Athletes have different nutritional needs that go beyond calorie and macronutrient intake. Specifically, there are two nutrients that are harmful in excess but are helpful when used strategically for athletic performance: salt and sugar.
HOW SALT CAN IMPACT PERFORMANCE
Research shows that one in four people will develop high blood pressure from excess sodium intake. The majority of sodium in the typical American diet comes from processed foods, and avoiding these products will help make room for foods with higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and amino acids, as well as allow for targeted use of salt when you exercise.
If you exercise for more than 60 minutes and to the point of sweating, research shows that consuming electrolytes (including sodium) during exercise enhances performance and recovery. Sweating is key — it sets athletes apart from inactive individuals and increases their sodium needs.
This is particularly true for salty sweaters (those who have white crystals build up on their skin and clothes after exercising).
Not only can sodium help improve performance if consumed during exercise, it can also aid recovery since it helps replace fluids lost during exercise. Many athletes will drink large amounts of water during and after exercise and assume they’re hydrated. But without sodium, the body doesn’t retain water — we just pee it out. On hot days or even when wearing warm clothing on a cold day, sodium is a necessity in addition to water both during and after exercise.
You can replace sodium either by eating salty foods (and drinking water to replace lost fluids), or by drinking beverages like sports drinks that contain sodium. After a workout is a good time to include salty foods such as pretzels, salty crackers, tortilla chips or salted nuts.
HOW SUGAR CAN AID RECOVERY
For people who have trouble regulating their blood sugar levels, such as those with diabetes or pre-diabetes, too much sugar can be dangerous. Yet for athletes, sugar is a nutrient that can be used strategically to help improve performance and enhance recovery.
If exercising 60 minutes or more, having food and or beverages that have sugar in various forms — including dried fruit, bananas, sports bars, gels and sports drinks — can improve performance. The general recommendation is 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
Studies from the Australian Institute of Sport have shown that foods rich in complex carbohydrates, which take a longer time to hit your bloodstream, are less effective than foods high in sugar (aka quick-burning carbs) at restoring glycogen levels. For athletes engaging in rigorous training for more than an hour, eating foods high in sugar within 30 minutes of training is more effective than eating complex carbohydrates.
A dietitian isn’t necessarily going to tell an athlete that they need to start eating chocolate cake and candy every time they do a hard workout (although some have famously recommended chocolate milk), but including foods high in sugar during and after a rigorous one hour or more training session can help improve performance and recovery.
The Short Story: If you engage in vigorous exercise for an hour or more, salt and sugar during and after your workouts just may improve your performance.