Athletic performance is influenced by many factors, but one of the biggest impacts on performance is the food we do or do not intake. As you know, I advocate athletes eat a diet based primarily on whole foods. While in general, a whole foods diet results in a net positive impact on one’s health and athletic performance, there can be some negatives.
Eliminating processed foods can result in a drop in intake of calories, different macronutrients, micronutrients, and minerals. One of the primary minerals that generally goes down when eating a largely whole foods diet is sodium.
The FDA estimates that 70% of the average person’s sodium intake comes from processed foods!
In other words, when you clean up your diet, you are cutting out more than half of your sodium intake!
This problem then gets compounded by the myth that salt, which is the main source of sodium, is bad for our health. We want to get healthier so we cut out processed foods, eliminating 70% of the sodium in our diet, and then continue to avoid salt because we have been told it’s bad for us. This then results in a pretty big sodium deficit.
Salt and sodium are NOT bad for us!
You have probably heard that salt raises your blood pressure. This appears to not be as simple as it sounds. A study done on over 2000 people ages 30-64 showed that individuals who ate more sodium (aka salt) had LOWER blood pressure . Clearly salt intake alone is not the only cause of high blood pressure.
What about heart health?
Glad you asked! Another study showed that 5g of sodium a day had the best outcomes when it came to risk of cardiovascular related deaths .
For reference the USDA recommends capping salt intake at 2.3g per day and the AHA recommends you stay below 1.5 grams per day. According to the graph above that would give you the same risk of dying from cardiovascular conditions as if you ate 7-10 grams of sodium per day!
It seems clear that avoiding salt and sodium when eating a whole foods diet is unnecessary for general health.
For athletes interested in optimizing their performance the lack of sodium in their diet is made worse due to the fact that they are going to be losing even more sodium, up to 7 grams , because they are sweating during physical activity.
What impact does inadequate sodium play in athletic performance?
My good buddy (and coach) Dr. Mike T Nelson explains what you might see on a recent episode of Rebel Performance Radio.
Basically what Dr. Mike is saying here is that if you are lacking sodium you might see a higher heart rate at the same level of effort during exercise. This results in you having to work harder without performing better, and that’s no good when it comes to exercise performance.
So what is sodium doing in your body that can affect your heart rate and cardiac output?
James Cerbie, the host of Rebel Performance Radio, explains the effects in this clip
Without turning this into a physiology lesson, basically all James is saying is that water and salt allows your heart to contract harder and pump more blood out with each stroke. More blood means more oxygen delivered to the muscle with less work by your heart. This results in your heart rate staying lower.
Basically sodium and water are allowing your heart to be more efficient, and as an athlete you want to be as efficient as possible in everything you do so you can conserve energy.
There is yet another important side effect that Dr. Mike explains a little later in the podcast.
This is anecdotal as Dr. Mike says, but adequate sodium intake could result in less overall stress on your body. This in turn leads to better recovery and higher HRV scores. Again this makes sense because as we explained above, you’re allowing your heart to work more efficiently putting less stress on the body.
So we now know why sodium can improve athletic performance, the question then becomes how much do you need?
Well that is the million dollar question, and just like all nutrition related questions, there is no one answer.
If we go by the research above on the association between sodium intake and all cause mortality from cardiovascular disease, 5 grams a day seems like a sweet spot. I am going to bet though, based on the fact that athletes will be losing more sodium in their sweat, that you likely need more than that if you are an athlete. If I was to recommend what to do, I would start at 5 grams of salt and then keep adding more until you reach your limit, or you start to see better performance.
How do you know your limit?
I will let Dr. Mike explain.
I am not a medical professional, and I can’t give medical advice, so be sure to check with your doctor before making any dietary changes.
It can be tough to take in this amount of sodium in one day so many people, including myself, turn to supplementing with it. Electrolyte supplements generally include some amount of sodium so they will be your best bet when it comes to supplementation. There are lots of electrolytes supplements on the market, you can give any of them a shot, my only warnings are…
- Check the nutrition label, if it has all kinds of other garbage in it, avoid it.
- Make sure it actually contains a decent amount of sodium. Again we are looking to hit a fairly large amount of sodium and if it’s only got a small amount in it, it’s probably not going to make a large enough impact.
Personally, my favorite electrolyte supplement is LMNT. LMNT has great flavors, zero garbage in them, and has 1g of sodium per packet. If you are interested in giving them a try you can use my affiliate link to buy a sample pack (yes I do make some money from your purchase, but I would recommend them even if I didn’t!).
As you know I advocate everyone eat a whole foods ancestral aligned diet. While in many scenarios eating this type of diet has a large upside, there can be some downsides in certain scenarios. This is the case when it comes to sodium and athletic performance. Luckily we can alleviate this problem through the use of modern day supplementation. I am not afraid of using modern day solutions to address problems that go outside of the scope of our ancestral norms, I just believe modern solutions should be the exception not the norm!
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- (2021, June 8). Sodium in Your Diet | FDA – US Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/sodium-your-diet ↑
- (2018, October 3). Low Sodium Intakes are Not Associated with Lower Blood Pressure …. Retrieved August 18, 2021, from https://faseb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1096/fasebj.31.1_supplement.446.6 ↑
- (2011, November 23). Urinary sodium and potassium excretion and risk of cardiovascular …. Retrieved August 18, 2021, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1105553 ↑
- (n.d.). Fluid and electrolyte needs for training, competition, and recovery. Retrieved August 18, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22150427/ ↑