Cramping is something all too familiar with athletes. Whether it is during your workout or after, a common effect is feeling your muscles lock up, freezing you in your tracks. We're going to lay out the science behind cramping and what can be done about it for the athlete.
What Causes Cramping?
Cramping is most often caused by an imbalance of electrolytes and hydration. The both are intertwined together, but for the sake of this article we will be primarily focusing on electrolytes. Potassium was once thought of as the main electrolyte that prevents cramping. A lack of potassium was blamed for athlete's cramping. And as such, people often recommended eating a banana to prevent cramps because of its dietary source of potassium. The problem, however, is that cramping is most likely caused from an imbalance of multiple electrolytes. A multifaceted approach that takes into account all electrolytes is more effective than only potassium.
Electrolytes lost through perspiration
Sweat contains a lot more than just potassium. The 5 most common electrolytes lost through sweat that need replenishing include: (in mM) 50.8 ± 16.5 sodium (48.85%), 4.8 ± 1.6 potassium (4.62%), 1.3 ± 0.9 calcium (1.25%), 0.5 ± 0.5 magnesium (.48%), and 46.6 ± 13.1 chloride (44.81%). *Note that these percentages are an average and can depend a lot on the individual athlete. Some athletes sweat more than others and have slightly different concentrations of electrolytes. In humid or hot environments, athletes would most likely perspire more, losing more electrolytes. Other variables include the intensity of training, duration, and conditioning of the athlete.
What can be done about cramping?
To prevent cramping in subsequent training sessions consume an oral re-hydration solution (ORS) to replenish electrolytes post workout. You may find it surprising that most sport drinks only really contain sodium and potassium in any worthwhile amount. This is most likely because other electrolytes such as magnesium are expensive to source. Outside of the endurance race community, not a lot of emphasis has been placed on these forgotten electrolytes (magnesium and calcium).
Studies show that forgotten electrolytes such as magnesium are especially important for longer more exhausting training sessions or in humid environments. I recommend taking 240 mg of Magnesium in your ORS shake. If you are still cramping, try consuming a ORS along with water 30-45 minutes prior to training. That will ensure your body is properly hydrated and has the needed electrolytes.
When we developed our 31 Muscle Recovery, we decided to include all 5 electrolytes + phosphorus, to provide the adventure athlete with a full spectrum of electrolytes. We didn't care if it cut into our margins, as athletes ourselves, we wanted the create the best possible recovery shake. In sports such as ours, you train longer and harder than most. It's not uncommon to go through a couple gis because they are drenched in sweat... or to surf all day... or to dive all day. Replenishing these lost electrolytes are crucial if you want to recover, come back stronger, and prevent cramping.