Your Cramping Questions Answered 2023
- Why am I getting cramps?
Though there are several different types of cramps experienced in the human body, the type that brought you to us here at Skratch for our wisdom was likely Exercise Associated Muscle Cramping (EAMC for short). EAMC is defined as involuntary contraction of skeletal muscle which occurs immediately after or during exercise.
Muscle cramps due to exercise are multifactorial, so while we wish we could just slap a sticker on the solution and call it a day, we just can’t! Typically, the etiology of cramping occurs when the small muscles wrapping sensory organs fatigue. This in turn causes errant nervous signals to be transmitted to the spine and then back to the muscle initiating a spinal reflex that is responsible for the uncontrollable cramping.
- How can I avoid cramps?
Fatigue can be caused by under training, over working, dehydration, under fueling, a lack of sleep, poor biomechanics, over-heating, and illness. As we don’t always know what the cause of a cramp may be, it is difficult to recommend strategies to avoid it. One of the best things you can do is to evaluate your lifestyle or any common patterns during cramps to help rule out some of the possible causes of fatigue. Weight loss over 2% of your starting body weight during exercise may be a cause of fatigue for the body, especially if accompanied by high heat and humidity. Drinking to thirst as well as adding sources of electrolytes into training (either pre or during) can help minimize the loss of body weight. In addition, if you are a heavy or salty sweater, your needs for sodium may be greater than others and require more concentrated levels of sodium to help maintain body weight. Read more about sweat considerations when training in heat here.
Underfueling (aka not eating enough, especially carbohydrates) during training can lead to muscle fatigue. There isn’t one optimal intake to prevent cramping but if you are not eating to meet your demands of exercise, you may tap out of available carbohydrates within your body and either bonk or lead to fatigue of muscles. Typically most endurance athletes require 30-60g of CHO per hour to help maintain energy levels and replenish their carbohydrate stores. Nutrition is not one size fits all so your caloric intake may not compare to your riding/running buddies although you may have similar characteristics or training.
Train harder and train specifically to the task you’ll be facing in competition. Remember, that the root of muscle cramps is ultimately fatigue. You can delay fatigue through better training and active recovery techniques. The key is to prevent the underlying cause of the cramp which is fatigue. So anything you can do to better prepare or take care of yourself on game day from proper training, lots of sleep each night, proper nutrition, proper hydration, and adequate sodium intake to help with hydration are all important factors to preventing exercise associated muscle cramps. That said, there may also be genetic factors that make one person more susceptible to cramping than others. In general, athletes with more fast twitch fibers who are good at strength based sports like football may be more prone to cramping compared to athletes with more slow twitch muscle fibers who are good at endurance sports.
TLDR; We can’t avoid cramping but we can usually avoid it by minimizing behaviors that lead to muscle fatigue. So ask yourself some of these questions the next time you cramp during exercise: Was it hot outside? Did you try a new exercise/or distance? Did you skip breakfast? Were you dehydrated before even starting? Did you get enough sleep?
- How can I stop a cramp if I get one?
Because an exercise-associated muscle cramp is ultimately a spinal reflex gone wrong, there's some evidence that initiating another spinal reflex above the nerve root causing the cramp can turn off or short circuit the cramp. One good reflex for this is something called the oropharyngeal reflex that causes your face to pucker up when you drink a few ounces of pickle juice, hot sauce or something really sour. While results are mixed, it can't hurt to try keeping some pickle juice in a small flask for your next big event.
- Which Skratch Product could help me?
We can’t claim that Skratch Lab’s Sport Hydration Mix can prevent or help with cramping. That said, many athletes do say that it does help prevent cramping. What we know is that proper hydration and electrolyte balance during exercise can help delay fatigue and that ultimately helps to prevent cramping. But remember, proper hydration is only one part of preventing fatigue. Proper training, rest, nutrition, and even one’s genetics are also important.
Ultimately, what’s unique about our Sport Hydration mix is that it’s better at hydrating athletes because it’s designed to replace exactly what athletes lose in their sweat and because it has less sugar and fewer total ingredients which makes it easier for water to be absorbed into the body.
When to use:
Sport Hydration Mix - Your everyday balanced combination for fuel and electrolytes. Contains carbohydrates to sustain muscles during exercise and delay fatigue. The lowest concentration of sodium of our mixes with 380 mg of sodium per 16 oz serving. Learn more on the science here.
Clear Hydration Mix - Easy drinking: Tastes like water with a hint of flavor that won’t wear out athletes’ taste buds during long or hot days. Electrolyte flexibility: Each serving contains 270mg sodium, but users can add as much or as little as needed without impacting flavor.
Flexibility to use for all-day sipping or stack for bigger efforts: Lower sugar (4g) and lower calories (50) for drinking in high volumes or during less active times. Or you can do multiple scoops to match Sport Hydration Mix ratios or combine with Sport or Super High-Carb for different endurance needs. Incredibly low osmolality means easy digestion without disruption. Learn more here.
Wellness Hydration - A lower carbohydrate solution with higher amounts of sodium to help when you already have solid carbohydrates handled for your training or need an extra boost for your Exercise Hydration Mix. Contains at 750 mg of sodium per 16 oz serving. Learn more on the science here.
Hyper Hydration - Our most concentrated solution for sodium - great for pre-loading before an event where hydration is more difficult to sustain. Drink one the night before and if you are an extremely salty sweater this can even be used during training/events. Learn more on the science here.
Super High-Carb - A solution for increasing fuel intake in times where fueling with real food becomes difficult, it is great if you feel you believe underfueling may be a source of fatigue. Due to its lower sodium content, pair with sport hydration mix for the perfect combination for your long training/events. Learn more on the science here.
What's Sweat Got to Do with It?
Your body is made up of 60-75% water and when you sweat, you begin to lose water quickly. To avoid cramping, nausea, confusion, cutting your workout early, or a DNF at your next race, you can’t just replace the water you lost. Replacing the sodium is critical to rehydrating successfully.
What is sweat? Sweat isn’t just water; it’s made up of electrolytes, especially sodium, which makes up about 90% of the electrolytes you lose in sweat. Of the electrolytes you lose in sweat, sodium plays the most important role in helping your body perform.
What happens when you’re thirsty? As you sweat and lose more water than sodium, the sodium concentration in your blood increases and you begin to feel thirsty.
You stop feeling thirsty when you consume enough water to bring the sodium concentration in your blood back down. Sometimes that means increasing the amount of sodium you consume and not relying on water alone.What is sweat made of (and how do I know how muchsodium is in my sweat)?Most people lose about a liter-sized Nalgene amount of sweat in 1-2 hours of endurance exercise. On average, people lose 1/2 - 1 teaspoon of sodium per liter (or Nalgene bottle) of sweat.
One way to guesstimate your sodium is to weigh yourself before and after exercise. If you lost 3% of your body weight during exercise, you likely need more sodium. Keep in mind this calculation includes consuming your normal amount of fluids during exercise.
Why isn’t water enough? If you’re just drinking water, you’re not replacing components your body needs to perform. It’s important to replace both the fluid and electrolytes, specifically the sodium lost in sweat, otherwise you’re going to risk feeling like crap (and no one wants that. Especially in the middle of workout).
If you continue to drink water even after you satiate your thirst, you run the risk of diluting your blood’s sodium concentration resulting in a situation called hyponatremia, where the body holds onto too much water and dilutes the amount of sodium in the blood. Symptoms include nausea, headache, confusion, and fatigue. Translation: you’ll feel like complete crap.
How can I stay hydrated? Drink something that has a similar concentration of sodium as your actual sweat. Our Sport Hydration Drink Mix was created to replace exactly what you lose, without anything extra. Made with less sugar, more sodium, and only real fruit for flavor, it absorbs faster than water alone and won’t offend your palate or your gut. When it comes to getting your hydration right, this is as simple as it gets. And as usual, simple is good.
Gusto Facial Reflex
When you drink or eat something really sour, spicy or nasty, your face muscles automatically contract. It’s that response someone gets when they eat a lemon. That lemon face is something called an oropharyngeal reflex or gusto facial reflex. It happens by itself just like a spinal reflex. But, since this reflex is initiated in a part of the spine at a higher level of the spine (cervical spine) than the reflexes associated with say muscle cramping in the legs (lumbar spine), it’s thought that the higher level reflex sends a signal through the spine to the lower region that short circuits or shuts off the lower level reflex.
Essentially, a reflex at a higher level in the spine can stop a reflex at a lower level of the spine. So yes, drinking something like pickle juice or some type of hot sauce or pepper can cause a cervical reflex response that shuts off the fatigue related reflex response causing an exercise-associated cramp. In fact, we know it can’t be related to either fluid intake or the ingestion of an electrolyte like sodium because drinking something "nasty" tends to shut off an exercise-associated cramp faster than that water or sodium can be absorbed into the body.
Someone told me this works? Any truth to it?
Pickle Juice/Sour Foods
There’s merit to this concept. One thing that can turn off this errant nervous signal mentioned previously is another reflex higher in the spine above the part of the spine that is causing the reflex - a sort of electrical interference. A common higher spinal reflex is a “sour reflex” that occurs when our face reflexively puckers when we eat something really nasty or sour like pickle juice. So by consuming some pickle juice during an exercise associated cramp, a signal is sent down the spine that can sometimes stop a cramp. This mechanism doesn’t relieve the fatigue that initially caused the cramp, but it can be a good way to get one to temporarily stop. Results may not be the same in every athlete, but trying it won’t do harm either.
The mechanism to spicy foods deflecting cramps is the same as pickle juice/sour foods we consume. The capsaicin in spicy foods and hot sauce elicits the reflex to interfere with the signal to distract our body from the cramp we’re experiencing. If you can handle the heat, this may be a solution that works for you.
There are currently no known links to low potassium and cramping. While adding a banana or other high potassium food prior or during exercise may help underfueling which leads to fatigue, the potassium itself is not the mechanism that prevents the cramping.
Regarding coconut water - it is not an appropriate drink for prolonged exercise where dehydration is occurring due to heavy sweating. The reason for this is that sweat is primarily made up of sodium (200-750 mg of sodium per 16 oz), whereas coconut water is primarily potassium (900-1000 mg of potassium per 16 oz). Because it's sodium that we need to replace and not potassium, drinking coconut water can actually be more harmful to us during exercise than drinking plain water.
Adding magnesium to your diet if you already are sufficient in magnesium intake will not improve cramping for most athletes. Oral magnesium does not appear to have any performance benefits unless you are shown to be deficient (in which case consult your doctor for best magnesium practices and the latest information) and may not be a great method to prevent or treat cramping during training and competition.
Currently, there is no evidence that mustard or mustard packets can help reduce or prevent cramps. Some have theorized that the electrolytes in mustard, specifically sodium and potassium, can prevent leg cramps after exercise. We recommend you just enjoy mustard on your hot dogs and subs rather than relying on it for cramping.
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