You and I may have read it many times over, “to prevent muscle cramps during exercise, keep your hydration and electrolytes up”. This has been the common theory around athletes and sports nutritionists for many years. But does it work? Does it explain why runners, who in theory have done everything right, still suffer from muscle cramps in the latter stages of races. It can be frustrating, not to mention painful, which any runner who has been around for long enough will tell you from first hand experience.
Of course the sports scientists are on to this issue and over the years have done countless studies comparing runners who have used electrolytes, kept their hydration up and kept their carb stores to sufficient levels. But they all seem to come to the same conclusion –
“These subjects were not different from the others in terms of racing performance or training status. Serum electrolyte concentrations, including sodium and potassium, were not different between those suffering from cramp and those not so affected either before or after the race, although a significant (P less than 0.001) increase in serum sodium concentrations occurred in both groups. Serum bicarbonate concentrations fell to the same extent (from 28 to 24 mmol l-1) in both groups.” “The results suggest that exercise-induced muscle cramp may not be associated with gross disturbances of fluid and electrolyte balance.”
“There are no clinically significant alterations in serum electrolyte concentrations and there is no alteration in hydration status in runners with EAMC (Exercise Associated Muscle Cramping) participating in an ultra-distance race.”
Don’t get me wrong here, I would never advise that you should skip the water or electrolytes in any race of significant distance, but they may not be the be all, end all solution that we have been after. From personal experience in ultra’s, during the latter stages, if I haven’t been on top of the electrolyte situation, the taste of my own sweat is almost irresistible. It may sound a bit gross, but the salty taste is great. It’s in these situations I quite often break open the electrolyte tablets into my water bottle so I get the taste of it and maybe get it into my system a bit quicker.
But for prevention of muscle cramping, the one thing that did make a difference, was sufficient preparation and conditioning for the event while running it at an appropriate pace for your level of fitness. It doesn’t matter what distance you are doing, if your pace is way too hard, there is no way you are going to finish it in any reasonable condition.
There are no proven strategies for the prevention of exercise-induced muscle cramp but regular muscle stretching using post-isometric relaxation techniques, correction of muscle balance and posture, adequate conditioning for the activity, mental preparation for competition and avoiding provocative drugs may be beneficial.
So really what this all means is, train hard for a hard event. After all, the saying “train hard, race easy” has some merit to it. But if you do cramp, sometimes the best thing to do, is just stop, stretch it out and get going once it has subsided. The most you will probably lose is a couple of minutes, but trying to push through may cost you a finish all together. And that’s no fun at all!