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Salt and the endurance athlete

Marni Sumbal

Skip the popcorn, chex mix, salted nuts and pretzels and put down the salt shaker. Ironman athletes often feel overwhelmed by nutrition before the big day. I don't think Ironman athletes have trouble eating carbs so the second biggest focus in the diet is Sodium. Due to an overwhelming amount of nutrition-related articles, athletes are lead to believe that they need to eat everything salty before the race and add extra salt to all food.
In hot weather, the more fluid lost through sweating, the more likely you are to deplete sodium and electrolyte stores. Sodium is one of many electrolytes used during endurance exercise, in addition to potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium and manganese.
Table salt is 40% sodium and 60% chloride. According to the RDA (recommended daily allowance), the recommended amount of sodium per day is around 2,400 mg, however it is also recommended that all individuals consume no more than 1,500-2000 mg/day. Although sodium will provide a balanced quantity of electrolytes to prevent cramping and help maintain fluid balance, a high sodium (ex. salty foods) or high electrolyte diet (ex. through salt tabs or excessive electrolyte pills) does not ensure that your body will use those electrolytes.
Unfortunately, many athletes suffer from stomach cramps and leg cramps, in addition to white-streaks on clothing during exercise due to an excessive amount of sodium or electrolytes before and during the race, in addition to a high concentration of sugary sport drinks during the race which sit in the stomach undigested.
I have a feeling that most Ironman athletes consume way too much of sodium and carbohydrate-rich foods on the days (or week) leading up to the race and may neglect other vital foods such as lean/low fat protein-rich foods, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables.
Although sodium is essential in small quantities, in order to maintain fluid balance and control the contraction and relaxation of muscles, athletes exercising in hot conditions do not need to go overboard through salting every eatable food in site. This could be a total body disturbance and possible DNF waiting to happen. By eating a balanced diet of real food with natural sources of sodium, an athlete can obtain the recommended amount of sodium needed to maintain body homeostasis.
Here's my idea of the typical foods consumed by athletes before an Ironman (or long distance race)...
*Because most of these foods are packaged and processed, I am assuming that the servings I am giving are low compared to what many athletes would "snack" on in the days leading up to the race
-Salting food at each meal or eating salt packets - Approximately 1 tsp. of table salt contains 1,500 mg of sodium.
-1 cup Chex Mix Bold - 780 mg sodium
-3 oz. Dry Roasted Mixed Nuts - 558 mg sodium (I do recommend nuts prior to a race w/ snacks and meals in order to keep the blood sugar stable and to provide healthy fats. Be sure to portion control. 3 oz nuts = 504 calories)
-4 oz. Rold Gold Pretzel sticks - 1840 mg sodium (not sure who can only eat 4 oz. pretzels?)
-12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) Panera Vegetarian Soup - 1290 mg (I included soup here and below. I do think soup is a great way to get sodium just be aware when you order out and check online nutrition guides before ordering)
-2 slices Large pizza hut cheese pizza - 1500 mg sodium (I enjoy pizza two days before a race. Because most athletes will stop after 5-6 pieces of pizza, be aware of calories and sodium. 1 slice large thin crust veggie lovers has 510 mg sodium and 170 calories whereas 1 slice cheese pizza has 300 calories. Because most athletes will choose restaurant pizza over "fast food" pizza, be aware of chef's going overboard on the salt shaker in the kitchen)
-1 tablespoon mustard - 480 mg sodium
-Subway 6" turkey breast sandwich - 1020 mg sodium (check restaurants and fast food online nutrition guides before you travel so you can plan ahead before you order)
Total: 6988 mg sodium
(I didn't add any mg's for salting food).

My idea of some healthy sodium-rich foods (some are great sources of protein):
1/2 cup fat free cottage cheese - 450 mg sodium
1 cup vegetarian soup - 815 mg sodium
1/4 cup feta cheese - 418 mg sodium
2 ounces Boar's head roasted turkey - 350 mg sodium
1 cup skim milk - 127 mg sodium
2 slices rye bread - 422 mg sodium
Total: 2582.5 mg sodium
In addition to 2-3 hammer endurolytes on the 3-4 days leading up to the race.

The biggest problem I find with athletes is the feeling of bloating and having to drink too much water in the days leading up the race. The best feeling you can have before the race is knowing that your body is healthy in the inside. Drinking water (not sugary sport drinks) is recommended several times during the day (20-24 ounces between meals) and 12-16 ounces with meals. Because sports nutrition during a race is just as important as what you put in your body before the race, keep the diet balanced before an Ironman and choose to eat healthy, portioned controlled meals and healthy snacks every 2-3 hours between meals. Always combine protein w/ carbohydrates to keep the blood sugar balanced during the day. Don't neglect those fruits and veggies which include many necessary vitamins and minerals which will be used on race day.
I have a feeling the foods I listed in the typical Ironman pre-race diet are common in most American's diet. And I only listed a few foods which I consider easy to consume and contain sodium. I didn't list foods that are super bad for the heart but you will do a great thing for your body if you prioritize foods that have very few ingredients (ex. fruits and veggies) so always read nutrition facts and labels.
Even if you aren't doing an Ironman, are only training for a sprint triathlon or consider yourself a fitness food labels to reduce and control the sodium in your diet.