of training. To find out your sweat rate, weigh yourself (nude) prior to an intense 1-hour workout, measure how much water you’re going to drink during the workout, then weigh yourself post-workout (nude).

Your Sweat Rate = Pre-exercise body weightpost-exercise body weight + fluid intake during exerciseurine produced. (Ideally, one wouldn’t urinate during this sweat rate test.)

Mr. Culp has a practical, important tip when finding sweat rate and he’s been finding athletes sweat rates for nearly 20 years.

“When you’re done working out, towel yourself off completely because there’s standing water weight on your skin,” says Mr. Culp. “What I’ve found with athletes is that they can look the same and have two completely different sweat rates. Also, your sweat rate will vary depending on the weather, so you should take your sweat rate in January, April and July to have a more accurate idea.

Mrs. Culp adds that average sodium losses in athletes are about one gram per every two pounds of water lost. Hot/humid conditions or individual variability could result in a loss of double that amount of sodium.

“The goal here is to stay on top of hydration and electrolyte losses and to stay hydrated you must not lose more than 2-3% of total body weight during the duration of exercise,” Mrs. Culp says. “While we do lose many electrolytes in our sweat, sodium is the main one. [Sodium] helps to regulate thirst and assists our kidneys in absorbing the fluid we ingest.”

Now that we know how to avoid dehydration, let’s look at another lesser-known hydration issue: hyponatremia.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

Hyponatremia is a condition where athletes exercise intensely (or for several hours) and hydrate excessively with only water or a low-sodium beverage; they wind up with dangerously low levels of sodium in their blood (below 130 mmol/L to be exact, according to the NSCA Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning). To avoid this condition, fluid intake shouldn’t exceed sweat losses and hard-working athletes should consume sodium. Simply put, this means you shouldn’t weigh more after an intense workout than before it.

“Spartan Racers are at risk of hyponatremia, especially if they are racing for multiple hours, are heavy sweaters, are racing in hot/humid weather, and don’t bring supplemental electrolytes,” Mrs. Culp says. “This can be compounded by overconsumption of water in the days leading into an endurance event. Symptoms of hyponatremia include bloating, puffiness, weight gain, nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion, continuing in severity to include death if untreated.”

So exactly what type of food or supplement will help replace lost sodium? That depends on whom you ask, but Mr. Culp detailed his intra-race sodium picks for us. In addition to carrying sports drink powder in his hydration pack, he eats some interesting Ultra Beast fuel.

“At every Ultra Beast, my turn includes a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup (cold), a monster cookie, beef jerky, and a 32oz [sports drink] that is three-quarter strength (watered down),” Mr. Culp says. “I’m taking in about 1,500 mg of sodium at the midpoint of the Ultra Beast.”

Learn more about fueling Spartan Races.

When it comes to sodium, Mrs. Culp suggests sodium chloride or sodium citrate as those are typically well absorbed/tolerated by the body.

“Since sports drinks aren’t provided on the course, you could pack electrolytes or consume electrolytes in things like gels and gummies which also have carbohydrates,” Mrs. Culp adds. “A big mistake I see made is that people feel they are covered if they have magnesium, potassium and chloride in their electrolyte snacks. Those are lost in sweat, but not near to the level of sodium.”

WHAT’S THE RISK?

The average daily nutrient intake (AI) of sodium (recommended by the Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies) for men and women is 1.5-2.3 grams per day. The World Health Organization states that more than two grams of sodium per day is high sodium consumption. Too much salt in the diet can lead to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. This is true for anyone, but when speaking about Spartans competing in endurance events lasting anywhere from 3-10+ hours, there’s some leeway.

“There’s going to be a dramatic difference in a sedentary person sitting around eating salty foods doing no to little physical activity versus an athlete taking on much more sodium than normal over a 12-hour period, once a month,” Mr. Culp says. “I’ve never had a doctor tell me, ‘You have to watch your sodium because you’re an endurance athlete and you’ll be consuming too much of it.’”

Mrs. Culp has a great cautionary tip for racers looking to use salt and hydration to alleviate cramps.

“If you’re cramping and have already taken one gram of sodium and are well hydrated, don’t continue taking in more sodium at that moment for that purpose,” Mrs. Culp says. “There may be a neuromuscular issue that won’t be alleviated by pouring in more salt and hydration.”

As for athletes who already have high blood pressure and are salty sweaters, Mrs. Culp recommends they work with a Sports Registered Dietitian to ensure the recommendations are based on their individual needs. When it comes down to it, the ideal way to stay hydrated during a Spartan Race would be to have a scale that Spartans can step on before and after the race to see their fluid loss. Until then, find out your sweat rate during training, plan to drink that exact amount during the race, and bring salty snacks.

And if you’re one of the salt Samaritans on the course and you see a Spartan craving salt, ask them first: how much salt have you taken? And do you have any guidelines to follow due to high blood pressure? If they don’t know the answer, consider this: extra salt is less likely to overhydrate them than extra water, and there’s one only of those two things at aid stations.