Do Electrolytes Really Help Ease Cramps For Runners?

Ashley Lauretta
by Ashley Lauretta
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Do Electrolytes Really Help Ease Cramps For Runners?

Runners are prone to many different injuries and ailments and unfortunately, no one is immune to experiencing muscle cramps. What you may not know about muscle cramps is science has been unable to pinpoint a singular cause, making complete prevention near impossible. So what is a runner to do? Thankfully, new research has determined a way to ease the pain associated with muscle cramps and help you reduce your susceptibility.

WHAT CAUSES MUSCLE CRAMPS?

There are some common theories you’ll often hear about exercise-related muscle cramps, but it turns out that is all they are: theories. Theories about muscle cramps are discussed in scientific literature as early as 1900, including the idea that muscle cramps are caused by mental factors, but many of those early recorded theories aren’t widely spread or believed today. In the present day you are most likely to hear muscle cramps — especially those induced by exercise — are caused by dehydration. However, Mark Nocito, running coach at CoachFit Running, specifically notes that is a common myth of the ailment.

“[A common misconception is] that it’s only due to dehydration or lack of electrolytes,” he shares. “… any muscle under stress can cramp if overworked; for runners the calf muscle is the most common due the stress it goes under.”

Nocito adds that it isn’t uncommon to get cramping in the larger muscles such as the latissimus dorsi (back), quadriceps (front of thigh) and hamstrings (back of thigh). An article published in the journal Sports Health in 2010 agrees, adding that the number and location of muscles affected may help to determine the cause (these larger muscles can experience cramping when contracting in a shortened state). However, it goes on to add that strong experimental evidence for dehydration — the most widely discussed theory — is lacking.

THE LATEST RESEARCH

Because there isn’t a clear cause, it is suggested there is no one way to prevent muscle cramps completely. In fact, the study mentioned above states specifically that if it were as simple as dehydration, fluid and electrolyte replacement would be the clear cut treatment. While it unfortunately isn’t that simple, there is a recent study that specifically addresses what can happen when those prone to muscle cramps hydrate with electrolyte beverages.

Researchers specifically noted the effectiveness of electrolyte beverages is in question when it comes to the prevention of muscle cramps, so they took nine subjects prone to cramping and studied their susceptibility and intensity. While electrolyte beverages did not completely prevent cramping over the course of the study, it was found that they decreased that susceptibility and pain.

HOW TO REDUCE YOUR CHANCES OF CRAMPING

While this research doesn’t give a definitive cure for muscle cramps, it does offer hope to athletes who experience them. Michele Yates, endurance and fitness coach at Rugged Running, specifically notes that runners should monitor their daily hydration, whether you are running that day or not. This can help give you a clear picture of your current hydration status and keep you from the (dangerous) overconsumption of fluids.

“A good way to monitor your hydration is your urine,” she advises. “You want to have a light yellow color. If it’s darker, then more water and electrolytes are needed. If it’s clear, more electrolytes are needed, but not water.”

Research has acknowledged that stretching the affected muscle has been found to immediately reduce pain — which is one of the reasons why dehydration and electrolyte loss is also debunked as the sole cause — but this stretching is why Nocito says if you experience a cramp mid-run, self massage and light stretching is the answer. “If you cannot get it to loosen up then do not resume running on it because that may damage the muscle,” he stresses.

If you are simply trying to diminish your chances of a muscle cramp, Nocito outlines three key steps:

  • Before Your Run: Properly hydrate and drink about 6 ounces of water or electrolyte beverage 20–30 minutes before your run (or 17 ounces two hours before if you are not properly hydrated). Follow it up with pre-run dynamic stretches and self massage.
  • During Your Run: If running longer than 45–60 minutes, consume 5 ounces of water or electrolyte beverage every 15–20 minutes.
  • After Your Run: Consume about 24 ounces of fluid for each pound of bodyweight lost over the duration of the run.

Yates agrees, stressing that runners should pay special attention to replacing electrolytes right after a run — within 30 minutes — to better prevent these issues.

Nocito does mention that muscle cramps are mostly acute and non-serious, but adds they can be a sign of a more serious issue (depending on severity and frequency). You should always notify your coach and doctor should you regularly experience muscle cramping. Because there is no definitive cause or treatment, researchers note that it is likely the cause is unique to every athlete and these risk factors should be identified by a clinician.

About the Author

Ashley Lauretta
Ashley Lauretta

Ashley is a journalist based in Austin, Texas. She is the assistant editor at LAVA and her work appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, GOOD Sports, espnW, VICE Sports, Health, Men’s Journal, Women’s Running and more. Find her on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.

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