Sunday, January 6, 2013


Even though I cramped
in this race I finished!
Many days my clients inspire me to write an article on various topics.  Today in the pool I had three clients that developed cramps in the pool and I was inspired to talk about muscle cramping.  In reviewing some information about endurance training and muscle cramping there are so many suggestions as to the cause.  There is not much proof of what causes it or what may help.  There are also many recommendations out there and I have my own suggestions as well.  I read that 30-59% of athletes suffer from muscle cramps.  One study said 59% and another said 30%.  Whichever is true I can tell you I am quite sure it is pretty high.  As a coach I see it daily. I think almost everyone has had it happen at least once during training.  Unfortunately many people suffer from this as an ongoing problem.  It can bring your training day or race to a halt if they are bad enough. There are some obvious simple solutions that I will talk about and then there are some less obvious that may be surprising to you. 

One of the hottest races I have done in Panama I did not cramp.
I was well hydrated and fit for this race. I qualified for 70.3
Worlds in Vegas!
The first thing that could be the problem and the most obvious is an electrolyte imbalance.  Most people think their cramping is caused from this and it may be true or partially true.  The research however does not fully support that an electrolyte imbalance is the main cause.  In fact I read one study that tested marathon runners before and after the marathon for blood levels of specific electrolytes. Runners that cramped vs. runners that did not cramp did not show much difference.  It is known that specific minerals are involved in muscle contraction.  You lose many minerals through sweating so if you are a heavy sweater one would think replacing minerals would help.  I think it’s a good idea to make sure you have enough minerals on a daily basis to prevent cramping as well as when you are racing.  Take the following supplements to help prevent cramping:

·      Mezotrace Multi-Mineral – 2 tablets a day
·      Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes – I take this only when I train long.  I add the powder to my drink during long rides, runs and when racing.
·      A good one a day multiple vitamin and mineral supplement.  I use Natrol Once Daily.

Diet can be another factor that could be causing your muscle cramps.  If you are limiting your carbohydrates then that can be a cause of your cramping.  Your body will start to utilize protein for energy and create too much ammonia in your body. That could be an indicator that you didn’t have enough carbohydrates before you started your exercise.  This could lead to muscle cramping.  Drinking too much alcohol, coffee, and sodas can also lead to cramping.  All of those can cause dehydration the exact thing you don’t want!  Once you have reached the dehydration level its hard to get back.
·      I drink a minimum of a gallon of fluid each day, some days 1.5 gallons. The amount would depend on how much I am training and how hot the weather is.
·      Minimize alcohol and caffeine both of which can dehydrate you.
·      Consume enough good carbohydrates before exercise.  If you think you are not eating enough then you will need to track your calories for a while.  Depending on your activity level you should be consuming between 45-60% of your diet from good carbohydrates.  Foods like oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, and fruits are some great ways to get your carbs. 
Some other research indicates muscle cramping can be caused simply by muscle fatigue or improper warm-up.  If you have been inactive for a while and suddenly are very active your muscles may not have caught up with your zest for training.  Working into things a little slower may help.  Doing more active stretches for a better warm-up may also help.  Save your static stretching for after your workouts and use active stretches (moving) before. 

Many people get calf for foot cramps in the pool and this may be caused from a few different things.  Using fins might be putting your foot in an unnatural position for you and this could lead to cramping.  Also kicking off the wall repeatedly (as you typically do in swimming) could be another cause.  I think people who kick too much from the knees instead of hips are more prone to cramping.  That is my personal opinion, as I have not read anything to substantiate it.  If you tend to cramp up a lot in the pool (mainly calf and foot) then try not pushing off the wall and see if that helps.  If you cramp from your fins you might want to try stretching your ankles and calves. 

Once you get a cramp you should slow down the intensity of whatever activity you are doing.  This is tough especially in a race.  Some relief may come from stretching the area that is affected. 

Don’t let your body get dehydrated because once you are there it is very hard to get rehydrated.  It could take several days to get your system back in balance from being dehydrated.  Don’t skimp on your carbs (the good ones that is).  Fuel your body for performance.  Skip the caffeine and alcohol if you cramp.  Caffeine in small quantities is actually a performance enhancer but if you tend to cramp I would skip it.  Lastly certain medication can cause depletion of minerals.  If you are taking medication it might be worth checking with your doctor to see if your medication is one that can cause a loss of minerals.  Some that may be on the list are cholesterol medication and some allergy medications.  These are very common for many people to take.
My first time cramping
during a race at St. George

Some other reasons for cramping may be the cold weather rather than the hot.  I had my first experience cramping in a race at St. George Utah Ironman.  The water was colder than expected and the air temperature was really cold.  I started cramping slightly about halfway into the swim which never happened before.  It wasn't bad enough to stop I just kicked less (I was cramping in my calves).  About 200 meters to go my legs cramped so bad they wouldn't work and I felt like I was sinking even with my wetsuit on.  I made it to shore but was carried out of the water.  I am sure the cause of my cramps were from the cold water.  I was well hydrated, had swam much further than that previously, and was very fit.  I was hypothermic going into transition and took 15 minutes to get on my bike.  On my bike I was still shivering.  I made it through the race but because of the cramps during the swim I had a tough time on the run. 

Some of my clients have had relief from ongoing cramping in the same muscle with Graston.  This is a technique used by a Chiropractor.  Once you cramp in one area sometimes it reoccurs on a regular basis in the same  place.  Graston has been helpful to some of my clients that have had this problem.  

There are many reasons you may be cramping.  The important thing is to listen to your body and take care of your body.  

Stay hydrated, eat good carbs, take your vitamins, and warm up properly!  Good luck!

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