I will tell you two truths about cramping up front and then explain them:
- Nobody fully understands all of the reasons for exercise induced cramps.
- Since we don’t fully understand the causes, we also don’t know of an ultimate solution.
Electrolytes and Cramping
Most people think of electrolytes as the key to avoid cramping. If you avoid running low on sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes, then you can avoid cramping, right? Maybe not.
Research trying to establish a correlation between muscle cramps and low levels of electrolytes in the blood of athletes have shown no significant relationship between these two variables. This makes it highly unlikely that electrolytes are the culprit for the average runner. Does this mean that I do not believe in the electrolyte tablets that I am taking? No. First, these studies are correlational. The big limitation of correlational research is that it can’t prove that one variable is the cause, or not the cause, of the changes in another variable. Hence, we need other kinds of more carefully crafted research before we can negate the possibility that my electrolyte tablets are helping me.
On the other hand, I do believe that it is possible that only some of us need the electrolyte supplements. I have two things that make my electrolytes lower than they should be: genetics and eating habits. Genetically, I have ADHD. As an ADHD person I am aware that I use up electrolytes faster than the non-ADHD population. Making matters worse, I have never eaten as many vegetables as I was supposed to consume. I believe these are the best sources of electrolytes. I think there is a good chance that if I ate more veggies, my need for the supplements would fade.
While electrolyte supplements may or may not help, there are are several other theories about why muscle cramping might occur. Insufficient fuel on a long run (>13 miles) can mean that your muscles simply cannot work properly. In addition to proper fueling, cramps can be caused by overdoing it. If your effort in a race is significantly more than you have done in training, your muscles may not be able to handle it. Finally, short muscles may contribute to your cramping. Working one side of your legs much harder than the other side for a long time may cause your muscles to become shorter and tighter. The imbalance between the sides can cause cramping.
The fact that there may be many causes for muscle cramping means that you should use a balanced approach.
- Electrolyte Supplements – I have not given up on my supplements, but the research definitely calls into question whether the average runner needs them. When I do use them, I use them primarily as a preventative measure. In doing that, however, I try to use as little as possible. Experience is the best teacher. I started with none and then gradually added some when I had issues during or after the workout. Over time, I began to understand how much I need. Electrolyte supplements are not cheap; don’t use them if they don’t help you!
- Salt Tablets or Packets – Studies have found that if your are experiencing cramps, one way to halt them is consume table salt. They found that it the effect it has is to stimulate the brain to stop the leg cramping. It does not stop because of the sodium, just the salty taste is enough. Salt, therefore is not a preventative measure. It is used after the cramps occur.
- Stay within Your Limitations – Operate at the level of intensity for which you have trained. Going beyond that can push your muscles too far. They will rebel!
- Stretch regularly AFTER exercise – Static stretches before exercise can hurt your performance. Stick with dynamic stretching and warming up before exercise. Static and dynamic stretches throughout the day after the workout, however, can lengthen and relax the muscles. That can reduce or eliminate cramping altogether.
- Hydration - The current recommendation of experts tend to be to drink to thirst. This literally means let your body tell you how much to drink and when. Others still recommend 4- to 6 ounces every 20 minutes. Just as with the electrolyte supplements, you will have to figure out what is best for you. Pay attention to how your body responds and learn what it needs for optimal performance.
Electrolyte supplement may or may not be helpful, so make sure you try the other recommendations too! If you do stretch, stop and relax. I don’t care if you are in a race. Until you relax, your cramping is unlikely to subside. When the muscles calm down, gently stretch and move them. If you must continue after that, do so gently and paying great attention. It is better to have a slow race time than to have an injury that will slow you down for months.
Train smart, eat well, and enjoy the run!