Updated: Jul 26, 2019
Many of us endurance athletes suffer from muscle cramps. Whether you are a chronic suffer of muscle cramps or get them occasionally they can be hard to predict. In addition to the challenge of predicting the time that one could occur it is also hard to pin down what caused the muscle cramp. There are multiple theories on the causes of muscle cramps, from dehydration to neuromuscular fatigue to overreaching.
When talking about dehydration in endurance training and racing we can add electrolyte to the mix as well as the two go hand in hand. Electrolyte helps our body use the water/sports drink we ingest. For some athletes taking in a sports drink for electrolytes are not enough and they need to add additional electrolyte. There are many ways to add electrolyte, from products such as Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes or Base Performance Salt. In addition some athletes seek out a higher sodium concentrated product such as GU Roctane that has a higher electrolyte concentrate the standard Gu Hydration. On the hydration end staying hydrated is very important before during and after a training session to help prevent cramps. Simply not having enough water is one of the leading causes of cramps. On average humans sweat over 900 mg of sodium per 32oz/1L and for endurance athletes these numbers can be even higher. For salt intake + water intake everyone is different and testing in training is the best method for all athletes.
Another theory on muscle cramping is neuromuscular fatigue. This occurs when muscles are overworked and a part of the muscle that helps it relax quits working. There are a couple of ways to combat this when/if it happens. One way is to stop and carefully lengthen the muscle cramp by stretching. Another way is combat this form of muscle cramping is using a product called Hotshot. While I have personally yet to use it we work with many athletes who swear by it and use it before or after long/hot sessions. In addition some take it with them while training or racing and have been able to combat a cramp within minutes.
Lastly there is cramping that can be caused by fatigue outside of the two listed above. This is a very broad term that can include a poor diet or overreaching in training. To combat this we as athletes need to ensure we properly fuel our bodies before during and after workouts. In training we can combat cramps by listening to our bodies and ensuring we are not overdoing it, not every session can be a PR, we need to realise that. In addition coming into a race with realistic expectations will help combat cramping. Pacing yourself appropriately based on current fitness levels and environmental conditions to avoid overloading muscles.