Plain old table salt: A cure for my marathon cramps?

Ever since cramps reduced my stride from 8:00 to 11:00-miles during the last hour of my White Rock Lake Marathon experience last Dec. 14, I’ve been trying to figure out what caused my muscles to spasm. Was I not adequately trained? Was it too hot? Did something chemically go wrong?

Well, during Saturday’s 20-miler, I think I may have gotten my answer.

I ran the first half of the Cowtown Marathon course, then a three-mile circle around the hilly neighborhood near the Colonial Country Club, then the last four miles of the Cowtown Course, which has huge hills at the end of Mile 24 and the start of Mile 25. Saturday’s weather was eerily similar to the weather at White Rock. High 60s and windy.

At a little after 6 a.m., about 10 of us took off and from the first step, I mean the very first step, I knew this was going to be a tough day. The humidity just choked the air out of you. The heat was crazy. And yes, in Texas, a 60-plus degree day is welcome if it comes in the middle of the summer. But in February, when your morning runs are usually in the 30s, well, 60 may as well have been 80 or even 85.

But unlike the marathon, when I was hell bent on running an 8:00-mile, the first half of Saturday’s run was slow and easy. I didn’t let myself go faster than an 8:30 mile for the first seven miles. And seven of the first 13 miles were 8:50 or slower. Still, in this heat, I could feel myself stiffening up. Hamstrings. Quads. They just weren’t firing as usual. And it seemed like I was working wayyyy too hard to be going so slow. Are these the same legs that carried me to a 1:36 half marathon a week ago? Where did they go? I had to stop and stretch at Mile 7 and again at Mile 9 and with 11 miles to go, I was figuring, “Damn, am I going to make it?’

Before I left the house for the run, I put two salt packets I nabbed from Chick-Fil-A in my fanny pack. While I was stretching near Mile 9, I decided to take one. I tore the pack open and poured half in my mouth. Yek. Then I chased it with water. Instantly, I felt better. I hit Mile 10 in 8:05 and clocked an 8:16 at Mile 11, which would have been faster but I fumbled around trying to take my first GU of the run. The miles felt effortless and they were the fastest two miles of the run so far.

By this time, I was running with three other runners: Tom, who has run 10 marathons and will run Cowtown; Bob, the 50-something guy who I got lost with during my first Cowtown training rout (think pit bulls), and Karen, a Lukes Locker Tuesday/Thursday morning runner who is one of the fastest women in our group. I remember telling Bob about how fresh I felt after taking the salt and we both just said its probably in my head.

Miles 12 thru 15 were all 8:50 or slower, but it wasnt because the salt/placebo was wearing off. At each of those miles, we stopped to either stretch or refill our water bottles and I just let the clock run on my Garmin. At around Mile 13, I gave my last GU to Karen (Hey, I was being a gentleman. She said she needed a GU. I gave her one.) As I handed it to her, my last salt packet flew out of my fanny pack. So here I am, no GU, no salt. Its hot. Its windy. And there are 7 miles to go. But I soldiered on and when I completed Mile 15 in 8:02, I figured, ahhhh, I dont need anything to get me through this.

Boy, was I wrong. I started getting that tight feeling in my legs and quads again just past the 15-mile mark and the fatigue was definitely setting in. Tom gave me one of his GUs and I did everything I could not to puke on the Strawberry Powerade GU. (Hey, I like Hammer Chocolate!). It took me 8:58 to complete Mile 16 and I was absolutely fading, feeling exactly the way I felt at White Rock at exactly the same mile marker that I started feeling cramps during the marathon.

On Saturday, Miles 13 and Mile 16 took me under the same I-30 bridge on the Trinity Trails. At the 16.5-mile mark, I remembered that it was at this part of the course where my salt packet flew out of my fanny pack when I was handing my GU to Karen. So, I stopped and looked around in the grass for my lost salt packet. And 10 seconds later, voila! It had been stepped on, and it was very soggy, but it was still intact. I tore it open, poured it in my mouth (the wind blew some of it in my eyes – ouch) then swigged the remaining water I had in my water bottle and took off.

And again, I felt great instantly. Instant as in now. Right. Now. I went from feeling like the last four miles would be a death march to sprinting. I did the next two miles in 16 minutes flat. Folks, thats an 8:00-mile. It felt great to come “back from the dead,” of cramps and low-energy. I was feeling tired, and could feel the wall just a bit. But it was a good feeling. Usually, in my long runs, the cramps come before I get tired and I have never finished a race longer than a half-marathon in an exhilarating sprint.

The last two miles of the 20-miler were 8:36 and 8:48, but both miles were mostly uphill, the same hills I will face on the last two miles of the Cowtown Marathon on Feb. 28.

Saturday was the first time I’d taken salt, plain old table salt, for a long run. I was absolutely amazed at the affect it had on me. I’m guessing with those two salt packets I ingested more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium. (I had this crusty white film all over me afterwards). During my White Rock Marathon 20-miler training runs, I took this fancy pants supplement called Hammer Endurolytes and looking at the label, I see those only have 40 MG of salt per serving. I took 9 of those capsules during the marathon, giving me only 360 MG of salt during the whole race. Combine that with the fact that I drank water at nearly every water stop and its not easy to see why I had washed away my electrolytes during the marathon.

So, maybe, just maybe, I’ve found a cure to the cramps that have ailed me in my previous three marathons.

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11 Responses to Plain old table salt: A cure for my marathon cramps?

  1. Jenny says:

    I didn’t realize those Hammer capsules were so low in sodium! I’ve also noticed the Hammer Gels are also low in sodium compared to some other brands like the PowerBar one.

    I hope you’ve found your answer!

  2. Mark says:

    I had cramps for my first two marathons, then I started using salt packets and have not had a problem since then. The first two marathons were hotter, but I think the salt really helped. I take one packet at the start and then another about 18-20 miles. Hopefully it will keep working. Good luck at Cowtown!

  3. Ulyana says:

    I am going to try that! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Victoria says:

    Try Saltstick– capsules made exactly for that…

  5. Jess says:

    This is wonderful news. You must feel a lot better about your upcoming race.

  6. Chic Runner says:

    hey, glad you found a cure to your cramps hopefully. When I get up to that mileage I’ll have to check it out.. :) Thanks again!

  7. Burger says:

    I wish it were that simple for me. I certainly hope it is for you though. Trial N Error right?

  8. Derek says:

    I have never been a fan of Hammer for the low sodium reason. I sweat a lot and need more than they give.

  9. lindsay says:

    how cool! i hope this is truly the solution. what a cheap one at that! ;) i never would have thought of salt packets, but now that you mention it – makes sense!

  10. Just_because_today says:

    I’ll follow your advice…I need it

  11. Pingback: Marathon training in the heat: Waiter, can I get that salt to go?

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