I am a regular on The Survival Podcast, as an expert on health, finance, and life simplification. I share a lot of great information during this question and answer format. Below is a transcript of a recent answer to a listener question
Question – If a person smells like ammonia after an endurance work out, are they hurting themselves?
Details: My husband loves to ride his bicycle and competed in the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred last year, a 100 mile bike ride in August in Texas, and is training for it again this year. He does not eat a low-carb diet specifically, near the bottom of this email is a typical days food. He is 6’3″ and about 215lbs rides for 1 hr on Tue and Thur morning weight training M,W,F for 1 hr with lots of core
Saturday morning he does his long ride for the week. Last week was 74 miles, this week 80 miles in about 5 hours. Usually after a ride he is in a lot of pain and wiped out for the day. Last week he also felt nauseous, dry heaves and chilled and muscle cramping during the last 20 miles. I suggested he look into an electrolyte replacement. He found a recipe online to make his own. He felt much better during and after his ride even with doing 6 miles more than last week. However, when he got home he smelled “toxic.” He described it as a very strong ammonia smell. He “googled” why would he smell like ammonia and is now concerned that it’s because he is burning his muscle mass. Is he hurting himself in some way that is indicated by the smell? Is he harming his liver or kidneys or other body parts? Should he add more carbs before, during, or after the ride? He consumed the electrolyte while riding on Saturday plus 3 dates for a total of about 160 grams of carbs. The recipe is at the bottom of the email.
coffee during the day with a little cream/milk
lunch is usually leftovers – meat and veg, no starch or a salad with chicken or sometimes steak
snack 1/2 large sweet potato late afternoon (usually 7 days per week)
dinner – meat, greens or other veg, no starch usually
sometimes a little cheese, peanuts, raisins, 2-3 dates at night (not all these every day) and a handful of pretzels (every day).
1 Cup OJ
1/2 Cup lemon juice
4 cups Zico Coconut water
4 Tbsp real honey
1/4 tsp Himalayan Salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
P.S Could you please tell him to drink more water every day? He usually drinks only coffee at work except a little when he is working out (1-2cups)
Thank you for answering our question.Debra And Mike
Gary Collins: We have another great question about smelling like ammonia after a strenuous workout, and what this could mean?
It’s pretty straightforward. Actually, it is one of two things or both. It is a lack of having adequate carbohydrates or fat to burn as an energy source and/or a lack of water ‑‑ dehydration.
You tend to see this with endurance athletes, primarily. It’s because they’re burning so many calories during training or in the event itself that their body actually goes catabolic where it goes into burning protein as an energy source.
There’s a big difference between a competitive athlete and an everyday person. There is just a completely different diet as far as macronutrient levels (carbs, fat, and protein). This is the rule most people can get away with a semi‑kind of a low‑carb diet. I don’t like the term low‑carb a lot. I call it right carb. It’s eating the proper amount of carbohydrates for your energy expenditures.
Now endurance athletes are a totally different animal. Usually, they have to eat far more carbohydrates than normal people. The very simple reason is that they are going to burn far more calories during their training and exercise. You go, “Well, Gary how about you just consume more fat?”
That works to a point but once you get into a severe and high endurance like this individual is doing, training for a century bike ride, which is a pretty killer. You’re going to burn a lot of calories and even training for it. The difference is that trying to consume that much fat is hard to do because that fat is very satiating or it fills you up.
Carbs you can get away with more because you can eat more. A little different way in digestion, far quicker, it goes the way you process. You process carbohydrates first, carbohydrate’s sugar obviously, then protein, then fat. Fat is the slowest to digest. What could happen?
This happens too. I’ve seen people do this, is they consume too much fat trying to get their energy expenditures and store that fat as fat. You get bloated, you get heartburn. It slows your digestion down. It’s always in balance and again it’s different for endurance athletes. I prefer them to eat more carbohydrates and up their fat to a reasonable amount. What would this mean?
It looks like the average meal for Mike is low‑carb. It’s in that realm, especially for someone training as he does. What I would recommend is adding 25 to 50 grams of carbohydrates a day and 25 to 50 grams of fat a day. Everyone’s different. He’ll have to find the balance, what works for him.
By going out and training and riding 84 miles and only having 160 grams of carbohydrates after that, it’s not enough. It’s nowhere near enough. He needs to at least double that. More likely it would be ‑‑ endurance athletes especially on a training day, they can go up into the 1,000 grams of carbohydrates.
I know that sounds crazy. I do not recommend that for people, but I have seen it for extreme athletes. People who do the 100-mile runs, and 100-mile bike rides and Ironman’s. It’s totally different. He tried to change it by consuming an electrolyte drink. I don’t think that the electrolyte drink is very necessary.
I see, as I said, threefold problem, not probably enough fat consumption, not enough carbohydrates and definitely not enough water, not enough liquids. He’s only drinking a couple of cups of water a day. Remember the simple rule for water consumption is, take your weight to divide it in half. He’s around 215 pounds. That would be 107.5 ounces of water, roughly per day that he needs to consume.
Then on the days when you’re training and you are sweating a lot, you need to even up that. You’re probably double that. I’ve been out and had heavy training days or working on the property and I drink over a gallon of water easily, a gallon, gallon and a half. It just depends, but with him having issues with nausea, cramps, that tells me that’s dehydration for sure. Those are the typical symptoms of dehydration.
Now the ammonia smell again like you said ‑‑ the two‑fold guess. What water does, you excrete ammonia, nitrogen through your urine. That’s what it does. If you don’t have enough water, guess where it’s going to go? It’s going to come out of your sweat. That’s where it’s going to come out and you’re going to have an ammonia smell.
Again, also that can be from not having enough ‑‑ you should have enough glycogen, but if you don’t have glycogen, you burn through your glycogen then you’re going to go to your fat stores. Then if you don’t have enough fat stores, then you go to muscle. That’s the progression. That’s what I would recommend for sure with Mike. Like I said the electrolyte drink.
The easiest electrolyte drink is actually water and sea salt. I don’t think he needs the honey, Himalayan baking soda. It’s a concoction that I think is really unnecessary. With a half cup of lemon juice and one cup of OJ for training, that’s a good way to give yourself a good case of heartburn as well, because it’s very acidic. I just don’t think it’s necessary.
The easiest electrolyte drink I have found is 12 to 20 ounces of water with two to four pinches of sea salt. That’s all it takes. For that, I think everything else looks pretty good, but again I would recommend that he plays with it. On his long ride days, he definitely needs to up the carbohydrate intake and definitely the water intake.
Drinking a little too much coffee ‑‑ coffee will dehydrate you. It acts as a diuretic. Nothing bad about that. If you’re a big-time coffee drinker, I’ll recommend more than two cups a day. Honestly, one cup is much perfect, because the caffeine becomes addictive. You can tap your adrenal glands, which means you have chronic fatigue, headaches, uppitiness, crankiness.
I would recommend one to two cups of coffee a day, but if you are a coffee drinker you need to even add in a little more water during your day to make sure you don’t get dehydrated.