I have experienced cramps in training and racing many times. They are 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 is a pretty hefty percentage.
In my experience, cramp is a common problem in Singapore because athletes could be predisposed to an increased risk in this tropical climate of high heat and humidity.
To help get to the bottom of why we cramp and to provide you with a strategy for avoiding it in your training and racing, I reached out to my friend Andy Blow for advice.
Like me, he is a former professional triathlete and his struggles with cramp during his career led to the rise of Precision Hydration, which offers tests that tell athletes exactly how much sodium they lose in their sweat. It provides individualised hydration strategies and recommends multi-strength electrolyte drinks.
Here is 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 learnt 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 are a fellow 'cramper', there may be hope for you!"
Why do you cramp?
There is no definitive answer but there are two main theories.
LACK OF SODIUM
If you lose a lot of sodium, that is when you sweat a lot, and do not replace it, there can be fluid shifts in the body that cause cramps.
Everyone loses a different amount of it in their sweat, and sodium is pretty vital, helping 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 as I lose a lot of salt in my sweat.
Muscles that are overworked, fatigued or are asked to do work that they have not been adequately conditioned for, are prone to cramp.
How to get rid of cramp?
SUPPLEMENT WITH SALT
It is worth looking at your sodium intake in relation to your sweat output. It is a cheap and simple exercise that has a minimal downside.
It is 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 are strong enough to make a real difference. Do not just take on more table salt.
Look to get at least 1,000mg to 1,500mg of sodium per litre as a minimum and note that this is two to three 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
REDUCE MUSCLE FATIGUE
Train specifically for the event(s) that tend to induce cramps, that is, find the right mix of training volume and intensity to prepare your muscles for what is going to be asked of them. The plan created by Coach Ben for the Sept 29 Straits Times Run will certainly help.
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 are 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.
WARM UP EFFECTIVELY
Warm up properly before cramp-inducing activities.
Massage or stretch the affected muscles post-race (or find a good acupuncturist if that's your thing).
• Andy Blow is a sports scientist and the founder of Precision Hydration, which works with teams in the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, Premier League, as well as elite triathletes, cyclists and runners.