The Facts About Salt. Do Climbers Need More Or Less Than Other Athletes?
Climbing can be sweaty business, and that may have you wondering if you are getting enough salt. An expert nutritionist weighs in on whether you should supplement.
Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD is a board certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send. She serves on the USA Climbing medical committee and has a private practice in Portland, Oregon. Find her online at nutritionforclimbers.com or on Instagram @realnutritiondietitian.
If you were alive in the 1980s and 1990s, you probably got a lot of nutrition messaging that demonized salt. Still today, we hear about how too much salt can raise your blood pressure and risk for heart disease and stroke. So, is salt bad? Should you limit your salt intake?
Sodium is responsible for several body processes, including muscle contraction, glucose absorption in the intestine, nerve function, fluid balance, and blood pressure. It’s important to maintain the right level of sodium so your body can perform these functions.
Both too little and too much salt is problematic. A recent review on the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (2020) showed that staying between around 2,500-5,000 milligrams of sodium daily has the lowest risk for overall mortality. Chronic intake of too much sodium may increase risk for stomach cancer, inflammation, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease. Too little sodium may lead to hyponatremia, which is low blood sodium. Symptoms include dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and nausea.
What does this mean for a climber?
Your target salt intake may depend more on your own current health status, blood pressure, and family history of disease rather than the fact that you climb. It’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor to see if you need to make any dietary changes. If you are trying to lower your salt intake, choose less processed foods more often, such as whole grains, unprocessed meat/fish/poultry, fruits/vegetables, lentils/legumes, and nuts/seeds. More processed foods such as boxed pasta dinners, soup, deli meats, and canned goods often contain added salt.
Aside from overall health, you may need to increase salt intake if you lose a lot of salt when you sweat. You’ll know it if you notice salt crusties on your skin or clothing after a hard workout—it looks like grainy white powder. People are more prone to losing greater amounts of salt in their sweat if they are working under extreme conditions, such as heat, humidity, and altitude. Sodium losses range from person to person, anywhere from 300 mg per hour all the way to 3,000 mg per hour.
If you have a particularly hard session or long approach to the crag, you may need to replace lost electrolytes in your sweat. If you’re losing a bunch of sodium without replacing it, you could end up with hyponatremia. A key sign I see when working with my athletes is they feel fatigued all day after their workout, often with consistent headaches.
Add salt to your workout drink or using an electrolyte mix if this happens to you. Look at the label to determine how much sodium it contains. Some popular tab brands have about 300 to 500 mg. If you’re a salty sweater, you’ll need to search for a brand that offers more than 1,000 mg per serving. Alternately, you can add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to a 16-ounce drink, giving you about 1150 mg of sodium to replace those heavy losses.
You can also turn to food to replace those sodium losses. Try bringing salty food to the crag or gym, such as pretzels, salted trail mix, or jerky. Note that you don’t have to add salty food or electrolytes to your diet long-term—just use this strategy immediately after a workout if you lose a lot of salt in your sweat.
One more question you may have: Do I need to switch to the expensive pink Himalayan salt? Nope, unless you love the taste or are using it for a specific culinary purpose. In general, using traditional cheap iodized salt is the best way to go, as it also provides iodine which is normally difficult to get in the diet.