By: Ben Greenfield
In the 2014 Spartan World Championships, at one point I clambered upside down monkey style across the Tyrolean Traverse, and I was forced to grip the rope hard with my calves and hamstrings. At that point in my life, I wasn’t accustomed to this; before then, I had never climbed upside down on a rope. About halfway across the rope, my right calf cramped hard, and I went flailing off the rope and into the water below.
Cramps happen for two reasons: dehydration and using new muscles that you haven’t used before. If (as is surprisingly typical) your cramp is not due to dehydration, and is instead simply a muscle going into a protective spasm due to under-use, the taste of something salty can instantly reverse that cramp. The most popular research study on cramping used pickle juice. But since there were no pickle trees nearby, I did the next best thing: I simply broke open of the electrolyte capsules I had stuffed in my shorts pocket in a ziptop bag and dumped the sickeningly salty contents under my tongue.
Boom. One salty gag reflex, and cramp gone.
Crazy, right? You’re about to learn why this little trick worked, what really causes muscle cramps, and how you can stop cramps in their tracks.
Cramping is one of the top complaints I hear from Spartans who are competing in longer events like a Beast, an Ultra-Beast or even the brutal Agoge and Hurricane Heat portions of the coveted Spartan DELTA.
I personally hate cramps. They hurt, they slow me down, and they negate months of hard training by taking away my precious time in a race.
To fight cramps, we’re usually told to “stay hydrated” and “consume lots of electrolytes” or salt tablets. Pretty much every sports nutrition book and magazine you can find will tell you that if you want to avoid muscle cramps, you need lots of water and electrolytes.
But that’s not necessarily true, and you’re about to discover why.
What Most People Think Causes Muscle Cramps
The most common explanation for what causes muscle cramps goes like this:
- When you exercise, your body sweats, releasing water and electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride.
- As you continue to lose water and electrolytes during your workout, your body becomes depleted.
- Electrolytes help conduct nerve impulses throughout your body, which allows your muscles to contract. When your body loses enough water and/or electrolytes, the nerve impulses from your brain to your muscles become deranged. This makes your muscles cramp.
And this is exactly why you’re told to consume sports drinks, electrolyte tablets, and oodles of water during your workouts to help prevent cramps. Unfortunately, unless you’re severely dehydrated or mineral depleted, and as I explain in this audio podcast episode, there’s almost no evidence that this strategy works.
Why Electrolyte Loss and Dehydration Don’t Usually Cause Muscle Cramps
There are four reasons why losing electrolytes and water probably don’t cause cramps.
1. Sweat contains far more water than it does electrolytes.
When you become dehydrated, your blood levels of electrolytes actually rise or stay about the same.
2. People who get muscle cramps have about the same level of electrolytes and dehydration as people who don’t cramp.
In some cases, athletes who cramp have slightly higher magnesium levels. Other studies have found no relationship of any kind between an athlete’s electrolyte levels and their risk of cramping, meaning their risk of cramping was no higher or lower based on their electrolyte levels.
Athletes who cramp tend to also have about the same level of hydration as athletes who don’t. One study found that drinking Gatorade did not prevent people from cramping at all.
3. Not all of your muscles cramp.
If your cramps were caused by a loss of electrolytes, then all or most of your muscles should cramp, not just some of them.
When people develop a real electrolyte deficiency, virtually all of their muscles go into uncontrollable spasms. On the other hand, athletes almost always get cramps in the muscles they’re using the most during their workouts. For example, in one study on ultra-marathon runners over 95% of all cramps occurred in the leg muscles during the race.
4. Stretching, resting, and drinking pickle juice shouldn’t help stop cramps—but they do!
If muscle cramps were caused by dehydration and electrolyte loss, then there’s no good reason why stretching, resting, and sipping or tasting something very salty like pickle juice should help cramps disappear—but they do. In one study, pickle juice actually helped cramps disappear faster than drinking water or nothing at all. You might think that the salt and other electrolytes in the pickle juice were what stopped the cramps, but it wasn’t so. The cramps stopped long before the sodium from the pickles could be absorbed, so it couldn’t have worked by replenishing lost electrolytes.
What Really Causes Muscle Cramps?
The newest and most scientifically supported theory is that muscle cramps are caused by premature fatigue.
Here’s how it works. As you get tired, your muscle’s reflex control becomes dysfunctional. Instead of contracting and relaxing like they’re supposed to, they keep firing. Basically, your muscles become “twitchy” and can’t stop contracting. This is backed up by the following facts:
- The muscles you use the most during your workouts are the ones that usually cramp.
- Muscles that cross multiple joints are more likely to cramp than other muscles. These muscles generally have more activity during exercise when they’re more likely to get tired.
- You’re far more likely to cramp during a race than you are in training — when you’re pushing yourself harder than normal. Cramps also tend to occur at the end of races when you’re most fatigued.
- If you don’t pace yourself properly, you’re more likely to cramp. Athletes who go out too hard relative to their training experience are much more likely to cramp than those who stay within their limits.
- Drinking pickle juice helps cramps disappear faster than drinking water or nothing at all, and this happens before the salt from the pickle juice can be absorbed. Researchers think this is because the salty taste of the pickle juice “tricks” the brain into relaxing the muscles.
- Some evidence indicates that athletes who cramp have more muscle damage before races.
At this point, there’s zero direct evidence that consuming extra electrolytes will help you avoid muscle cramps. There’s some evidence that dehydration might be involved, but it’s almost certainly not the primary cause of your muscle cramps.
5 Scientific Ways to Stop Muscle Cramps
So how can you actually stop muscle cramps? Here are 5 scientifically proven methods:
1. Train specifically for your race.
Most cramps happen when you push yourself harder than you’re used to. If you make your training more similar to racing in terms of intensity and duration, then you’re probably less likely to cramp.
If you get a cramp, the best way to get rid of it is to rest. Most cramps don’t last more than about 2-3 minutes at most.
3. Lightly stretch the muscle.
Some evidence indicates that light passive stretching can help muscle cramps go away faster than rest alone. You’re not trying to improve your flexibility with this stretching — just pull on the muscle lightly to tell the brain it’s okay to relax.
4. Drink pickle juice or another salty solution.
Drinking pickle juice may help your cramps disappear faster than drinking plain water or nothing. Since the effect is probably due to the acidic/salty taste, any similar drink or food would probably work well, too.
5. Stay hydrated.
There isn’t much evidence that dehydration causes muscle cramps, but it might contribute. It’s obviously worth staying hydrated for other reasons, so keep drinking when you’re thirsty.
Reduce Your Risk of Muscle Cramps
Nothing can guarantee that you’ll never get a muscle cramp. However, using the best available scientific evidence, you can reduce your chances significantly.
So let’s review…
For cramp prevention: Train smart and stay hydrated.
For cramp treatment: rest, lightly stretch the muscle, and taste or drink something that tastes like salt or vinegar.