Seaweed and Sea Salt:
The Natural Prevention for Electrolyte Imbalance in Races
By Paramita Jarvis, BScN
If you were to watch the Sri Chinmoy Marathon at New York’s Rockland State Park towards the end of August, you would hear people at the first aid station at trackside yelling out “Seaweed! Seaweed!” and handing out medicine cups of dulse to runners who were going by.
“What the heck is that about?” you might think.
Through years of experience, trial and observation, the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team has discovered that seaweed is one of the most effective mineral replacements that runners can consume. This is preventive medicine. If we can convince runners to chew and swallow seaweed along with drinking lots of water, then we have far fewer problems with electrolyte depletion in the medical tent.
The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team (SCMT) began putting on ultramarathons on 27 August 1978, with a 47-mile race in honour of our leader Sri Chinmoy’s 47th birthday. Ultramarathons were rare in those days, and only a handful of runners dared to attempt this race.
However, the 47-mile run became a regular annual event as part of the Sri Chinmoy Centre’s summer spiritual retreat, and about 100 of Sri Chinmoy’s students have run this race every year since then.
Because of my background as a registered nurse, I had been asked to help organize the medical tent for this event. Other nurses, doctors, homeopaths, physiotherapists and massage experts were also part of our medical team. My role was to make sure we had adequate supplies and volunteers and to set up the medical tents. I would then work as part of the team, treating runners in need and referring serious cases to the doctors.
In the early days, runners would collapse at the roadside. We would pick them up, treat for shock (lie them down with legs elevated, etc.) and try to get them to drink the diluted electrolyte drink. They were usually severely nauseated and sometimes they were vomiting, so drinking was a problem. The most serious cases went to hospital and ended up on intravenous therapy.
We tried plain salt tablets (sodium chloride), and some runners would change from chalk-white to normal, but others vomited a few hundred feet down the track.
Then the idea came to me to try natural, organic minerals in the form of seaweed. We used North Atlantic dulse harvested off the coast of Maine. I tried it myself, running the 47-mile on water, watermelon, mashed potato and dulse. It worked! I had no problems.
The neat thing was that, from previous years, we knew the particular runners who were likely to collapse. We started really encouraging them to take dulse, and those who agreed to do this seemed to fare much better.
The case that really convinced me was a well-trained ultramarathon runner from New Zealand. She ran the 47-mile and collapsed with seizures and vomiting. She had to be on intravenous therapy for two days before she finally stabilized.
I felt that she should not be permitted to run any of our long races again; it was too risky. However, the doctor in charge of medical at the SCMT marathon the following August gave her permission to run. I was very frightened! Would she end up on intravenous fluids again?
I decided to try dulse. I gave her a plastic baggie containing about a cup of dulse and told her very forcefully, “Start chewing this dulse right from the very start of the race! Drink lots and don’t stop eating the dulse until you finish!”
The runner did as she was told. She came to medical after her marathon with a huge smile on her face to tell me that she was perfectly fine – just a bit hot (very natural when running in the heat of a summer day).
We put her in a large tub of cool water (another awesome and easy method of quickly cooling an overheated runner), and within minutes, her temperature was normal. Furthermore, she had no problems in the days following the race.
From this experience, I knew that dulse and natural sea salt were extremely effective in preventing electrolyte disorders (mainly hyponatremia) in the hot August marathon and the 47-mile race. The next challenge was to get the runners to take it.
The following year, we did a big educational campaign, handing out medical instructions with explanations about the need for sea salt or seaweed to all our runners. I ordered a huge volume of dulse from Maine Seacoast Vegetables, Inc. and organized a team of volunteers to give out the seaweed in medicine cups at trackside.
The result was fabulous! Most runners looked a whole lot better after finishing, and we had much fewer problems in the medical tent. This is the glory of preventive medicine.
At first we offered only seaweed, but there are some people who find it unpleasant. (I must add that most runners who are starting to get salt depletion find it absolutely delicious.) In any case, we added natural sea salt, the best being Celtic sea salt, to our trackside offerings.
Just last fall at the SCMT 24-hour race in Ottawa, I tried mixing Celtic sea salt in water until it tasted only slightly salty. I gave it to runners who were showing early signs of salt depletion (becoming pale and fatigued). This race is done on a loop course, and we kept an eye on the runners to try to catch them before nausea and vomiting set in.
Except for one woman, they began to feel better and continued running and taking our natural, organic electrolyte drink. I’m thinking now of creating an electrolyte drink by mixing sea salt and honey in water for our Sri Chinmoy 6-hour race in Kingston this spring.
At the end of the day what would I recommend? For any races longer than a half-marathon, at any time of year but especially during the summer months, I would advise some form of organic salt replacement along with plenty of water. The easiest is to chew seaweed in small mouthfuls or take mashed potato mixed with dulse flakes. Another option is to take small amounts of Celtic sea salt right from your hand or shake it on watermelon, itself a great and easily assimilated source of many trace minerals. Coconut water is another increasingly acknowledged way to offset dehydration. I have heard that Himalayan rock salt is also excellent, but I have not tried it myself.
An ideal option would be to mix up your sea salt and water in one-litre bottles. Add the salt until it tastes just slightly salty. If the course is a loop, drink that every few laps right from the beginning of the race. In a point-to-point race, perhaps personally labeled bottles could be stashed at aid stations along the course. Race directors could let runners know in advance that seaweed and salt would be available for participants during their races.
Whatever regime a runner chooses should be tried out during training or cautiously at the least sign of dehydration, paying close attention to the body’s signals. We wish all runners the best and healthiest result with this approach.