Published on September 9, 2013
You hate cramps.
They hurt, they slow you down, and they negate months of hard training by costing your precious time in a race.
To fight cramps, you’re told to stay hydrated and consume lots of electrolytes. You’re not alone. Craig Alexander, Terenzo Bozzone, Chris McCormack and other top professional triathletes take salt tablets during their racing and training to avoid cramps.
Pretty much every sports nutrition book and magazine you can find will tell you that if you want to avoid muscle cramps, you need lots of water and electrolytes.
In this guest article by Armi Legge, an author at Impruvism.com, you’re going to learn why consuming water and electrolytes probably won’t help you avoid muscle cramps, and what you can do instead.
What People Think Causes Muscle Cramps
The most common explanation for what causes muscle cramps goes like this:1
When you exercise, your body sweats, releasing water and electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride.
As you continue to lose water and electrolytes during your workout, your body becomes depleted.
Electrolytes help conduct nerve impulses throughout your body, which allows your muscles to contract. When your body loses enough water and/or electrolytes, the nerve impulses from your brain to your muscles become deranged. This makes your muscles cramp.
This is why you’re told to consume sports drinks, electrolyte tablets, and lots of water during and around your workouts to help prevent or treat muscle cramps. Unfortunately, there’s almost no evidence this works.
Why Electrolyte Loss and Dehydration Probably Don’t Cause Muscle Cramps
There are four reasons why losing electrolytes and water probably doesn’t cause — or isn’t the primary cause — of your muscle cramps.2-5
1. Sweat contains far more water than it does electrolytes.
When you become dehydrated your blood levels of electrolytes actually rise or stay about the same.6
2. Athletes who get muscle cramps have about the same level of electrolytes and dehydration as athletes who don’t cramp.7
In some cases athletes who cramp have slightly higher magnesium levels.8 Other studies have found no relation of any kind between an athlete’s electrolyte levels and their risk of cramping — their risk of cramping was no higher or lower based on their electrolyte levels.9
Athletes who cramp also have about the same level of hydration as athletes who don’t.10
Another study found that drinking Gatorade did not prevent people from cramping (though there are a few problems with that study, so don’t get too excited).11
3. Not all of your muscles cramp.
If your cramps were caused losing too many electrolytes, then all or most of your muscles should cramp — not just some of them.
When people develop a real electrolyte deficiency, virtually all of their muscles go into uncontrollable spasms. On the other hand, athletes almost always get cramps in the muscles they’re using the most during their workouts. For example, in one study on ultra-marathon runners over 95% of all cramps occurred in the leg muscles during the race.8
4. Stretching, resting, and drinking pickle juice shouldn’t help stop cramps — but they do.
If muscle cramps were caused by dehydration and electrolyte loss, then there’s no good reason why stretching, resting, and sipping pickle juice should help cramps disappear — but they do.3
Stretching and resting a muscle doesn’t increase its electrolyte or water content, but both of these strategies do help muscle cramps go away.
In one study, pickle juice helped cramps disappear faster than drinking water or nothing at all.12 You might think that the salt and other electrolytes in the pickle juice were what stopped the cramps — not so. The cramps stopped long before the sodium from the pickles could be absorbed, so it didn’t work because it was replenishing lost electrolytes.13
What Really Causes Muscle Cramps
The newest and most scientifically supported theory is that muscle cramps are caused by premature fatigue.2
As you get tired, your muscle’s reflex control becomes dysfunctional. Instead of contracting and relaxing like they’re supposed to, they keep firing. Basically, your muscles become “twitchy” and can’t stop contracting.
This theory is supported by several lines of evidence.
1. The muscles you use the most during your workouts are the ones that usually cramp.
2. Muscles that cross multiple joints are more likely to cramp than other muscles. These muscles generally have more activity during exercise when they’re more likely to get tired.
3. You’re far more likely to cramp during a race than you are in training — when you’re pushing yourself harder than normal. Cramps also tend to occur at the end of races when you’re most fatigued.
4. If you don’t pace yourself properly, you’re more likely to cramp. Athletes who go out too hard relative to their training experience are much more likely to cramp than those who stay within their limits.7,14
5. Drinking pickle juice helps cramps disappear faster than drinking water or nothing at all, and this happens before the salt from the pickle juice can be absorbed. Researchers think this is because the salty taste of the pickle juice “tricks” the brain into relaxing the muscles.12
6. Some evidence indicates that athletes who cramp have more muscle damage before races.14
At this point, there’s no direct evidence that consuming extra electrolytes will help you avoid muscle cramps. There’s some evidence that dehydration might be involved, but it’s almost certainly not the primary cause of your muscle cramps.
5 Scientific Ways to Stop Muscle Cramps
1. Train specifically for your race.
Most cramps happen when you push yourself harder than you’re used to. If you make your training more similar to racing in terms of intensity and duration, then you’re probably less likely to cramp.
If you get a cramp, the best way to get rid of it is to rest. Most cramps don’t last more than about 2-3 minutes at most.
3. Lightly stretch the muscle.
Some evidence indicates that light passive stretching can help muscle cramps go away faster than rest alone. You’re not trying to improve your flexibility with this stretching — just pull on the muscle lightly to tell the brain it’s okay to relax.
4. Drink pickle juice or another salty solution.
Drinking pickle juice may help your cramps disappear faster than drinking plain water or nothing. Since the effect is probably due to the acidic/salty taste, any similar drink or food would probably work well, too.
5. Stay hydrated.
There isn’t much evidence that dehydration causes muscle cramps, but it might contribute.11 It’s obviously worth staying hydrated for other reasons, so keep drinking when you’re thirsty.
Reduce Your Risk of Muscle Cramps
Nothing can guarantee that you’ll never get a muscle cramp. However, using the best available scientific evidence, you can reduce your chances significantly.
For prevention: Train smart and stay hydrated.
For treatment: rest, lightly stretch the muscle, and maybe drink something that tastes like salt or vinegar.
Do you have any questions about muscle cramps? Leave them in the comments section below and Ben and I will respond.
1. Miller KC, Stone MS, Huxel KC, Edwards JE. Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps. Sports Health. 2010;2(4):279–283. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3445088/.
2. Schwellnus MP. Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)–altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? Br J Sports Med. 2009;43(6):401–408. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.050401.
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11. Jung AP, Bishop PA, Al-Nawwas A, Dale RB. Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps. J Athl Train. 2005;40(2):71–65. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1150229/.
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14. Schwellnus MP, Allie S, Derman W, Collins M. Increased running speed and pre-race muscle damage as risk factors for exercise-associated muscle cramps in a 56 km ultra-marathon: a prospective cohort study. Br J Sports Med. 2011;45(14):1132–1136. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.082677.