I’ve now worked with quite a number of clients now who came to me with one of their main goals being to not cramp so badly while racing (both half-marathoners and full marathoners).
One of my runners, Tomoko, had both calves cramp up on her so badly she actually fell to the ground and had to be wheeled to the medical tent. You can imagine her desire to never have this happen to her again! As it turns out, so far, so good. Another, Satinder, was distraught when calf cramping slowed her down last year, but found after over half a year of eating 2 run, she ran a faster marathon this past spring, free of cramping!
Here are a few things I’ve found to be true about cramping (that is, cramping in the active muscles – not, for example, in your arms!):
- Exercise induced cramping is not a result of dehydration or electrolyte depletion;
- Generally, there is no ‘quick-fix’ for exercise induced muscle cramping (well, there may be a ‘band-aid’ solution – more on that in a bit…); and
- Cramping is most likely to occur in fatigued muscles that may have been asked to preform above levels prepared for in training.
So what does that really mean? Let’s dig in a bit deeper and figure out how to prevent cramping.
1. Not a case of dehydration or electrolyte depletion.
A study published in 2004 measured hydration and electrolyte levels of runners participating in the 56km Two Oceans Marathon. Interestingly, the crampers did not lose as much weight (2.9%) as the non-crampers did (3.6%) – suggesting dehydration was not the issue. Furthermore, the crampers sodium levels (139.8) were only ever so slightly lower than the non-crampers (142.3mM) and in fact the crampers magnesium levels (0.73mM) were actually higher than the non-crampers (0.67).¹
You’d think these results might be an anomaly, but they were repeated by the same researcher at an Ironman – nearly identical numbers were measured.¹
While science is turning up only a lack of evidence that taking in more electrolytes might prevent cramping, I do want to point out that I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal reports of things like salt capsules preventing cramping. There is no harm in trying methods such as salt tabs so long as package directions are followed.
So if simply drinking more water and taking in more salt, magnesium and potassium isn’t going to help, than what?
2. Quick-Fix Solutions. Pickle Juice Anyone?
If you browse the internet, you’ll find forums where some athletes swear that pickle juice prevents and/or stops cramping hypothesizing it must be due to the salt content. In fact, another of my clients, Catherine, actually carried a ziplock baggie of pickle juice with her on her most recent marathon (which she totally ROCKED with a PR of over 10 minutes!!!). While she wasn’t sure she needed it, she drank it at mile 22 when she felt a bit of a tingle in her calves and went on to finish strong with no cramps and an even split.
In 2010, a study was published showing that pickle juice could stop cramps in less than 35 to 85 seconds. However, it was found the mechanism is not due to the sodium contained in the pickle juice – but instead the vinegar content.² (For this reason, drinking straight up vinegar actually works even better, and mustard also works as it contains vinegar.) Pickle juices success can be attributed to a neurologic response – the acidic nature of the juice fires up nerve signals that somehow disrupt the muscle cramp.³
However, you’ll also find those who say find pickle juice does no such thing, such as bikeforums.net “I’ve drank pickle juice until I sloshed on the Hotter-n-Hell 100 and still had problems… Getting more fit helps more than anything.”
I particularly like that quote as it brings us to my next point.
3. Cramping is most likely to occur in fatigued muscles.
In the same study that points to pickle juice as an aid to stop cramping, researchers pointed out that tired muscles begin misfiring when extremely fatigued and end up cramping when they are supposed to be relaxed (pickle juice temporarily contracts that malfunction). According to author and sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald, a growing number of experts now attribute exercise induced cramping to the running at speeds that are faster than experienced in training, thus resulting in an extremely fatigued muscle.4
So how do you prevent muscle cramps?
First: build a training plan that includes race pace sessions (work with a coach, run clinic leader or read Jack Daniels Running Formula to ensure your training plan has the necessary requirements).
Second: include lots of veggies and fruits and electrolyte rich foods in your nutritional plan on a regular basis. Eat pumpkin seeds and pumpkin butter (magnesium); drink coconut water (potassium, magnesium, calcium), eat bananas and yams/potatoes (potassium). And in the 3 days leading up to your race generously salt your meals with natural sea salt (sodium).
Third: if you believe you could benefit from one and/or the other, you might have salt capsules and pickle juice (or vinegar or mustard) on hand while you’re out there racing. Hit up a burger joint the day before your race and swipe a few of those little vinegar or mustard packets! Um, not that I’m endorsing your eating at a burger joint 😉
Lastly (and obviously most importantly): eat a healthy, whole foods based and balanced diet on a regular basis – but especially while training. By building a strong body that is energetic and resilient to injury/getting sick, your chances of completing strong training runs and nailing those pace workouts increase exponentially. You’ll go into your race better prepared than ever before.
Sound good enough to try?
Eat clean, run strong, be well… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN
PS. Often people wonder if hiring a nutritionist is ‘worth the money’ – Trevor McLelland was one such person who decided to take the plunge. And what did he find? In his own words, “Having my own Eat 2 Run nutritional plan definitely led to amazing results in my life and running performance. I would never be at the running level I am at today without it.” To read more about Trevor’s experience in working with a nutritionist (aka, me :), click here.
1. The Runner's Body: How the Latest Exercise Science Can Help You Run Stronger, Longer, and Faster. Ross Tucker and jonathan Dugas. chapter 7 The Mysterious Muscle Cramp. Rodale 2009.
2. Reflex inhibition of electrically induced muscle cramps in hypohydrated humans. KC Miller et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 May http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19997012
3. Phys Ed: Can Pickle Juice Stop Muscle Cramps? By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS NY Times. JUNE 9, 2010. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/09/phys-ed-can-pickle-juice-stop-muscle-cramps/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
4. The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition. Matt Fitzgerald. Lifelong Books 2013.