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Analysis of my marathon nutrition shows too much sodium, not enough potassium. Need to change the ratio to stop marathon cramps.

Posted Sep 01 2011 4:00am

For the past six days, every morsel of food and drink that I have put in my mouth has been put in an online food diary, Calorie Count .

This is not a ploy to lose weight. I’m just trying to see if I’m getting enough calories from carbohydrates and other nutrients such as sodium, iron, and potassium.

The hope is that I can find something in my diet that can help me explain why I cramp so much in long runs and marathons.

Six days is probably not a big enough window to draw a concrete conclusion. But it’s a window nevertheless, and already, I can see where I have some diet weaknesses: Too much sodium. Not enough potassium.

Before I explain and wow you with some nutritional charts, I’ll tell you that my experimenting with pickles in the hopes that they stop marathon cramps is over.

I’m off the pickle wagon, somewhat.

Let me explain. During a 16-mile long run on Aug. 27, I took about 12 ounces of powerade during every water stop. It was a slow 16-miler (8:50 pace), mainly because my legs were just beat up from the 45-mile week. So, it was slow, but nutrition-wise and cardiovascular-wise, it felt great.

Until Mile 14. Under the Mopac bridge there was only water. I had packed a few slices of pickles with me and hadn’t eaten them at this point. Knowing how they’d gotten me out of trouble in some previous long runs, I thought if I ate the pickles with the water I’d feel even better during the last two miles.

But it didn’t work that way. A few minutes after eating the pickles, I could just feel my blood pressure rising, my heart-rate quickened and I got real tired. You know how you feel after eating a big plate of Mexican food? That’s how I felt. Too much salt.

I had completed mile 13 in 8:22 and mile 14 in 8:14. And after eating three small pickle slices, it took me 9:01 to complete mile 15 and only a mad sprint at the end of the run kept me under a 9-min mile for mile 16.

Maybe, and I’m just theorizing here, but maybe drinking only powerade during the first 14 miles put my body in a perfect potassium-sodium balance. Then, when I ingested the pickles, the extra salt pushed me beyond stasis: it would have been better if I’d have ordered a plate of enchiladas at mile 14.

So where I stand on pickles now, after all the hype I’ve spewed about them the past few weeks: I think when you are in trouble, already cramping, already low on electrolytes, pickles can definitely buy you a few extra miles at the end of a race or a long run. Like a study I blogged about earlier, the vinegar in the pickles sends instant signals to the neurotransmitters in your brain to tell your cramping muscles to relax. And any runner knows it certainly doesn’t hurt to consume pickles or salty foods days or even hours before a run.

But during a run? I think I will only use pickles in a race or a long run in case of an emergency and rely more on my nutrition the days and before the run to get my electrolyte balance in order.

Which brings me back to my six-day window. Based on a ton of research and how I feel, a runner – like me – who weighs about 160 pounds should get about 2,800 calories a day. The caloric intake includes 350 grams of carbs, 93 grams of fat, and between 100 to 140 grams of protein a day.

As you can see, I have no problems getting the calories I need:

I consumed around 2,800 calories on every day except the 4,300-calorie day on last Saturday, the day of my 16-mile run.

or carbs…..

Its also suggested that I consume about 1,500 milligrams of salt and 4,700 milligrams of potassium. That is more than a 3-to-1 ratio in favor of potassium. As you can see from the following two charts, my salt intake is often twice as much as I need, and my potassium intake is often too low:

Yikes. That's way too much sodium, even for a runner like me.

I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables and it shows up in my potassium intake:

Most days, I don't get enough potassium.

So, what’s the big deal you ask? Don’t marathon runners need salt – even moreso than any other nutrients besides carbohydrates – to be able to complete long runs or a marathon? Yes, but they need potassium in concert with salt, according to studies.

From Runners World :

Potassium is a mineral that works with sodium (also a mineral) to balance the fluids and electrolyte levels in your body. And since steady fluid levels help to regulate your heartbeat and prevent muscles from cramping, potassium is of particular importance to runners.”

Because you lose 10 times more sodium than potassium through sweat, potassium also works to conserve sodium and we know that losing sodium pulls water from a body in motion (a runner) and causes dehydration.

In fact, a recent report suggests that staying hydrated (and thus cramp free) is more about the ratio of potassium to salt that you consume . As I said earlier, I’m supposed to get three times as much potassium as sodium per day. And because I have not been a big fan of fruits and vegetables – natural foods rich in potassium – my potassium intake has been very low for much of my adult life.

So from here on, I’m going to eat more fruits and vegetables, more potassium, less sodium, and maybe, just maybe, I can solve these marathon cramps.


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