Our Sports Naturopath, Kate Smyth finds health issues run in clusters. In this article she explains how to stop cramping in its tracks.
A number of factors contribute to cramping. Many athletes have increased their training intensity and volumes but possibly overlooked their nutritional needs to meet their supplementary training requirements. Not all athletes realise they require 20% more magnesium than a sedentary person.
How to stop cramping- go back to the root cause
Dehydration may contribute to cramping in athletes along with imbalances in electrolytes. We naturally reach for comfort warming foods and often reduce our consumption of salads packed with magnesium rich leafy vegetables over the cooler months. Our natural inclination to drink fluids may also be reduced and our thirst mechanism sluggish over winter.
Coffee, alcohol and some drugs (such as oral contraceptives) may also accelerate the excretion or reduce the absorption of water and electrolytes such as magnesium and calcium.
The adrenal gland churns through sodium, vitamin C and magnesium when we are stressed. It is pretty rare to find a person who can honestly say they are stress free, especially in the current environment.
How to stop cramping- a reminder of the basics:
Increasing magnesium rich foods such as spinach, broccoli, squash, legumes, nuts, wholegrains and cocoa (quality chocolate can in fact be beneficial!) may help reduce cramping in athletes. These foods may also ward off more advanced issues linked to magnesium deficiency such as fatigue, immune, bone or cardiovascular issues.
Most athletes grossly underestimate their daily fluid needs when taking into account fluid losses from training. Endurance athletes are notorious for skipping hydration opportunities during a session (especially long-distance runners) despite large sweat losses. Many athletes are shocked how many litres of fluid they lose in a single session and ignore the increased risk of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and other gastro-intestinal problems due to dehydration. However, excessive fluid intake also causes issues such as hyponatraemia (low sodium concentration in the blood). Therefore, knowing your individual sweat rate is the best way to determine how much you should be drinking during and post exercise.
Calculating your sweat rate can be completed at home by following these simple steps:
1.Weigh yourself just before an intense one-hour session
2. Complete your session and record any fluids you had during the session
3. After your workout towel dry yourself
4. Weigh yourself again in the same clothing you had on for the session
5. The difference between the two weight measurements equates to the fluid lost per hour i.e. 1 litre = 1 kg of fluid lost. If you had fluids during your session deduct this amount i.e. 1kg of minus 200ml of fluid ingested during the run = 800ml of fluid lost.
Companies such as The Sweat Lab provide home-based sweat tests you can order online here
Total Fluid intake
During recovery, you will continue to lose fluids through sweating and urination. Plan to replace 125-150% of this fluid deficit over the next 2-6 hours. Sip small amount of fluids constantly over a few hours rather than sculling large amounts at once.
Make sure your daily total fluid intake includes both your exercise associated requirements and physiological needs. Although we are led to believe 8 glasses is sufficient as a basic requirement, national health associations are now suggesting 15.5 cups (3.7 litres) for men and 11.5 cups (2.7 litres) of fluids a day for women is more appropriate for adults living in temperate climates. Typically 20-30% of your hydration needs are obtained through water containing foods and the remainder through liquids.
Athletes with a limited intake of dietary sodium (strictly wholefoods diet) may benefit from adding a small pinch of sea salt to evening meals or drink bottles (except athletes with elevated blood pressure).
In some cases where magnesium depletion is significant, a magnesium supplement may be beneficial. As with all supplements, it is best to speak with a health professional to avoid the pitfalls of self-prescribing such as gastrointestinal issues and interactions. Athletes with a history of iron or zinc deficiency should be careful which form of magnesium supplement they have. Magnesium citrate is often found in supplements as it is well absorbed however long-term use may interfere with the carrier protein (ceruloplasmin) and contribute to future mineral insufficiency.
Five quick tips to boosting your overall fluid intake:
1. Keep a pot of warm herbal tea or lemon and ginger in your work-space and sip continuously
2. Enjoy a cup of bone broth as a snack or with dinner.
3. Increase your fluid through foods. Enjoy more “wet” dishes such as soups, casseroles or Vietnamese style Pho bowls and enjoy snacks with high water content such as cucumbers, watermelon, oranges and apples.
4. Add warming herbs and spices such as cinnamon and turmeric to your favourite smoothies or juices (made with room temperature water or warm milks and fresh fruits instead of frozen). You may like to try my Anti-inflammatory Smoothie recipe
5. Stick to a hydration plan during training sessions and keep a record of total intake daily in your training app or journal. Datorade is my favourite electrolyte sports drink! (2 fresh medjool dates + 1 litre coconut water+ pinch of sea salt).