Electrolyte supplements ineffective for athletes: Study

Washington: Endurance athletes, who use sports drinks and other supplements during competitions to replenish their electrolyte levels, might be doing so in vain! Well, this is what a new study has suggested.

According to CNN Health, 266 endurance athletes taking part in the RacingThePlanet event — that involves 155 miles of running for seven days in the most hostile deserts around the world — were evaluated by Stanford University researchers.

The lead author of the study, which got published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr Grant Lipman has stated that the findings from this specific case would also hold consistent for other sports.

The research laid its focus on two conditions related to skewed sodium levels in the body. The first is hypernatremia, in which the sodium levels become excessive due to dehydration. The second is exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), which as the terminology suggests, is induced when the sodium levels are too low.

CNN Health explained that EAH can cause impaired mental status, pulmonary oedema, seizures and in the worst cases, death.

The study indicated that although hot temperature increased the likelihood of such conditions, sodium supplementation did not mitigate exercise-induced hyponatremia.

Lipman — who is an emergency medicine professor and director at Stanford Wilderness Medicine — told CNN Health that “in the past, athletes were told to make sure they’re taking electrolyte supplements and drinking as much water as they can.”

Also “it was generally thought that that would prevent things like muscle cramping, electrolyte imbalances and dizziness.” However, “there is currently no evidence to show this is true.”

Out of the total 266 athletes, 205 were men and 61 were women, who ran five races held during 2017 and 2018.

In the marathons which took place in South America, Namibia, Chile and Mongolia, 98 athletes ran in temperatures averaging in excess of 33-degree Celcius.

Some runners consumed salt tablets at one-hour gaps, while the rest drank electrolytes diluted in bottled water, Lipman continued.

He further explained that “there are multiple different methods. However, most electrolyte strategies end up with a drink that has a lower sodium concentration than what is found in the body. This is why drinking too much electrolyte solutions can result in EAH.”

The methodology of the study involved collecting data from the athletes before and after a 50-mile race on the competition’s fifth day.

Before the run, the participants disclosed the electrolyte based supplements they were going to consume and how often; and also whether they plan to sip through them at regular intervals or only when they felt thirsty.

The athletes also informed about the training programs they underwent previously and their body weight was recorded before the race.

As the race came to an end, the runners were weighed again at the finish line and were asked how closely they abided by their decided supplemental regime.

Finally, blood samples were drawn to assess blood sodium levels.
The findings revealed that 41 runners had their sodium levels out of whack after the race.

Exercise-associated hyponatremia induced by low sodium was found in 11 runners, while 30 ended up having excess blood sodium due to dehydration.

The races which took place in hot conditions accounted for 88 per cent of the sodium imbalance cases, indicating that temperature and hydration did a better job at predicting sodium level issues rather than electrolyte supplement consumption.

“Electrolyte supplements are promoted as preventing nausea and cramping caused by low salt levels, but this is a false paradigm,” Lipman commented.
He also warned that “they’ve never been shown to prevent illness or even improve performance, and if diluted with too much water, can be dangerous.”

The data further revealed that runners with EAH generally had shorter training programs, had higher body weight and finished the race five to six hours later than usual.

According to Lipman, the conclusion that can be inferred from this study is that athletes must learn to listen to their bodies regardless of the sport they participate in, and they should also pay special attention to the heat.

“Drink when you are thirsty. Don’t have a schedule on time or mileage,” Lipman suggested.

On a concluding note, he said that “just [drinking] electrolytes aren’t going to protect you from high or low salt levels you need to eat salty food as well”.