You’re training hard and all systems are a go. Then out of nowhere, no warning, and almost instantaneous you get a painful cramp.
It’s quite rare to get a cramp. In fact, the exact conditions to force a cramp is difficult to reproduce. No one training session, however equal, will induce a cramp. You can train hard for weeks on end and never suffer a cramp. Then one day it hits you.
So why, then, do we cramp at all? If you are like me, I bought into the “theory” that it has something to do with dehydration and a loss of electrolytes. I bought into this theory without question and logic. The messed up part, I’m a medical laboratory geek!
Amazingly, no true study has been conducted due to the random and non reproducible quality of cramps, as well as the difficulty it is to force one. Every research study has been anecdotal. Eat more bananas. Stretch before and after every workout. Drink more water. Drink our Sports Drink (TM). Sure, those things seem to relieve cramps but it actually doesn’t prevent them from happening.
I’m not going to get into the details regarding the myth of cramps and electrolytes because the guys at Sports Scientists do such a wonderful and articulated job blowing the whole electrolyte, dehydration myth out of the water (excuse the pun). Well worth the read.
I will summarize here for you the important points I found interesting:
- Electrolyte and dehydration is not a factor in cramps
- Cramps may be due to a misfiring of nerves
- Cramps may occur during fatigue, but not always
- Dehydration causes an increase in electrolyte concentration
- Sweat contains little amounts of salts to be considered negligible
- If electrolytes were the cause for cramps, then why does it only affect one muscle or area?
- Electrolytes is uniform in concentration and therefore all muscles should equally cramp
- If electrolytes were the cause for cramps then why does our heart not cramp?
- Tests with very cold water and hot spice is showing some unusual results in calming the nerves
So drop the electrolyte sports drinks, they don’t do much in preventing cramps. They can rehydrate and provide some carbs for those long training days. But if a cramp comes on, it’s most likely a tired muscle or a taxed nervous system.
There is no definitive answer as to the cause of cramps, but we know enough to rule out dehydration and electrolyte deficiency. More studies are being performed and the findings are pointing to the nervous system. As to how to stop cramps from happening, it looks like, again, there is no definitive answer. At the onset of a cramp, the remedy still remains to stop, stretch the muscle until the nerve relaxes, and hydrate.
I know some of you will swear that eating a banana, or drinking some sports drink works. Awesome! If it works for you, go for it. It is still anecdotal and your experience could totally be a placebo effect.