Introducing Real Food as Athletic Fuel, a new monthly column for athletes to get ideas and inspiration around eating to fuel your rides and runs. Opening the doors of ‘Lentine’s kitchen’ and bringing some creativity to the community table. This series will focus on the fundamental need to nourish and replenish your body.
Salt plays a crucial role in hydrating our bodies, but many of us forget to truly up our intake when temperatures rise or training stacks up.
In 2009, I ran the inaugural Ironman China event on Hainan Island. A typhoon had hit the island in the days prior to the race, leaving a terrific 94% humidity in its wake that hung in the air as the starting gun went off that morning. In the hours to come, the temperatures climbed up into the 30’s (102F degrees), and capable, strong, determined athletes began dropping off the course like flies, covered with crusts of their own salty sweat and discouraged. Cramps, delusions, and heat exhaustion were all to blame. It wasn’t that their training had failed them. It wasn’t that they weren’t drinking, or eating enough, or even that they had the wrong race-day nutrition strategy. And it certainly wasn’t that they weren’t fit enough to complete the course.
So what was to blame? Salt. And not enough of it.
The performance of these athletes could have been saved by a solution as simple as caving into their cravings, and having a few salty pretzels in their pre-race diets. As athletes, unless we’re safeguarding our sodium intake, we won’t have the opportunity to prove our salt on the race course.
Sodium controls the function of every cell in our bodies. It enables electrical signals through our nervous systems (allowing our brains to tell our bodies to leap over that rock, or climb a little faster up that mountain,) and plays a vital role in fluid balance (keeping our bodies hydrated so they can fulfill the tasks our brains ask them to do). Consuming salt and electrolytes in our race day, and pre-race nutrition helps keep the brain sharp and our bodies responding quickly. My colleague at Skratch, Allen Lim, has worked on studies indicating that, over timeover time, we can slowly deplete the total sodium stored in the body as a result of heavy sweating during exercise on a regular basis. This is to say that if we aren’t consuming enough salt in our food when we’re not training, we could be creating a runway for performance disaster.
A balanced body would normally have 1.3 grams of salt per kilogram of body weight for a 70k person (154 pounds). A 20 percent drop, equivalent to about 18 grams of sodium in a person of the same weight can cause some pretty severe fatigue, as well as signs of overtraining and overreaching syndrome. It’s unlikely that most of us would lose this much in a single workout, but over time hard training sessions can stack up. So the athletes at Ironman China may have started hurting their performance in the meals leading up to their big race day. We can all combat these sorts of training and racing pitfalls by eating a little more salt in our diets on a regular basis.
How do you know if you need more salt in your diet?
Nutrition is a bit of science, but it’s also incredibly personal. If you know that you have high blood pressure, or if you feel really bloated when you eat a lot of salt, moderate your intake and pay close attention that you don’t get too much salt in your diet. But, if you know you’re active and sweating a lot, and you’re craving salt, satiate those cravings. This doesn’t necessarily mean you ought to work pretzels or potato chips specifically into your diet (though this does sound like some sort of delicious plan). Instead, keep eating as many whole, natural and unprocessed foods as possible but add a little salt to their preparation with these super-easy to make, flavorful finishing salts.
A couple of notes on the recipes: you’ll see that I suggest using flaky sea salt. I like to use Maldon salt here, available at well stocked grocery stores but you could use anything with big flakes of salt. Sprinkling a bit of citrus salt on your salads, meats, or even your breakfast toast (with avocado) or oatmeal will brighten the dish and make it all taste better, in addition to starting your day off right. I like to use the coffee + paprika salt on meats for the grill, but also on peanut butter sandwiches, stirred into savory oatmeal, and as a surprise addition to chocolate chip cookies.
Employ this smoky, savory salt on meats on the grill, in peanut butter sandwiches, or even as a surprise final addition to chocolate chip cookies.
- 1 Tbsp. freshly ground coffee
- 1 Tbsp. hot smoked Spanish paprika
- 2 Tbsp. flaky sea salt
Stir salt, coffee, and paprika in a small bowl to combine. Makes about ¼ cup finishing salt. Salts keep in an air-tight jar for a couple of months.
Toasted Citrus Salt
This salt can be used anywhere and everywhere. I like it sprinkled on salads, on avocado toast, and in my oatmeal in the morning. I like to use Meyer lemons here, but any citrus in season oranges or limes would be divine as well.
- 1/2 cup / 2.25 oz / 65 g flaky sea salt
- 1 tablespoon citrus zest
Preheat your oven to oven 225F / 105C. Combine the salt and citrus in a medium bowl and mix well. Really work the zest into the salt, making sure there aren’t any clumps of zest. Spread across a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 70 minutes, or until the citrus is completely dried out. Flecks of zest should crumble when pinched between your fingers. Remove from oven and allow to cool a bit. Salts keep in an air-tight jar for a couple of months.
Makes 1/2 cup of finishing salt.