It is natural to crave salt during and after training, especially if you are sweating profusely. Salt cravings may be due to mild (or severe) dehydration but I find that they are often secondary to athletes not adequately replacing lost electrolytes during exercise. From my own experience, I often crave salty foods at the end of a long weekend training session but I find that with the right recovery nutrition, adequate fluids and a little creativity with meals, I am able to subside those cravings all while replacing lost electrolytes.
Because we lose more than just sodium when we sweat, it is important that we don't just reach for table salt during and immediately after exercise as a way to compensate for cramping during exercise or replacing lost sodium post exercise. Table salt is 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride and 1 tsp salt = ~2000 mg sodium (recommendations are less than 2500 mg of sodium/day). Because eating salty foods will only temporarily relieve cravings (often making you feel extra thirsty, which may be confused with hunger..thus causing you to overeat after exercise when you are truely thirsty) it is important to monitor your hydration throughout the day and ensure that you are focusing on liquid calories as your primary source of fuel throughout exercise.
A little about sweating...
A well conditioned athlete will sweat early into exercise as a way to reduce core body temperature. However, as an athlete sweats (regardless of fitness status), sodium is lost and extracellular sodium levels begin to fall (Na has an average concentration of 140 mEq/L. Above 140 would classify hypernatremia or a sign of dehydration whereas less than 140 would show signs of overhydration or hyponatremia)
As sodium levels fall, the body will increase the level of aldosterone (hormone that is controlled by kidney function) in order to slow sodium loss. However, as exercise continues and sodium is lost at a rate beyond repletion, blood pressure will begin to fall. The body will then produce the hormone vasopressin to help maintain blood pressure. But as exercise/racing continues, with more water and electrolyte losses (sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, phosphate, sulfate) performance may begin to suffer and the body may begin to experience fatigue, GI upset (often due to the athlete trying to postpone feelings of fatigue with added nutrition which is not being absorbed) and cramping (although, I believe that much of cramping is due to pushing at an untrained level, not necessarily due to sodium loss). Depending on whether or not you can tolerate food/drink when you are losing electrolytes and sodium in the blood, your body will gradully move water from the blood and into the spaces around the cells of the body, often bringing on swelling/edema.
Certainly, it's hard for an athlete to ignore salt cravings, especially if you are practicing and working on your race day nutrition, during training. Therefore, athlete or fitness enthusiast, it may be necessary to supplement with a sport drink (non-high fructose corn syrup drink) during all intense training sessions in order to provide your body with necessary electrolytes while minimizing fatigue and tissue breakdown.
For when you are finished with training and are still experiencing those salt cravings, how about trying my delicious chilled pasta salad to satisfy your taste buds on a warm summer day. Enjoy!!
Chilled Pasta salad
Chickpeas (rinse before using)
Purple onion (chopped)
Condiment of your choice (I used hummus but you can use light Mayo, reduced fat sour cream or greek yogurt...a few spoonfuls just to thicken the texture)
Pasta noodles (cooked until soft, then drained and rinsed with cool water)
Lemon Juice (about 1/2 tbsp)
1. Combine all ingredients and chill.