Nutri­tion

The ex­act cause of mus­cle cramps dur­ing ex­er­cise is still not well un­der­stood and there are many the­o­ries about how to pre­vent and cure them. We take a look and sep­a­rate the pickle juice from the snake oil.

Australian Mountain Bike - - Contents - WORDS: ZOE WIL­SON PHOTO: I S TOCK

We’ve all had one, whether it’s in the mid­dle of the night or the mid­dle of a hard ride and boy are cramps painful! A cramp is an in­vol­un­tary con­trac­tion of a mus­cle that can feel like some­one is stab­bing you from the in­side out. Symp­toms usu­ally ease within min­utes, but of­ten leave your mus­cle in knots and sore for days.

W H AT C A U S E S A C R A M P ?

Lots of the­o­ries have sur­faced over time to try to ex­plain the cause of cramp­ing dur­ing ex­er­cise: ex­er­cis­ing in the heat or hu­mid­ity, heavy sweat­ing, tight mus­cles and tired­ness. One of the most com­mon was de­hy­dra­tion or a lack of elec­trolytes (par­tic­u­larly sodium or salt), although there is min­i­mal sci­en­tific ev­i­dence these are ac­tu­ally causes of cramps dur­ing ex­er­cise.

Over the last few years, the com­monly sci­en­tif­i­cally agreed upon cause has be­come a change to the way our nerves and mus­cles work to­gether (neu­ro­mus­cu­lar func­tion) due to fa­tigue. Ba­si­cally, fa­tigue switches on a mus­cle and the body is un­able to switch off the con­trac­tion. This tends to be more com­mon when the mus­cle is work­ing in a short­ened po­si­tion, like in your quads when you stand to pedal and fully ex­tend your legs. Be­cause this switch is flicked un­con­sciously, cramps are dif­fi­cult to ac­tively pre­vent, but there are some things to do to help re­duce the risk.

TRAIN­ING

Mus­cles are more likely to cramp if they are not up to the task. Week­end war­riors be­ware. If you want to avoid cramp­ing, then throw­ing your­self into a 150km ride off the back of not enough train­ing is prob­a­bly not smart idea. In­stead, build your fit­ness slowly and con­sis­tently so your body is pre­pared for what you are go­ing to put it through dur­ing your next long ride or race.

FOOD AND FLUID

Train­ing isn’t just about build­ing your fit­ness, it’s also about prac­tis­ing your fu­elling and get­ting used to eat­ing and drink­ing on the bike. Although there is min­i­mal di­rect ev­i­dence that lack of fluid or elec­trolytes cause cramps, not enough fuel or fluid can lead to more quickly to fa­tigue, in­creas­ing your risk. For long or high in­ten­sity rides you should be aim­ing for around 30-60g of car­bo­hy­drates per hour and re­plac­ing the fluid and elec­trolytes lost in sweat. It’s dif­fi­cult to pre­scribe the amount of fluid and elec­trolytes you should take on board as ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent – some of us are sweaters and some aren’t and we all lose salt in our sweat at dif­fer­ent rates. If you’re in­ter­ested, a sports di­eti­tian can help you to fig­ure out your in­di­vid­ual sweat rate so you can fine tune a fluid and elec­trolyte plan for gen­eral per­for­mance and to min­imise cramp­ing risk.

IN A PICKLE?

Pickle juice is be­com­ing more and more main­stream as a treat­ment for cramps. So much so, that you can now buy pickle juice shots specif­i­cally for ath­letes. And no, this is not a gim­mick – there have now been sev­eral stud­ies to show that pickle juice ac­tu­ally works. The think­ing is that the vine­gar in the pickle juice trig­gers a re­flex in the mouth or the up­per oe­soph­a­gus via our “wasabi re­cep­tors” (just FYI!). This re­flex then changes the nerve sig­nals sent from the brain to the mus­cles, short cir­cuit­ing the sys­tem and turn­ing off that switch caus­ing the cramp. The first ma­jor study to look at pickle juice as a treat­ment for cramps in­duced cramps us­ing elec­tri­cal pulses. The re­searchers found that cramps re­solved about 45% faster when the per­son with the cramp drank pickle juice (at 1 millil­itre for ev­ery kilo­gram of body weight) com­pared to when they drank wa­ter alone. Sub­se­quent stud­ies have con­firmed these find­ings and also re­ported that pickle juice doesn’t ap­pear to have any ma­jor side ef­fects either. Drink­ing pickle juice doesn’t seem to have any ma­jor im­pact on your nor­mal sports nutri­tion plan, hy­dra­tion or on per­for­mance. It also doesn’t ap­pear to cause any se­vere GI symp­toms although you might be a lit­tle thirstier af­ter tak­ing it. In fact, an­other study looked at ath­letes and found tak­ing a pickle juice prod­uct 30 min­utes be­fore train­ing re­duced the in­ci­dence of cramp­ing dur­ing ex­er­cise and those who did cramp were able to re­turn to train­ing faster when they took the pickle juice com­pared to those who didn’t.

THE BOT­TOM LINE

There are many things you can do to help pre­vent cramps. Train­ing and nail­ing your food and fluid plan for a hard or long ride is first and fore­most so you min­imise fa­tigue. If you suf­fer from cramps reg­u­larly then it re­ally does seem you have noth­ing to lose by giv­ing tak­ing pickle juice a try.

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