Sports drinks may seem like the new cool to make up for energy deficiency that endurance runners often experience during ultra-marathons but the new Stanford University study has found that electrolyte supplements do not restore electrolyte balance in the body as we are made to believe.
Ultramarathon runners – athletes running more than 42km through rough terrains under extreme weather conditions – are at risk of hyponatremia. Hyponatremia or low sodium levels in the body can cause dizziness, seizures, muscle cramping, pulmonary edema and even death. It affects 13-15% of runners and since 1985, 14 athletes have died as a result of hypnatremia.
Sodium is essential for our body. It maintains blood pressure and muscle and nerve health. Low as well as high sodium levels (hypernatremia) are not good for the body.
Grant S. Lipman, MD, professor of emergency medicine at Stanford and director of Stanford Wilderness Medicine, and team studied the effects of electrolyte supplements and climate change in 266 ultramarathon participants. The marathoners were part of six-stage RacingThePlanet ultramarathon in 2017 in four different deserts of the world and were given sodium supplements before the race. Their weight gain and finishing line sodium levels were checked.
The study found that 6.3% of athletes had exercise-linked hyponatremia whereas 30% had hypernatremia. Hyponatremia athletes had gained 14kg weight and they took 5-6 hours more to cover 50 miles than other participants. Participants with high sodium levels were dehydrated.
88% of sodium imbalances were due to excessive running in hot climate which showed that heat and hydration are better predictors of sodium imbalance than the intake of supplements. Moreover, the regular supplementation throughout the race did not protect the sodium level from falling too low.
Athletes are encouraged to consume electrolyte supplements and water to overcome exercise-linked dehydration and hyponatremia. However, Lipman and team found no evidence for the claim. In fact, they determined that to overcome the risk of dehydration and hyponatremia, athletes should train for longer hours, keep weight in control and drink plenty of water. Gulping on electrolyte supplements, as is usually promoted in sports magazines and advertisements, is nothing but a marketing strategy to increase drink sale.
Sports and energy drink is a big industry in the USA. In 2019, the sale of energy drinks crossed $1.85 billion dollars showing the tendency and trust of athletes on sports drinks such as Gatorade and POWERADE Zero, the major sellers of sports drinks in the USA.
Sidra Siyal, MD, New York, states, “Electrolyte supplements don’t increase the ability of a sportsman to perform better. In fact, they can be quite harmful for them in most conditions.”
Dr. Lipman believes the drinks are not the only protectors, the food which contains sodium can also be taken to maintain sodium levels. Sportsmen should examine the needs of their bodies and pay heed to climate conditions. Hyponatremia can affect players of other games as well, not just ultramarathoners.