This study assessed whether replacing sweat losses with sodium-free fluid can lower the plasma sodium concentration and thereby precipitate the development of hyponatremia. Ten male endurance athletes participated in one 1-h exercise pretrial to estimate fluid needs and two 3-h experimental trials on a cycle ergometer at 55% of maximum O2 consumption at 34 degrees C and 65% relative humidity. In the experimental trials, fluid loss was replaced by distilled water (W) or a sodium-containing (18 mmol/l) sports drink, Gatorade (G). Six subjects did not complete 3 h in trial W, and four did not complete 3 h in trial G. The rate of change in plasma sodium concentration in all subjects, regardless of exercise time completed, was greater with W than with G (-2.48 +/- 2.25 vs. -0.86 +/- 1.61 mmol. l-1. h-1, P = 0.0198). One subject developed hyponatremia (plasma sodium 128 mmol/l) at exhaustion (2.5 h) in the W trial. A decrease in sodium concentration was correlated with decreased exercise time (R = 0.674; P = 0.022). A lower rate of urine production correlated with a greater rate of sodium decrease (R = -0. 478; P = 0.0447). Sweat production was not significantly correlated with plasma sodium reduction. The results show that decreased plasma sodium concentration can result from replacement of sweat losses with plain W, when sweat losses are large, and can precipitate the development of hyponatremia, particularly in individuals who have a decreased urine production during exercise. Exercise performance is also reduced with a decrease in plasma sodium concentration. We, therefore, recommend consumption of a sodium-containing beverage to compensate for large sweat losses incurred during exercise.