If you’ve followed me long enough, you may recall that I’ve covered muscle cramps a few years ago. However, Lorne recently wrote in with the following problem:
I read with great interest your article on cramping. I am a competitive 48 yr old cyclist who seems to be getting worse cramping as i age. I have attempted everything. I agree that the lack of load that i prepare for compared to a race is my biggest culprit. Have you seen any further research in the area?
Unfortunately, the short answer is no. Exercise-induced Muscle Cramps (EIMC) are complex to study in a controlled research setting largely because you need to produce cramps in individuals who may or may not be susceptible to cramping. Certainly, we know the types of conditions likely to cause cramping, but there’s no guarantee you will do it reliably, and if you do not produce a cramp, how can you test a treatment? All that aside, individual responses vary widely. An interesting paper published Miller and colleagues in 2010, indicated that the homeopathic remedy pickle juice was more effective at reducing the duration of a cramp than plain water. They also showed that the rapidity of treatment effect ruled out the possibility that pickle juice altered electrolyte or fluid balance. The researchers did hypothesize that the taste/tartness may have influenced neural feedback from the brain to the muscle. In other words, tickle the throat to relax the muscle, which is entirely plausible. However, the taste of the pickle juice is impossible to mimic, so the placebo effect cannot be ruled out; think about it, if you could get the same result by drinking something more palatable, you’d want to know. Will pickle juice, or anything else, work for you? READ ON!
Become your own lab
So then, when there is research to help you, the next best thing is to do some yourself. While individual and anecdotal evidence is of little use for ascertaining what is likely to work for many people, self experimentation is ideal for assessing what works best for you. The key to doing good research is minimizing the placebo effect and changing only one variable. The former can be tough, but the latter is relatively easy; just test one thing at a time. Here’s how to apply this to Lorne’s problem.
1. Minimize your risk by maximizing preventative measures. As has been shown very clearly, dehydration and sodium deficiency are unlikely causes of EIMC, as is heat. This does not mean, however, that you should not hydrate well before an event or reduce sodium intake, because you cannot control for the temperature. Further, you should strive to train hard enough to prevent cramps and determine your sweat rate during race intensity exercise to hydrate effectively; remember drinking beyond what you sweat out is of no advantage and could be dangerous.
2. Try one new thing, like bringing a small gel flask filled with pickle juice. Let me tell you, if pickle juice works for you, the best way to learn this is to have it with you when your worst cramps hit, like that goal race. If you cramp in 6 of 10 races over 2 years and the pickle juice works at least half the time, its a keeper! You could also try flat tonic water. Although quinine has been shown to be largely ineffective for cramp prevention, tonic water is bitter but sweet and may prove more palatable in a race; plus its got some carbs. If it is a neural signal from the throat, its plausible other noxious drinks could be effective.
3. Keep notes! Seriously, a good log of what works and what does not is imperative to ascertaining what works best for you.
4. The off-season is ideal for doing lots of experimenting, so make note of what you would like to try and build it in to your training plan.
Hopefully, Lorne and the rest of you reading can glean some success from this experimental process. When it comes to cramping though, the best way to prepare is to train hard; if you cramp in races, but never in training, you may not be training hard/long enough. You may also need to adjust your pacing strategy…but if you’re like me, you just roll the dice and deal with the cramps when they come!