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The Truth About Sodium and Sports Drinks

After the last Iron man Triathlon in Hawaii spectators were witness to a very strange scene... dozens of athletes behaving strangely... some slurring their words, others non-responsive, and many reporting dizziness, nausea, and disorientation.

I suppose this drunken behavior would be expected of the folks on the podium showing signs of post-victory celebratory overindulgence, but intoxication was not to blame. Hyponatremia (a low concentration of sodium in the blood) was the culprit.

I'm sick to death of the terrible drubbing sodium gets in the popular press and I'm even more sick of hearing athletes complain about anything beyond a miniscule amount of sodium in their sports or protein drinks. In fact, from a safety and efficacy standpoint, I think that low sodium products should probably be illegal in the world of hard-core sports supplements.

In fact, far from being the villain many athletes perceive it to be, sodium is critical to sports performance. What's more sodium demands for elite athletes, particularly endurance athletes or athletes that lose large volumes of sweat during their training are far higher than the sodium requirements for people becoming one with their sofas while waiting for their first (or second, or third) heart attack.

We all have certain basic sodium requirements. Adequate sodium balance is necessary for transmitting nerve impulses and proper muscle function, and even a slight depletion of this concentration can cause problems. More significant sodium depletion can lead to seizures, coma or even death.

What's odd about this is that despite these facts being common medical knowledge, virtually every modern sports drink is high in potassium and magnesium but low in sodium. Interestingly, one of the few drinks that does the sodium part of the equation right is Gatorade™. Of course that relic from the sports nutrition Stone Age has a host of other problems that make it unsuitable for world-class athletes but the scientists should at least get some credit for understanding that athletes that sweat lose too much salt.

Drinking water or a "low sodium" sports drink actually compounds the problem by further diluting the blood and thus lowering even further the already too low plasma sodium content. Most of the cramping experienced by athletes that is mistakenly attributed to dehydration is actually the result of hyponatremia.

Sodium losses can become quite extreme in certain cases. Some studies have shown that it's possible to lose upwards of 2 grams of sodium per liter of sweat. Since some athletes may lose more than a liter of sweat per hour it is possible for an athlete to lose 15, 20 or even more grams of sodium during a single sustained endurance event such as a long bicycle race an ultra-marathon or other long duration high intensity activity.

Recently, savvy ultra-endurance athletes such as some of the top contenders at Iron man distance triathlons have taken to using salt tablets to help them avoid the performance impairment associated with becoming hyponatremic. Imagine... salt tablets! It seems as though one of the first ever sports supplements has come back in vogue and for a reason! It used to be we ridiculed the football coaches that gave these to their athletes. They're probably laughing back at us from on high now though.

The irony is tough to escape. It's easy though to avoid becoming hyponatremic. Some exercise physiologists advocate pre-loading with sodium for several days prior to any long events. This has the added effect of causing you to retain additional water (since your body will continue to add water to normalize blood sodium levels). This is a double edge sword though because retaining water can add weight that might hurt performance. This is particularly true if you're competing in an event such as a mountain bike race where power to weight ratios are crucial.

A better strategy might simply be to use a sports drink that contains the same balance of electrolytes as those contained in sweat. In essence replacing exactly what you are losing as you go. To date, only one company, VPX has had the foresight to look into this crucial issue for exercising athletes with their scientifically engineered sports drink, HydroForce. In addition to preventing hyponatremia, HydroForce also contains a number of compounds that can dramatically improve your endurance performance whether it's on the bike, in the gym or on the trail.

You can also use other products to complement the sodium found in HydroForce. If you use creatine for example, you owe it to yourself to try Plasma Expandor. In addition to three forms of creatine, Plasma Expandor contains sodium, protein, a high molecular weight carbohydrate matrix and arginine alpha ketoglutarate and pyroglutamate, in addition to a number of other performance enhancing ingredients.

It goes without saying that if you have high blood pressure or are under a physician's care you need to balance your need to prevent hyponatremia with your need to limit sodium intake, but then few athletes working hard enough to become hyponatremic are likely to have other serious health problems.

Of course you could skip the supplements and simply waffle down some heavily salted food... how about a gallon of Cheese Whiz poured over Doritos? But if you eat like that you're probably one of those guys with bedsores from your Lazy Boy and you probably don't need HydroForce anyway, unless you do intervals back and forth between the TV and the refrigerator during commercials.