Why Cyclists Need Salt

How to Make Roasted Citrus + Herb Salt to Balance your Post-Ride Sodium Levels

With LENTINE ALEXIS, cyclist and professional chef

As a chef, salt is one of the most important ingredients in my pantry. It opens the palate and enhances flavors, amplifying any dish on the table. But as an athlete, the importance of salt goes beyond the pantry and straight to my jersey pocket, even though most of us forget to include it when we’re riding and cooking. Discover why cyclists need salt and one of my favorite finishing salts -- Roasted Citrus + Herb Salt -- below.

In 2009, I raced the inaugural Ironman China event on Hainan Island. A typhoon had hit the island in the days prior to the race, leaving a terrific 94% humidity in its wake that hung in the air as the starting gun went off that morning. In the hours to come, the temperatures climbed up into the 30’s (102F degrees), and capable, strong, determined athletes began dropping off the course like flies, discouraged and covered with crusts of their own salty sweat. Cramps, delusions, and heat exhaustion were rampant. It wasn’t that their training had failed them. It wasn’t that they weren’t drinking water or eating enough calories.

Lack of sodium was to blame. When we sweat, we lose water, but we also lose electrolytes -- among them, salt.

“We lose between 700mg and 1000mg of sodium per liter of sweat during exercise,” says exercise physiologist Dr. Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Labs. “If we don’t replace that sodium in our diets, then when we exercise, our performance deteriorates.”

Sodium controls the function of every cell in our bodies. It enables electrical signals through our nervous systems (allowing our brains to tell our bodies to pedal a little faster up the mountain, or swerve to avoid an obstacle) and plays a vital role in fluid balance (keeping our bodies hydrated so they can fulfill the tasks our brains ask them to do). Consuming salt and electrolytes - as athletes and as humans - helps keep the brain sharp and our bodies responding quickly.

Worth the salt.

By listening to their cravings and by adding a little bit of salt into their diets (say, a handful of salty pretzels) these athletes may have been able to avoid performance disasters on the Ironman course that day. As athletes, unless we’re safeguarding our sodium intake on a daily basis, not just when we ride but off the bike as well, we won’t have the opportunity to prove our salt as cyclists or in our daily lives. In fact, Dr. Lim has worked on studies indicating that, over time, we can slowly deplete the total sodium stored in the body as a result of heavy sweating during exercise on a regular basis. So, even if we are consuming salt when we ride, we develop chronic sodium deficiencies that reveal themselves on a ride.

How do you know if you need more salt?

Do you crave salty snacks after a workout? Do you have headaches after a long ride?

According to Lim’s studies, a balanced body would normally have 1.3 grams of salt per kilogram of body weight for a 70k person (154 pounds). A 20 percent drop, equivalent to about 18 grams of sodium in a person of the same weight can cause some pretty severe fatigue, as well as signs of overtraining and overreaching syndrome. It’s unlikely that most of us would lose this much in a single workout, but over time hard training sessions can stack up. So the athletes in China may have started hurting their performance in the meals leading up to their big race day. We can all combat these sorts of training and racing pitfalls by eating a little more salt in our diets on a regular basis. As a chef, this is music to my ears (and to my palate)!

Get Salty

Consuming a sports drink designed to replace electrolytes is one way of replacing the salt lost in sweat, but seasoning your food with salt and incorporating salt into your meals is another way of making sure that you’re performing at your peak. (And, that your dishes are at the peak of flavor!)

There are lots of different ways to incorporate sodium into your food. Liquid aminos, soy sauce, or a variety of salts are all options. Sea salt, flake salt, and kosher salt are all suitable for seasoning food. As an athlete/chef then, every one of my meals gets a nice sprinkle (or maybe even a few sprinkles) of delicious flaky sea salt. I sprinkle salt on my toast at breakfast, over salads just before serving, even on chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven. When I travel, I carry a little tin of flaky sea salt, just in case I need a boost of flavor. I use salt so much, I even craft my own special salt blends and, with the recipe below, you can too.

Roasted Citrus + Herb Salt

This salt takes just about any dish to the next level. Sprinkle it on meats headed to the grill, avocado toast, or a pinch to your savory breakfast oatmeal, salad dressings, homemade hummus… just about anywhere you want a little bit of extra flavor! The recipe calls for flaky sea salt because, in addition to adding flavor, large salt crystals add a crunchy texture that excites the palate. I like to use Meyer lemons here, but any citrus in season would be divine as well.

  • 1/2 cup / 2.25 oz / 65 g flaky sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon Meyer lemon zest (or any other citrus zest)
  • 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, oregano or thyme (or a mixture of all three!)

Preheat your oven to oven 225F / 105C. Combine the salt and citrus in a medium bowl and mix well. Really work the zest into the salt, making sure there aren’t any clumps of zest. Spread across a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 70 minutes, or until the citrus is completely dried out. Flecks of zest should crumble when pinched between your fingers. Remove from oven and allow to cool a bit. Salts keep in an airtight jar for a couple of months.

Makes 1/2 cup of finishing salt.