Knowledge

Avoiding the painful plague of cramping

By Steve Born

Temperatures have increased, and so too has the potential for experiencing muscle cramping. Very mild cases are usually not much more than a nuisance (though a most unpleasant one), while full-fledged cramping will stop you in your tracks, bringing your workout or race to a screeching halt!

Science has provided a number of theories as to why muscle cramps occur, but no definitive answer(s) has been given. Dr. Bill Misner writes, "The general origin of muscle cramps as defined by sport scientists in human performance laboratories is not well investigated and is therefore not well understood." That's a bummer because, while over-consumption of fluids or calories will definitely throw a monkey wrench into your exercise session, there's arguably nothing that'll ruin your workouts and races more painfully than cramping.

Potential Causes

Clinically, Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps, or EAMCs, have several theoretical causes:

  • Inherited abnormalities of substrate metabolism (metabolic theory)
  • Abnormalities of fluid balance (dehydration theory)
  • Abnormalities of serum electrolyte concentrations (electrolyte theory)
  • Extreme environmental conditions from heat or cold (environmental theory)

Personal Observations and Solutions

In my experience, both as a competitive endurance athlete and in working with thousands of athletes during my 13 years here at Hammer Nutrition, I have noticed that of all the possible reasons for cramping, three main culprits stand out:

1) Too much, too strenuous, too soon If your muscles are not ready to take on the workload being asked of them - be it intensity or duration - you can almost always expect cramping to occur.

SOLUTION: Gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts intelligently. If you overload the muscles via too much duration and/or intensity too quickly, you increase your risk for both cramping and injuries.

2) Improper fluid intake If you don't drink enough water or fluids throughout your workout and throughout the day, you will find yourself in a state of dehydration, with cramping as one of the potential unwanted side effects. Conversely, if you over-hydrate, you will most likely suffer the same fate due to overly diluting your blood level of electrolytes (aka dilutional hyponatremia).

SOLUTION: During your workouts and races, we suggest a fluid intake of 20-25 ounces/hour, plus or minus 3-4 ounces based on a couple of factors:

  • Your body weight
  • The weather conditions
  • How well or poorly you're acclimated to the previous conditions

Throughout the day, in addition to what you consume during your training session, we suggest a fluid intake that is equivalent to 0.5 to 0.6 of your body weight in pounds. For example, a 160-lb athlete should aim to consume 80-96 ounces of fluids daily, in addition to what he/she is consuming during the workout.

Following this equation is more precise and individualized than the generic, one-size-fits-all "drink eight glasses of water daily" recommendation. It's the best way to maintain optimal hydration status without putting yourself at risk of dilutional hyponatremia. One caveat: If you have not been consuming this much fluid consistently, don't start "cold turkey" but rather increase gradually, similar to your training.

3) Insufficient or improper electrolyte intake If the calories you're consuming can be considered the body's gasoline (what makes the engine run), think of electrolytes as your body's motor oil - they don't make the engine run, but they're absolutely necessary to keep everything running smoothly. Proper functioning of the digestive, nervous, cardiac, and muscular systems is at least somewhat dependent on adequate electrolyte levels, making electrolyte replenishment essential.

Of course, no one wants to cramp, but by the time you get to that point, the performance of those aforementioned bodily systems - especially your muscular system - has already been diminishing for a long time, and cramping is almost always the inevitable outcome. Cramping is your body's painful way of saying, "Hey! I'm on empty! Resupply me now or I'm going to seize!" It's like the oil light on the dash of your motor vehicle - you never want it to get that low.

Additionally, athletes who don't bother with electrolyte replenishment, or who believe that salt tablets or salty foods resolve the problem, will almost always suffer from cramping. Salt tablets and salt-laden foods or fuels are poor choices for electrolyte replenishment for two reasons:

1.They provide only two of the electrolytes your body requires - sodium and chloride.

2.They can oversupply sodium, thereby overwhelming the body's complex mechanism for regulating sodium.

Dr. Bill Misner writes, "When a balance of cations (positively charged ions) to anions (negatively charged ions) are managed in the energy-producing cell - assuming the cell has adequate fuel and fluid - such a cell will produce energy at a higher rate than one overdosed by a single cation mixed with an irrational list of anions." Electrolytes perform numerous functions synergistically, so it's important to use a balanced, fullspectrum blend of electrolytic minerals versus just one or two.

SOLUTION: Replenishment of electrolytes - prior to, during, and after your training sessions and races - is as important a part of your fueling as anything you're drinking (to maintain hydration) or eating (to maintain energy production). Make sure you don't neglect this all-important component of athletic fueling!

Summary

Making sure your training is appropriate for your fitness level is vital to help stave off painful, performance-ruining cramping. So too is consuming proper amounts of fluid, both during your workouts and throughout the day.

Taking a dose of one of the various forms of Endurolytes prior to, during, and after your workouts is the ideal way to not only avoid the undeniable, painful annoyance that is cramping, it'll help many important bodily functions work optimally, which translates into better workouts and race results. Now that the hot weather is here, proper electrolyte replenishment is not optional, it's mandatory! HN

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