Purpose: Hyponatremia ([plasma sodium] <135 mmol x L(-1)) is a potentially serious complication of ultraendurance sports. However, the etiology of this condition is still uncertain. This observational cohort study aimed to determine prospectively the incidence and etiology of hyponatremia in an ultradistance triathlon.
Methods: The subjects consisted of 605 of the 660 athletes entered in the New Zealand Ironman triathlon (3.8-km swim, 180-km cycle, and 42.2-km run). Subjects were weighed before and after the race. A blood sample was drawn for measurement of plasma sodium concentration after the race.
Results: Complete data on pre- and postrace weights and plasma sodium concentrations were available in 330 race finishers. Postrace plasma sodium concentrations were inversely related to changes in body weight (P = 0.0001). Women (N = 38) had significantly lower plasma sodium concentrations (133.7 vs 137.4 mmol x L(-1); P = 0.0001) than men (N = 292) and lost significantly less relative weight (-2.7 vs -4.3%; P = 0.0002). Fifty-eight of 330 race finishers (18%) were hyponatremic; of these only 18 (31%) sought medical care for the symptoms of hyponatremia (symptomatic). Eleven of the 58 hyponatremic athletes had severe hyponatremia ([plasma sodium] < 130 mmol x L(-1)); seven of these 11 severely hyponatremic athletes were symptomatic. The relative body weight change of the 11 severely hyponatremic athletes ranged from 2.4% to +5%; eight (73%) of these athletes either maintained or gained weight during the race. In contrast, relative body weight changes in the 47 athletes with mild hyponatremia ([plasma sodium] 130-134 mmol x L(1)) were more variable, ranging from -9.25% to +2.2%.
Conclusions: Hyponatremia is a common biochemical finding in ultradistance triathletes but is usually asymptomatic. Although mild hyponatremia was associated with variable body weight changes, fluid overload was the cause of most (73%) cases of severe, symptomatic hyponatremia.