MYTHBUSTING WITH ASM - IS “CRAMP” CRAMPING YOUR STYLE
FIND OUT WHAT IT IS - FIND OUT WHAT IS NOT
FIND OUT WHAT WORKS - FIND OUT WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Is “cramp” cramping your style?
Well let’s cut the BS and look at how to fix it
In this edition of the blog, we look at the blight of many runners, swimmers and cyclists. In order to ensure we are not misleading anyone at this early stage, we are talking in this blog about EXERCISE INDUCED CRAMP. This is a slightly different phenomenon than cramping while at rest. We would also point out that there can be medical reasons that can cause persistent cramping and we therefore recommend that anyone troubled by cramp should seek opinion of their doctor as a first port of call.
Ok, onto cramping. This is defined by the OED as “a painful contraction of muscle or muscles”. Anyone who has suffered cramp can testify to the painful part! It is a phenomenon that team mates, friends and colleagues will have an array of weird and wonderful strategies for you to try to alleviate. I would predict that most of these are unpleasant and probably didn’t work! Often most this will involve adding salt to your water bottle, buying expensive sports drinks/gels, squeezing into base-layer garments and various other click-bait products. Well, I am sorry to say there is not much evidence for many of these strategies, mainly because they are based on an outdated understanding of what causes cramp. So, let us take a look at some common theories and see where they trip up.
1. Drink more water
A common theory as not drinking enough when exercising and the associated water loss from the body, is proposed to cause cramp. Well, that might not be true. We undeniably lose water when we sweat. This varies between individuals and training sessions. A good way of tracking this is to weigh yourself before and after exercise. You should be aiming not to have lost any weight. But not because of cramp risk, more for performance and general well-being. Runners in the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa are a common population to study due to the nature of the event and associated conditions. When investigated for water loss, runners that over-hydrated were more prone to cramp than runners that were dehydrated. The significance of this is not strong as the statistical analysis is weak but there is certainly no trend towards dehydrated athletes suffering more cramping episodes than hydrated.
2. Put a pinch of salt in your water / use isotonic sports drinks
Another common piece of advice. It is not the water loss that causes cramp but the loss of electrolytes like potassium and sodium which is also a component of sweat. As a result, the Powerade and Lucozade’s of our world have created a global market in expensive sports drinks often marketed at replacing these electrolytes. Well, I am sorry to say that there is not a huge amount of evidence behind this either. Why? Well we lose more water than we do sweat. Therefore, the concentration of what is left in our body actually contains MORE electrolytes. So, we can park that idea as well.
But what really is happening in our body?
Well, like so much in science we do not exactly know in truth. However, what we do know is this:
1. Cramp often occurs in muscles that cross two joints
2. Cramp often occurs toward the latter stages of an event / race / training session.
That brings us to the most likely cause of cramp – FATIGUE.
Without going into the bamboozling micro-anatomy of the body, I am going to use an analogy that I use in clinic that I think explains things best. Imagine a giant see saw with 10 people on each side of equal weight. On one side we have ten people who represent the messages from the brain telling the muscle to contract. On the other side we have ten people that represent the muscle’s ability to stop this contraction when you have finished using the muscle. Under normal circumstances, the ten on the left can push the ten on the right and the saw bounces back and forth with no issue. The muscle works well.
When we tire, the body’s ability to slow down and stop muscle contraction is affected. Let’s imagine now our seesaw with the same ten people on the left side sending signals down the muscle. But we now only have 5 people on the right side to counter balance this. This will mean the seesaw may not totally return to the ground on the right side due to the weight on the left side. At this critical point where the seesaw cannot return to the ground, we cannot relax the muscle and it goes into an involuntary spasm – or cramp.
Blah blah, boring stuff blah. I have issues cramping, what can I do about it!
1. Do not outrun your training.
The majority of exercise induced cramping happens when the muscle fatigues. Therefore, make sure your training replicates your goal. Be wary of increased distance and speed above what you are trained to as this will predispose you to cramp.
2. Work on your muscle length.
The right side of the seesaw can be topped up by ensuring your muscles are not too tight. Therefore stretching, foam rolling and, you guessed it, SPORTS MASSAGE can be good methods of working on this. Especially muscles that cross two joints; hip flexors, hamstrings, calves.
3. Sometimes things work on some people!
If you have found a benefit in calf guards, Gatorade, salty water or chilli gum then great! Science is rarely black and white. Somethings work for one but not all. If you have found something that works, keep doing it! Just beware of false expensive prophesies!