Track athlete takes low-salt diet too far

Dal student ended up too sick to compete


Daniel Yetman performing the triple jump at a competition last summer. Photo courtesy: Daniel Yetman

Daniel Yetman, a second-year student at Dalhousie University, describes the moment when he knew he'd taken his training too far.

"When I woke up the morning of the competition, my head was pounding," he says.

Yetman, one of the top-ranked triple-jumpers in Canada, was in Montreal with the rest of the university's track and field team for one of the biggest meets of the season and he couldn't even take part.

While Yetman lifts weights and does other strength training throughout the season, he tries to cut weight the last few days before competing in order to make himself extra light.

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The dangers of high sodium diets are well-known, but too little sodium can be harmful too. Photo: prasan.naik (Flickr)


What is the triple jump?

It's a hop, skip and a jump. The athlete runs as fast as he or she can and has to jump before a board.

  • The first jump (hop): jump off one foot and land on the same foot;
  • The second (skip): land on the opposite foot;
  • The third (jump): land feet-first in a sand pit.

The total jump is measured from the farthest point back, so the athlete needs to push his or her body as far forward as possible.


Record breaking

  • Yetman's personal best is 14.28 metres.
  • The AUS championship record is 14.25m.
  • The provincial record is 14.34m.
  • The Dalhousie record is 14.38m. 
  • Yetman's goal for the next few weeks? 14.5m. 


"Once a competition is near, there isn't enough time to gain any more strength, so the only way to become more fierce is to lower the amount of weight that has to be pushed," explains Yetman.

As a vegetarian, Yetman takes creatine supplements during track season to replace the dietary creatine he's not getting from meat or fish. Creatine helps the body's muscles recover from fatigue, especially during strenuous exercise.

One of the major side effects from creatine is water retention, says Yetman. "So I started to look for other ways to lose water weight. The most obvious way was to cut salt."

"Depriving your body of sodium is not a good way to lose weight," Maureen Tilley says emphatically.

Tilley, a registered dietician at Capital Health in Halifax, says cutting sodium from your diet is actually a good way to decrease your athletic performance.

"Sodium plays a big role in muscle and nerve co-ordination, and helps to keep your body hydrated too," she says.

Fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting are some of the main signs that indicate your body is seriously lacking sodium and electrolytes, says Tilley. "Be cautious," she warns. "Don't disregard the first signs of dehydration."

Yetman had all those symptoms. When he woke up with the headache, he knew something was wrong.

"If I didn't do something quick, I wasn't going to be able to jump. So I tried to eat two bagels, a banana and drink Gatorade. The extra food made me feel worse and after a couple of minutes I threw up."

He walked over to the track to start his warmup anyway, still hoping he could compete.

"By the time I got there I was starting to feel queasy again. As soon as I started running I was forced to stop," says Yetman. "I walked over to my coach, too sick to even speak, and he asked me if I was feeling all right. I couldn't even respond so he dragged me to the cafeteria to try to load me up with salt."

Yetman says he tried to eat two packets of salt, a bag of Doritos, some salted peanuts and drink a bottle of Gatorade, but he couldn't keep anything down.

"At this point I had to officially withdraw from the competition," says Yetman.

"Now I know what my body's limits are"

While the effects of too much sodium are well-known, research done by McMaster University last fall shows that too little salt can also increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes.

This means it's important to be "really aware of your body," especially when you're working out, says Tilley.

Yetman knew his body well and hoped he wouldn't feel his dehydration until after the competition.

"I had planned to load up on really salty foods the minute I was finished jumping in order to replenish the lost electrolytes," he says.

But his body outsmarted him.

"I've learned my lesson," says Yetman. "I'm kind of happy it happened because now I know what my body's limits are and what I shouldn't do."

Leading up to this meet, Yetman was consuming as little as 500 milligrams of sodium per day. The recommended daily intake for adults is three times that amount.

Yetman won't go to dietary extremes like this again, he says. For his future competitions, Yetman plans to simply cut out the most excessively salty foods.

His two big competitions are right around the corner. The Atlantic championships are in Moncton the last weekend in February and nationals are in Winnipeg two weeks later.

"I am glad that I made such a stupid decision early in the season instead of later on," says Yetman. "I want to be in top shape to be in medal contention and if all goes well, to win."


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