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Ask the Coach - Swim Distances and Electrolytes

(also found on http://neoendurance.blogspot.com)

Welcome to the first weekly 'Ask the Coach' column. Answers to questions sent in will be published each Thursday. Questions can be sent to me via email, posted to my facebook page, or by commenting on this blog.

Thanks to all those who submitted questions! I am going to answer two questions this week.

Q1) The distance of the swim in a triathlon, does that distance include the exit from the water in to the transition area? --Kera

No - the swim distance, ie. 1500m in an Olympic distance triathlon, should be the actual distance you swim. The distance from the swim exit to T1 is not included, although the time it takes to run from the swim exit to the transition area is often included in your swim time. This happens when the timing mats are at the entrance to transition, not at the swim exit. This is the situation you will usually encounter in a triathlon.

Because different races will have different distances from the swim exit to transition, your actual "swim" time may vary from race to race, even if you swam the same pace. Additionally, there could be some error in getting the buoys placed for an exact course, and we rarely swim a straight line. Swim 50m off course for the total distance of a race and the average swimmer will have added almost a minute to their swim time. The result is that most of us find that our open water swim times are a bit slower than what we do in the pool.

Q2) How do I know how many electrolytes to consume? --Carley
A: Now that we are smack in the middle of summer, athletes are probably used to hearing people (coaches) telling us to make sure we are consuming enough electrolytes. But why do we need to do that and how do we know how much we need? First let me start off by defining an electrolyte. (I knew my chemistry degree would come in handy!) Electrolytes are salts - and a salt is made up of a positive ion and a negative ion. Table salt (NaCl, sodium chloride) comes apart in water and forms ions of Na+ and Cl-. This is now an electrolyte solution. But why should we care?
Well, we care because these ions are important to our bodily functions. These ions, especially sodium and potassium, help our cells maintain their functions, and we want our muscle cells and nerves firing appropriately when we are 4 hours into our half-ironman race! As our body/blood is basically an electrolyte solution, we want to make sure the concentration (number of ions per unit volume) stays at optimum level. Now that it is summer, we sweat a lot more, meaning we are losing electrolytes and need to replace them.
Ok, so we know we need to replace electrolytes to keep our body functioning during our event - how do we know how much we need.
There are some differing opinions and all products are made slightly differently, usually to what that company's research deems "optimum." But we all know humans are different and depending on our sweat rate and our own physiology, we will all need different amounts of electrolytes. The intensity of our exercise and the conditions in which we exercise will also influence the amount of electrolytes we need. Trial and error will help you determine how much you need to consume. Let's look at some common electrolyte replacements that are out on the market.

1) Gatorade (8oz serving): Potassium 30 mg, Sodium 110 mg (from gatorade label)
2) Powerade (8oz serving): Potassium 25mg, Sodium, 100mg (http://powerade.com/products/)
3) Nuun (1/2 tablet in 8oz water): Potassium 50mg, Sodium 180mg (http://www.nuun.com/nuunis/science.html)
4) Hammer Endurolutes: 1 capsule: Potassium 25mg, Sodium 40mg (http://www.hammernutrition.com/products/endurolytes.elt.html?navcat...)
5) The Right Stuff: Sodium ~1000mg. Patened product so exact amounts not published, but high sodium concentration (http://www.therightstuff-usa.com/FAQ_s.html)

Gatorade and Powerade also contain carbohydrates, but that's a separate topic. The bottom line is that products can vary in electrolyte content. I've also only listed sodium and potassium. Several of these products contain other salts/minerals, as we do lose more than just sodium and potassium, but those two are the major players.

Now for the fun part - figuring out which type of product works for you. Unfortunately this is trial and error. Buy a few different products and do similar workouts under similar conditions. Which made you feel the best? Do you have a high sodium diet and are your clothes salty when you finish a hard workout? The saltier they are, the more you are excreeting so you need to replace these, but you also may be consuming too many. Personal amounts needed (mg/hr consumption,) is going to vary by person, exercise intensity and conditions, but for most it'll be along the lines of a few hundred mg/hr, especially in warmer or more intense conditions.
Here's an example of varied electrolyte needs with professional triathlete Joanna Zeiger. She was having performace issues and even not finishing races due to some mysterious issue. After months of tests, it was determined that she just needed a much higher amount of electrolytes. Once this was figured out she modified her training and race consumption and was back in business!

The dangers of not consuming enough electrolytes is hyponatremia, (low sodium concentration of the blood). This happens if you drink too much water and don't replace your electrolytes. This can be life threatening and symptoms can seem similar to dehydration. But if you underconsumed electrolytes during your physical activity, but not bad enough to cause hyponatremia (which is really bad), you might feel a bit sluggish and then crave salty foods after exercise.
I'm not aware of too many dangers of consuming too many electrolytes...the symptoms would be probably bloating due to water retention. You would want to make sure you were getting enough fluid in as well or dehydration might be a risk. If you are hypertensive you need to watch your sodium consumption - your doctor might have recommendations for you and is probably monitoring your physical activity as well.

In conclusion, you have to test your needs along with many products available on the market, but the warmer, more humid, or more intense the workout is (the more you sweat) the more electrolytes (along with fluid) that you will need to consume.

If you have questions or comments on this post, please leave them below! And don't forget to submit your questions for next week's 'Ask the Coach' column. I will save questions, so if I don't get to one during one week, it may be answered in future weeks. Happy Training!

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Comment by Tim Bergsten on July 29, 2010 at 3:48pm
I here triathletes talk about "brick" workouts. I have no idea what they're talking about. Can you fill me in?
Comment by Brian McCarrie on July 29, 2010 at 1:48pm
Great info Nicole, I'm a big fan of the Nuun tablets myself. Thanks!!!

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