Cramping Your Style

Nothing evokes conversation, opinions and remedies like muscle cramps. Most of us have had the ‘pleasure’ of feeling one of these in training or racing,  or even just while resting quietly. In a flash, your racing goals can dissipate, and you are left looking for answers and preventions to avoid that pain next time. Cramping is something we have of course spoken about before, but after watching many succumb to the cramp at Ironman Western Australia (IMWA), we thought it might be a good time to give an update on where the research is currently at with cramps.

Before we look at the evidence for nutrition in treating muscle cramps, we first need to understand that there are
two types of cramps:

  • Cramping of individual muscle groups. For example, cramping in just quads or calves.
  • Whole body cramping – fortunately this is relatively uncommon.

When triathletes talk muscle cramps, we are usually referring to the individual muscle group cramps that come as we race or just after finishing. We refer to these as Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC).
Several theories have been put forward to explain the cause of EAMC’s, but considering 70% of triathletes have experienced them, the research is most certainly still not complete.

The theories include:
Dehydration due to heavy sweating (loss of sodium, potassium, magnesium or calcium) and inadequate fluid intake:
The theory behind dehydration explaining EAMC’s started in the 1880’s with miners working in hot environments supplementing with salt to try to treat and avoid cramping.
The hypothesis relates to the loss of fluids and electrolytes from sweat resulting in the contracting of the cell’s interstitial space (the fluid space between the cells), that then leads to cramping.
However, studies have failed to show that dehydrated athletes are more at risk of cramping than those in a hydrated state. This lack of evidence is also the case for electrolyte shifts such as sodium or magnesium.

Extreme heat or cold stress:
EAMC’s are often seen in extremely hot/humid or cold environments. Although environmental stressors may increase your risk of cramps, they are not proven to be a direct cause.

If those traditional nutritional factors do not seem to play the main role in cramping – what is the cause?
Although the above theories may increase your risk of cramping, there is now increasing evidence to show EAMC’s may be due primarily to neuromuscular fatigue rather than electrolyte loss. This suggests that the two biggest risk factors for cramping are duration and intensity – oh why hello there, fellow triathletes!
In fact, an observational study performed with Ironman athletes showed that the distinct risk factors for cramping that emerged were:

  • Racing at a higher intensity or for a longer duration compared to what you normally train at.
  • Being too aggressive with pacing.
  • Doing an exercise discipline you are not trained for – think a cyclist doing an Ironman without adequate swim/run training.

 

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Pickle Juice Cure?
A study published in 2010 followed up on anecdotal evidence that drinking pickle juice helped treat cramps. The researchers found that ingesting pickle juice right at the onset of a cramp resolved the cramp 45% faster than just having water. This improvement could not be attributed to changes in hydration or electrolytes or increased thirst. Instead, it looks like it was effective due to the reflex triggered by the main ingredient in pickle juice – vinegar!

The shock in the mouth from drinking this ‘delicious’ fluid then affects the nerves that send signals to the brain and muscles. As a strong stimulation of the nervous system can reduce the activity of other parts of the nervous system, it is suggested that stimulating the mouth receptors relaxes the nerves that control muscle fibres – hence putting an end to the cramp.

There are now some shiny new products making the most of these latest findings, which you are sure to spot on the market soon if you haven’t already. However, these may not be any more effective than good old original pickle juice or another homemade concoction. Now what to do with all those leftover pickles?

Minimising Your Risk of EAMC:

  • Ensure that some of your training sessions leading into a race are at race intensity.
  • Put in some sessions that are similar length to your planned race.
  • Include brick sessions into your training to ensure you are trained to race with fatigued muscles.
  • Prioritise adequate intake of carbohydrate in the days leading into your race and during your event.
  • This may reduce your risk of cramping, and is at least known to help prevent premature muscle fatigue.
  • Consider your gear. if your muscle is working in a shortened position, your risk of cramping is increased.
  • Many athletes go from a supportive shoe in training to a racing flat for competition. Complete some sessions in the same shoes you plan to race in.
  • Take the time to get your bike set up properly for you.
  • Stretch vulnerable muscles on a regular basic

A note on whole body cramps:
Whole body cramps should be approached differently to EAMC’s. Whole body cramps are theorised to be related to electrolyte/hydration disturbances in the athlete. In this case, consuming adequate sodium and fluids in the lead up to an event plus consuming carbohydrate and electrolyte supplements during the event, will be beneficial both for prevention and treatment. Whole body cramps can be particularly painful and traumatic to the athlete, so ensuring adequate nutrition in the lead up to an event for all competitors should be a priority.

In summary:
It appears I have just written an article that didn’t have much to do with nutrition after all!

Although hydration and electrolyte shifts are no longer thought to be the main contributor to EAMC’s, it is still a significant component in maximising performance. Optimising hydration and carbohydrate intake before and during a race helps to keep muscle fatigue at bay and allows you to better maintain your core body temperature. This reduced stress on the body then improves exercise capacity (performance) and reduces the risk of muscle fatigue, and hence cramping risk.

Although science is yet to answer all the questions we have around cramps, the message is becoming clearer – well-trained, well-fuelled and hydrated athletes are at the least risk of cramping come race day.

 


References

Braulick KW, Miller KC, Albrecht JM, Tucker JM, Deal JE. Significant and serious dehydration does not affect skeletal muscle cramp threshold frequency. Br J Sports Med. 2013 Jul;47(11):710-4.

Miller, KC. Rethinking the cause of exercise-associated muscle cramping: Moving beyond dehydration and electrolyte losses. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015 Sep-Oct; 14(5): 353-4.

Miller, KC, Mack GW, Knight KL, Hopkins, JT, Draper DO, Fields PJ, Hunter I. Reflex inhibition of electrically induced muscle cramps in hypohydrated humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 May;42(5):953-61.

Schwellnus, M.P., Drew, N., and Collins, M. Increased running speed and previous cramps rather than dehydration or serum sodium changes predict exercise-associated muscle cramping: a prospective cohort study in 210 Ironman Triathletes. Br J Sports Med published online December 9, 2010.

Schwellnus MP. Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC): altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? Br J Sports Med. 2009;43;401-08.

Schwellnus, MP., Allie, S., Derman, W., Collins, M. Increased running speed and pre-race muscle damage as risk factrs for exercise-associated muscle cramps in a 56km ultra-marathon: a prospective cohort study. Br J Sports Med. 2011 Mar 13.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alicia Edge

Alicia is an Advanced Sports Dietitian with an online sports nutrition business, Compeat Nutrition. She is also a mum and triathlete, so advice extends beyond the basics and is instead focused on providing effective and achievable nutrition for both training and racing.

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