This question came up on the NTP facebook page today and after searching the forum for a little bit, I really didn't find much discussion on the topic other than some mentions in race reports.
So DC Tri, what is your experience with salt pills in racing/training?
My first triathlon (or race of any kind besides cherry blossom 10mi) was the DC Tri in 2011. I raced the Olympic distance, and shortly after crossing the finish line I was extremely light headed, to the point of passing out. I had to sit down in the middle of the street in the finishers area for about 10 minutes sipping on gatorade before coming to. I still felt terrible for about an hour.
Fast forward to later that same year. Club Championship at Rockett's Landing in July. Those who were there remember the "swim cap optional" start due to the heat in excess of 100 degrees that day. After crossing the finish line, again I was at point of passing out. Extreme fatigue and light headed. I had to sit down for a few minutes before walking up to a medic and describing my symptoms. He gave me 2x salt pills and said to keep drinking water. 15 minutes later I was fine.
I'm fairly certain I was at the onset of Hyponatremia. Since then, I've read quite a bit and experimented some on intake levels of sodium to keep healthy and be able to finish races without passing out. Everyone's body is different but I need approximately 1g of sodium per hour on a hot day (85+ degrees) for long rides/races and close to 32oz of fluid per hour.
If you don't have any experience with them, definitely start with a small amount if you're having trouble with hydration or sweat excessively. Too much sodium can also have negative consequences. Hopefully this thread can provide some insight from more experienced athletes.
I make my own NA-K salt mixture and spike my energy drinks, specially in the summer. It works great for me. I spike each water bottle with 8% daily recommended dose of NA and K. If it's a long race I may also take two saltstick tabs every hour on the run, but usually the electrolytes I get on the bike are enough for the run.
I package my mixture in mini ziplock bags and keep them in my bento box. The mini ziplocks you can buy on Amazon or ask your local corner crack dealer.
During races, I typically take a salt tablet every hour to augment InFinit, which has extra sodium and other electrolytes, and Gels. I read that you should target as much as 1000 mb of sodium for each hour. At Lake Placid, I took in about 600 mg per hour on the bike . I do not take in any extra sodium on the run. For training, I somewhat mirror this plan to a lesser extent.
Let's not call it salt pills. For a newbie, that might give the impression that you are taking a pill of only sodium. That is not the case. Let's call it electrolyte pills since the pill contains more than just salt (sodium, potassium, magnesium, and a few other things). That's a very important distinction since those ingredients also play important roles.
For training, on days that I consider perfect for cycling (for me) or cooler, my Infinit mix, coupled gels, provide me with all that I need to get through training in decent shape. It hotter days, like summer in DC, when I'm sweating like crazy, I take 1 or 2 pills per hour depending on conditions, my exertion levels, and fluid intake.
For races, I take 1 pill + 1 gel 10 minutes prior to the start. I would then pop in one an hour and evaluate the plan as the race progresses, based on race conditions. My Infinit and gel combo provide me with plenty, but taking an extra pill per hour gives me some mental comfort, if not physical relief. In an Ironman, I only take them on the bike. In a standalone marathon, I take them during the run once an hour. My intake plans are all based on experimentations during training to see what is ideal for me.
Like everyone else has said so far, it's individualistic.
I should note that if you are cramping, you should look at your training (i.e., fitness) and level of exertions before you look at your lack of electrolyte intake. Going harder for a longer period than you are used to, plays a larger role in cramping than does a lack of salt/electrolytes. If you are racing a marathon, HIM, or IM and you cramp during your first two hours of excercise, it is most likely due to going at rate that is harder/faster than your training indicate that you should go, as opposed to the lack of electrolytes or salt.
I don't do salt/electrolyte pills but I do add salt to my water bottles. I usually add a few shakes to each bottles and fill it with water (I only do water on the bike). Then when I re-fill each bottle I add a small salt packet from a fast food place, I just grab a handful when I'm out. Works for me, I've never had any issues with cramping. I do notice the difference if I don't add salt to my bottles on hot days or when I am sweating a ton ie. Ron's Spin class. I also make sure I have a banana before I head out which takes care of Potassium.
Let's also remember that sodium and potassium are in everything you consume on the bike. I have a spreadsheet with the per-serving amounts of electrolytes for any nutritional product i use during a long training session. I then was able to work out how much of X i was taking in per hour and see whether it was too little, too much, or just right. The same sheet i use for calories. Now that i have the amounts dialed in, i can mix and match gels, bars, sports drink, pills, tablets, and gas station snacks and be pretty confident about keeping the system in balance. This is no a short-term project.
During the Nation's Tri, I had to wait over 2hours to get in the water. I was one of the last waves. I found myself tired and thirsty when we started. I know what to eat for 1 hours wait. But, clearly not for more than that.
I think I went to bathroom too many times that my body was low on electrolytes when I started. I had a cramp on swim out! (You should have seen my face, wth, I haven't started biking yet?!)
Any suggestion for refueling/ electrolyte consumption if you have to wait that long for your wave to start? Would you suggest drinking gatorade/electrolyte drinks when I was waiting instead of pure water?
You should always be sipping on a sports drink pre race (for the electrolytes) no matter how long the wait is before your race start. This also goes for the 24-48 hours leading up to a race. There are consequences to drinking too much water (hyponatremia) and not having enough electrolytes (cramping, etc).
I also have to agree with Tuan...lets address them as electrolytes so there isn't any confusion regarding their make up. Tuan also makes a very good point. Cramping is 'believed' to be from either a lack of electrolytes (mostly magnesium) and/or racing at a level that you haven't been training (or some combination).
This process of determining your need and intake is very individualistic. It depends on your sweat rate, the type of sports drink that you use (Ironman Perform, GU Endurance or Infinit that have electrolytes in place versus Gatorade and many of the others that do not), temperature, etc. I think the take-away here is that it is a process. Each person needs to take it on, experiment with it and find what works for them.
Thank you Jason for starting this post as this is a great place to get insight into what others do and where to start this process.