Salt and Exercise: Why salt is an essential part of your workout

April 04 2017

Salt has become the centre of a hot debate over the past few years. We all know that too much of the stuff is bad for us, something we’ll look into in a lot more detail soon, and the dangers of exceeding our recommended daily salt intake are becoming increasingly well-known, many of us don’t realise that having too little salt in our bodies can be dangerous.

To help you make an informed decision on salt  and exercise, we asked our resident nutrition expert and personal trainer for her thoughts, and the role it needs to play in your workout regime. But let’s dive straight in with some rock hard facts about salt…

Why is salt bad for you?

When we consume too much salt, the extra water that is stored inside our body and cells causes our blood pressure to rise. The more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure becomes. High blood pressure levels can place a huge strain on your heart; it can also affect your arteries, kidneys, and your brain. If high blood pressure levels are maintained for too long, it can lead to strokes, heart attacks, kidney disease, and even dementia.

But, why is salt good for you?

Sodium is incredibly important to the functionality of our bodies; and salt is a key source of sodium. Salt helps to regulate the concentration of our bodily fluids, which constantly hang in a delicate balance. It helps our cells to absorb all the vital nutrients they need, and it is also required for healthy muscle and nerve activity. But you should be very careful to monitor your salt intake in order to avoid excess.

How are salt and exercise linked?

The amount of salt you should take in on a daily basis varies depending on your age. Below are the recommended guidelines from the NHS:

  • Adults (and children 11 years and over) should consume no more than 6g of salt a day. This equates to approximately one teaspoon and contains roughly 2.4g of sodium
  • Children aged seven to 10 years should eat no more than 5g or less salt a day
  • Children aged four to six should consume 3g or less salt a day
  • Those aged one to three should consume 2g or less salt a day
  • Babies less than one year old should have less than 1g of salt a day. Babies that are breastfed will get the correct amounts required, and formula milk contains similar levels

Salt and exercise: How are the two related?

Any regular gym-goer will recognise the salty taste of sweat after a good hard workout. We know that we lose salt during our workout, but it’s much more than just a clever way for our bodies to cool down.DW’s resident health and nutritional expert, Carly Tierney, explains how low levels of salt in your body can affect your workout:

“Salt plays a vital role in our body. It can help regulate muscle contraction, nerve function and blood volume. It also regulates fluid levels in your body.

“Low sodium levels can cause dehydration, muscles cramps or even organ failure.

Salt intake can radically affect your workout.

“If an athlete is sweating a lot, and losing a great deal of sodium, a combination of salty foods or snacks and electrolyte-rich drinks may be preferable for keeping sodium levels up.”

If maintaining high levels of hydration throughout your workout, and indeed after you have left the gym, wasn’t enough, Carly’s comments highlight the importance of keeping your internal salt levels regulated too.

Salt intake and exercise

Although there is a recommended level of sodium that we should be consuming on a daily basis, Carly emphasises that it can be dangerous to generalise how much salt people need to consume. This is particularly true for athletes who may need to consume more in order to replenish salt that is lost during exercise.

Everyone is different and, depending on their body shape and size, some people will require more salt than others. That being said, as a general rule, it is important to keep your levels topped up after a rigorous workout.

“The average gym-goer can lose around one litre of sweat per hour of exercise. This can increase to two litres if you have been training intensely,” Carly continued.

“Many runners, for example, lose a lot of salt when they train and compete. This understandably leads to salt cravings post-workout. My advice would be to indulge the craving and consume a salt snack and sports drink to replenish the loss. Around 200mg of sodium is ideal.”

Salt and cramps when exercising: Is sodium intake the key?

Eddy Diget is a master trainer and a nutritional expert. He works with a host of high-performance athletes, all of whom need to maintain a strictly balanced diet, with the right amount of all nutrients. If you like your science to be backed up by real-life case studies, then we have the perfect one for you right here:

“I have been training an ‘Ultra Tri’ athlete who is required to run for over 100 miles,” Eddy told us. “He suffered with ‘mid-workout cramps’, so I suggested that about four hours prior to his workout he drank about 2 - 3 ml of water per pound of body weight. He was 68kg, so he drank about 300/450 ml of water. 15 minutes after every workout he drank a glass of water with a pinch of salt mixed into the drink - he has never suffered with cramps or headaches since.”

If that wasn’t enough, the NHS advises that low levels of water in the body can result in falling salt resources, which can lead to, you guessed it, muscle cramps.

How to maintain a sensible low sodium diet

While we’ve established that salt is an imperative part of our diet, and that salt and exercise are more intrinsically linked that we thought, we can’t escape the fact that we really do need to limit our intake.

It’s estimated that up to 75% of our daily recommended salt consumption comes from everyday foods, so you’re probably getting your fix without even realising it. And that’s before many of us add salt onto our food at the dinner table, often just out of habit. Of course, because salt is lurking in places where we least expect to find it, it’s easy for us to consume too much.

Which foods are surprisingly high in salt?

Five surprising high-sodium foods

  • Bread - It was suggested by a study in 2011 that some loaves of bread may contain as much salt in each slice as a packet of crisps.
  • Cereal - You’d expect some cereal brands to have high sugar content, but it’s been shown that there are also incredibly high levels of salt in many of the most popular varieties.
  • Tinned soup - Considered by many to be a healthy lunch option, but maybe not. It’s been suggested by studies that some tinned soups can contain the same (or more) salt than two slices of takeaway pizza.
  • Cheddar cheese - Already high in saturated fats, but 95% of cheese products were found to contain more salt per serving than a packet of ready salted crisps.
  • Stock cubes - Who’d have guessed that this harmless little cube used to add flavour would be on this list, but some contain as much as 50% salt.

Top tips on how to reduce salt intake

Our nutrition expert, Carly, has an abundance of tips to help curb your salt intake…

  • Be sparing with sauces, especially soy sauce, as they are usually very high in salt
  • Cut down on salty snacks such as crisps - go for low-salt snacks such as dried fruit, sticks of vegetables and unsalted nuts
  • Try to eat less bacon, cheese, pickles, smoked fish and ready-made meals, as these contain high sodium levels
  • Add less salt when cooking - use herbs and spices to add flavour when cooking
  • Make your own stock, or opt for lower salt stock cubes
  • Get out of the habit of adding extra salt at the table - remember to taste your food first as often you’ll find it doesn’t need more!

It’s true that abs are made in the kitchen, but diet is still only one half of the equation. To maximise your health and fitness journey, why not sign up for a free guest pass and reach the fitness levels you’ve always wanted.