Running, Triathlon
July 31, 2019

How To Avoid Race-Ruining Cramp

Person sweat testing

This post was originally written for The Straits Times as part of a 16-week column preparing runners for The Straits Times Run 2019.

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I’ve experienced cramps in training and racing many times. They’re performance-debilitating and excruciating.

Depending on the studies you read, 40 to 95 per cent of all athletes suffer from muscle cramps at one time or another. Regardless of the number you choose to believe, that’s a pretty hefty percentage.

In my experience, cramp is a common problem that affects many of the athletes I meet in Singapore. Because of the tropical climate – high in heat and humidity – athletes in Singapore could be predisposed to an increased risk of cramp.

To help get to the bottom of why we cramp and to provide you with a strategy for avoiding cramp in your training and racing, I reached out to my friend Andy Blow for advice.

Like me, Andy is a former professional triathlete and is the founder of Precision Hydration. Andy’s struggles with cramp during his career effectively led to the rise of Precision Hydration, who offer Sweat Tests that tell athletes exactly how much sodium they lose in their sweat. PH provides an individualised hydration strategy for every athlete and recommends multi-strength electrolyte drinks.

Here’s what Andy has to say…

I eventually managed to overcome the painful cramping issues that affected much of my athletic career by modifying my behaviour and diet.

I learned that in my case at least, consuming adequate sodium at times when I was sweating a lot was a big part of the puzzle, even if it’s not the only thing that can influence muscle cramps.

So, if you’re a fellow ‘cramper’, there may be hope for you!

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Why Do You Cramp?

There isn’t one definitive answer to this, but there are two main theories…

1. Lack Of Sodium
If you lose a lot of sodium (i.e. when you sweat a lot) and don’t replace it, there can be fluid shifts in the body that cause cramps.

Everyone loses a different amount of sodium in their sweat, and that sodium is pretty vital as it helps maintain fluid balance in your body.

Sodium also plays an essential role in the absorption of nutrients, as well as in muscle contraction and cognitive function. This was a big reason for my episodes of muscle cramping occurring as I lose a lot of salt in my sweat.

2. Muscle Fatigue
Muscles that are overworked, fatigued or are asked to do work that they have not been adequately conditioned for, are also prone to cramp.

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How Do You Get Rid Of Cramp?

1. Supplement With Salt
It’s worth looking at your sodium intake in relation to your sweat output.

It’s a cheap and simple exercise that has a minimal downside. It’s undoubtedly a good idea if your cramps tend to occur during – or after – periods of heavy sweating, in hot weather, during more prolonged activities, or if you generally eat a low sodium (or low carbohydrate) diet.

If you do take on additional sodium, especially in the form of electrolyte drinks, make sure they’re strong enough to make a real difference (and don’t just take on more table salt!).

Look to get at least 1000mg to 1500mg of sodium per litre as a minimum and note that this is 2-3 times the amount found in most regular sports drinks.

An excellent way to see where electrolytes should fit into the rest of your hydration strategy is by taking our free online Sweat Test at PrecisionHydration.com.

2. Reduce Muscle Fatigue
Train specifically for the event(s) that tend to induce cramps – i.e. find the right mix of training volume and intensity to prepare your muscles for what is going to be asked of them. The training plan created by Coach Ben for The Straits Times Run will certainly help you with that.

Pace yourself according to your fitness levels and environmental conditions to avoid overloading your muscles too early.

Make sure you taper before the event, so you’re fresh and well-rested when you start.

Eat only high-quality carbohydrates (with healthy fats and protein) before you start and fuel adequately to avoid becoming glycogen-depleted, which can contribute to premature fatigue.

3. Warm-up effectively
Warm-up properly before cramp-inducing activities.

4. Massage
Massage or stretch the affected muscles post-race (or find a good acupuncturist if that’s your thing!).

Bio: Andy Blow is a Sports Scientist and the founder of PrecisionHydration.com, who work with teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, Premier League and beyond, as well as with elite athletes from the world of triathlon, cycling and running.

Coached RunningBen PulhamBen Pulham is a former professional triathlete and the founder of Coached, a heart rate training programme that helps you optimise, track and enjoy your training.