Key Points Covered
Two Main Theories for Why Cramps
- Dehydration-Electrolyte Imbalance – The theory that an imbalance of electrolytes and hydration of some kind occurs and that causes cramps.
- Neuromuscular Fatigue – The theory is that the overuse of a muscle beyond what it can handle causes neuromuscular fatigue. Resulting in an imbalance in excitatory impulses that causes cramps.
- Neuromuscular fatigue appears to be more relevant for most higher level athletes, but both theories have merit.
Dehydration-Electrolyte Imbalance – Support for This Theory
- Cramps are more common when it is hot (although this is arguably also support for the neuromuscular fatigue theory since you fatigue more when it is hot).
- Electrolyte deficiencies in blood increase liklihood of cramping. But electrolyte deficiencies in the blood are pretty rare among elite athletes.
- Study in the 1930s showed people who took hot baths, had low salt intakes and high water intakes, started cramping easily. Soon after consuming sodium, they stopped cramping.
Dehydration-Electrolyte Imbalance – Arguments Against the Relevance of It
- Athletes who cramp, on average, have similar fluid and electrolyte intakes to those who do not. They are also not more dehydrated on average.
- If this was the issue, the solution could be as simple as just avoiding dehydration or low electrolyte intake. But unfortunately it does not seem that simple.
Neuromuscular Fatigue – Support for This Theory
- People typically cramp when they are not prepared for the workload required in training or competition. Adjusting and adapting to that workload decreases cramps.
Strategies to Avoid/Prevent Cramps
- Physically preparing for whatever workload is required. Obviously you can only do so much though e.g. if you are an elite athlete who still cramps regularly, it is hard to say that you just need to prepare better through your training.
- Pickle Juice or HOTSHOT could be options. There is a neural reflex triggered by the acetic acid in the pickle juice. It triggers nerves in the mouth that signal the spinal cord neurons which reduce motor neuron activity to the cramping muscle.
- Pickle Juice or HOTSHOT theoretically can be used after the onset of the cramp to reduce the duration/severity within as little as 30 seconds.
- There is potential that they could even help prevent cramps. But the research is less convincing for that. It is even still mixed for whether it helps cramping, but there is enough there that it is worth a crack.
- Electrolytes likely do not make a difference. But if you have zero electrolytes coming in and you do a lot of work e.g. long duration events, then NOT having electrolytes likely will lead to cramps. The reason they are unlikely to make a difference is because most athletes already consume them through sports gels/drinks/supplements at a sufficient level to avoid this being an issue. But if you do not already do that, then it could help.
- Magnesium supplementation has anecdotal support, but the evidence does not show any benefit. That being said, if you have tried it and felt benefit, it is arguably worth continuing since there is no downside. The theoretical mechanism makes sense as well in terms of how it could help.
- Avoid losing >2% body weight through dehydration. Although it is worth noting that a lot of top level competitors DO actually lose more than this.
- Sodium should ideally by 0.6-1g/L of fluid.
- Glycerol could be used for hyperhydration which could help prevent dehydration.
- 1930s study showing low sodium, hot baths and high water intake led to cramping.
- American Football 4 week training camp study – 37% of athletes cramped week 1, 27% week 2, 18% week 3 and 4% week 4
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