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Salt: Friend or Foe?

from Nutrion and Wellness Solutions by Heather Fink, MS, RD, CSSD

Sodium is a mineral that elicits mixed reactions in the health and sports performance communities. For health, sodium is often considered a villain, contributing to an increased risk of hypertension and possibly heart disease. For endurance sports, sodium is heralded as a life saver and performance enhancer. In general, moderation of sodium intake is a wise practice. However, individuals who are exercising for long periods of time will need to consider sodium intake as part of their fueling and hydration regimen.

For health and the prevention of high blood pressure, current recommendations suggest an intake of 1,500-2,300 mg per day (,, Most Americans are consuming sodium well above this target range, and therefore, should reduce their intake.
Table salt is certainly one source of dietary sodium. One teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg of sodium – the maximum recommendation for one day! Therefore, minimizing the use of table salt will help to reduce sodium intake. However, a majority of sodium in the American diet comes from packaged, processed and fast foods. Making an effort to replace processed foods with whole, fresh foods prepared at home will make an enormous impact on sodium intake! For example, check out the difference between the sodium content of the following whole foods, compared to their processed counterpart:

Cucumber, fresh (6mg for 1 large) versus dill pickles (1250 mg for 1 cup)
Roast pork (50 mg for 3 oz) versus Ham, cured (1130 mg for 3 oz)
Tomato, fresh (6 mg for 1 medium) versus spaghetti sauce, jar (515 mg for ½ cup)

Three tips to lower sodium intake:
1.) Choose whole, fresh foods versus packaged, processed foods
2.) Look at food labels, compare products, and find options with lower sodium content
3.) Cook more at home versus dining out  

Information on low sodium diets can be found:

Sports Performance
For endurance sports performance, sodium has several roles:

  • It aids in the absorption of glucose from products such as sports beverages (helps maintain blood glucose and energy levels during exercise)
  • It serves as one of the body’s electrolytes (aids in nerve conduction and muscle contraction)
  • It acts in conjunction with other minerals to help maintain fluid balance

Sodium is lost in sweat during exercise. If losses are excessive, without replacement, a life-threatening condition called hyponatremia can ensue. Low sodium levels are mainly a concern for individuals who are exercising for four hours or more. Daily intake of sodium, even for ultra-endurance athletes, does not necessarily need to be increased; changes in intake happen mainly during exercise. Below are general recommendations, which need to be tailored to the individual athlete:

  • For individuals exercising for one hour or less, water is sufficient to replace sweat losses and extra sodium is not needed.
  • For individuals exercising for 1-4 hours, products such as sports beverages, gels and bars will provide the sodium needed to replace sodium losses.
  • For individuals exercising for more than 4 hours, sports products providing sodium as well as sodium-specific supplements may be indicated.

Athletes should work with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition to develop a nutrition and hydration plan which meets their individual sodium needs.


For questions, or to schedule a coaching session, contact:
Heather Fink, MS, RD, CSSD
Nutrition and Wellness Solutions, LLC

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