Why Do Athletes Suffer From Cramp?
Do you suffer with cramp towards the end of events? You’re gonna want to read on!
There are essentially two major theories on what causes Exercise Associated Muscle Cramp....
The ‘Dehydration/Electrolyte Theory’
This theory suggests cramps occur because you’re not replacing the sodium you're losing in your sweat adequately. This can cause a contraction of the fluid compartment around your muscles and a misfiring of nerve impulses, triggering the cramp.
The ‘Neuromuscular Theory’
This theory suggests that muscles tend to cramp specifically when they are overworked and fatigued due to electrical misfiring. Fatigue contributes to an imbalance between ‘excitatory impulses’ from muscle spindles and ‘inhibitory impulses’ from Golgi tendon organs and this results in a localised muscle cramp.
Both theories have their merits and it’s likely that your muscle cramps have multiple causes. So, it’s likely that you’ll need to test a number of interventions to try to eliminate them.
Here are some things you can try...
As obvious as many of these may sound, try to make sure you tick all of the following boxes to ensure you’re not overloading your body excessively…
- Train specifically for the event(s) that tend to induce cramps - i.e. with the right mix of volume and intensity to prepare your muscles for what is going to be asked of them.
- Pace yourself appropriately based on fitness levels and environmental conditions to avoid overloading muscles prematurely.
- Taper into events so that you are fresh and well rested when you start.
- Make sure you’re adequately fuelled with plenty of carbohydrates on board before you start events and that you fuel adequately to avoid becoming glycogen depleted which can contribute to premature fatigue.
Other strategies that are far from proven, but that either make intuitive sense or have been used by athletes in the war on cramp include…
- Sports massage and stretching of the affected muscles.
- Thorough warm ups prior to cramp inducing activities.
- Mental relaxation techniques.
Try consuming additional sodium
Certainly a good idea if your cramps tend to occur during or after periods of heavy sweating, in hot weather, late on during longer activities or if you generally eat a low sodium (or low carb) diet.
But, make sure they are strong enough to make a real difference. Most sports drinks (Gatorade etc) contain 200-550mg of sodium per liter, whereas the average athlete loses about 950mg per liter!
It’s therefore a good idea to look for upwards of 1,000mg sodium per liter in a drink and over 1,500mg per litre if you suspect you are a particularly ‘salty sweater’.
If you’re consuming sodium in foods or capsule form, aim for a similar ratio. (i.e. 1000-1500mg sodium along alongside every liter of water you drink). Remember that table salt (NaCl) is only 39% sodium (the other 61% is chloride), so you need ~3g of salt to give you ~1,170mg of sodium.
Our friends at Precision Hydration conducted a survey of athletes who had reported that they had suffered with muscle cramps at one time or another. 89% of athletes surveyed said that they had found that supplementing with sodium or salt during exercise had helped them manage or eliminate cramp, so it’s definitely worth testing sodium supplementation (or trying again with some stronger drinks).
With our new Advanced Sweat Test service we can tell you what strength electrolyte drinks are right for you for before, during and after your events and training. We’ll fully personalize your hydration strategy and this could potentially help you avoid cramp by ensuring you’re on top of your fluid/electrolyte losses whenever you’re sweating.