Why Electrolyte Replacement Is Essential to Your Cycling Nutrition Routine

With summer heat in full effect, we thought that now was an especially good time for a guest post from one of our newest product vendors, SaltStick. They specialize in electrolyte replacement, an often overlooked element in hydration planning for big rides and races, and they’ve got the science to explain why it’s so important.

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A few words from SaltStick:

As today’s athletes continue to push the boundaries of human performance, many are taking greater notice of nutrition. In this blog post, we share the science behind electrolyte replacement, one key aspect of your overall racing routine.

As you will see below, researchers have examined the effects of electrolyte replacement in endurance athletes and found it to be a proven method to boost performance and go faster. Be sure to check out saltstick.com for more information and our blog post “How to Decrease Your Half-Ironman Time by 26 Minutes,” which includes more details of the UCJC study.

How electrolyte replacement applies to sports nutrition:

When we exercise, especially in hot conditions, we accumulate losses in three main categories: water, energy (calories) and electrolytes. If an athlete goes for too long without replacing some of what is lost, he or she will suffer a range of consequences, from dehydration to overall fatigue, or worse.

Often, cyclists ensure they are replacing adequate calories and water, both of which can be conveniently consumed through a variety of sources, including chews, gel packets, solid food, sports drinks, and more. Many cyclists are aware they need to be replacing electrolytes as well; however, this category is often overlooked, as athletes assume they are replacing adequate levels of salts through their sports drink consumption alone.

The problem with relying solely on sports drinks for electrolyte replacement is two-fold:

  • The typical athlete loses sweat at a rate of 1,000 mg/liter every hour, but commercial sports drinks contain less than half of the necessary sodium that is otherwise lost in sweat. This is entirely due to marketing concerns, as more sodium would cause the drinks to taste like seawater — a definite turnoff compared to the sweeter counterparts currently on the market. Of course, not every athlete is “typical” and so what may work for one person may not work for another.
  • Additionally, most sports drinks and gels only contain sodium and potassium, which do not make up the full spectrum of electrolytes lost through sweat. The average person loses electrolytes in a ratio of 220 parts sodium to 63 potassium to 16 calcium to 8 magnesium. If you are only replacing sodium through your sports drink, you may be missing out on some key nutrients that will keep your electrolyte levels normalized.

In order to continue performing optimally, athletes should seek to replace the full spectrum of electrolytes, in a similar ratio to the levels they are losing through sweat. That is where SaltStick fits in: By consuming SaltStick Caps, athletes can make up for the gap that will occur if they only rely on traditional sports drinks.

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The science behind SaltStick:

When examining sports nutrition-related claims, it’s important to avoid taking anything at face value, and we don’t want to make the mistake of claiming SaltStick may increase performance without showing you the science to back it up.

Allow us to highlight the results of a recent double-blind study in Spain, which found that salt supplementation via SaltStick Caps improved triathlete’s half-Iron times by an average of 26 minutes (8%). As you can imagine, 26 minutes in a 70.3 (which take between four and seven hours, on average, to complete) is a pretty sizable increase in speed.

What is particularly interesting is that these athletes were already drinking sports drinks, and the addition of the SaltStick Caps to their nutrition routine was the game-changing variable.

To conduct the study, researchers at Camilo José Cela University (UCJC) divided medium-distance triathletes into two groups. Twenty-six experienced triathletes were matched for age, anthropometric data, and training status, and randomly placed into the salt group (113 mmol Na+ and 112 mmol Cl−) or the control group (cellulose capsules only).

  • The first group completed a half-Ironman race (1.2 mile/1.9k swim, 56 mile/90k bike, and 13.1 mile/21.1k run) consuming sports drink as they usually would, but also consuming SaltStick Caps in order to replace electrolytes lost through sweat.
  • The second group completed the same distance while consuming sports drink as they usually would, but they received a placebo capsule with no extra sodium. Both capsules looked exactly the same to the athletes.

Researchers were aiming to replace about 70% of sodium in the first group, but only about 20% in the second group (the difference solely due to the salt capsules).

Note: As a company, Toker Engineering, the makers of SaltStick products, did not have any connection to this study — in the form of counseling researchers, sponsoring or funding the study, or providing the SaltStick used in the study — before the results were published.

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The results of the Electrolyte study:

When the triathletes completed the race, researchers un-blinded the study, tallied up finishing times, and found that the triathletes who consumed the electrolyte capsules finished an average of 26 minutes faster. The increase in speed usually came from improved cycling and running times, which come later in the race, after electrolyte levels begin to decline.

Other observations: body mass tended to be less reduced in the salt group than in the control group while post-race serum Na+ and Cl− concentrations were higher in the salt group than in the control group. In other words, oral salt supplementation was effective to statistically lessen body mass loss and increase serum electrolyte concentration.

Researchers concluded that the sodium supplementation helped to maintain proper electrolyte levels and stimulated thirst, which made the athletes instinctively drink more water. This made it much easier for them to stay hydrated and keep their strength throughout the race. While it was a relatively small study, the results obtained were statistically significant and will undoubtedly lead to further research and debate.

We have seen this same effect in our sponsored athletes. For example, as we wrote in a previous blog post, professional triathlete Lauren Goss realized low electrolyte levels were causing her to “bonk” in races.

“I was drinking so much water and flushing my system of all electrolytes and this was causing me to have a bonking sensation,” Lauren said. “Since I have started using SaltStick Caps, I have maintained a healthy balance of electrolytes and water and finish my races strong now.”

How to incorporate SaltStick into your race nutrition routine:

We provide a good overview of how your sweat rate plays into your nutrition needs on our website here (“Why should I care about electrolyte loss? Give me a brief summary!”), but essentially, light sweaters or smaller individuals should consider 1 SaltStick Cap per hour. Heavy sweaters, larger individuals, or those in hotter conditions should consider 2-3 SaltStick Caps per hour. Our bodies are very adept at dealing with slight deficiencies and excesses of these electrolytes.

The best strategy for success is to practice your nutrition strategy during training so you can optimize for what works for you, and then execute that during racing. We provide a complete suggested usage guide here: Training with SaltStick Capsules.

If you would like to learn more about how SaltStick can fit into your nutrition routine on the bike, we suggest you visit saltstick.com.

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