I will start this off by saying I am not a nutritionist, and I think a trip to a nutritionist is a great idea if you have the time and can afford it. However, I think experience combined with expertise and research is very valuable, and in fact, from my research I have realized that muscle cramping still is an issue whose cause is not completely agreed upon by top doctors, nutritionists, and athletic trainers, which I was surprised to find out. Below I share my thoughts on muscle cramping, from my personal experience, research, and discussions with top endurance athletes and nutritionists. Muscle cramping was my big #1 barrier keeping me from success in the sport. Three years ago I was new to triathlon, and had no experience to learn from. However, in 9 out of 10 races I’d lose anywhere from 2-3 minutes of time simply due to muscle cramping. Sometimes it would happen 10 minutes into the swim in my groin or calf muscles, other times on the bike in my calves, or on the run – usually in my quads or hamstrings. One race, my T2 transition time was over 4 minutes, as I simply could not take a step as I had both calves and both quads cramping at once. It was not fun, but worse than that it made me feel like the time I spent training was wasted.
I’ve had muscle cramps everywhere: in my calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads…and even in the bottom of my feet. Many people say, “eat more bananas, that is what you need”. Or, “you lack ankle flexibility, that’s why your calves cramp in the water,” or “you just need to stretch more.” Also, “you’re just not fit enough yet and the body isn’t used to the load on its muscles.” Though these people may be right that bananas are high in potassium, which can help cramping, it’s not always that simple. I was eating 3-4 bananas a day and still cramping. Through this I have learned a TON about myself and my body’s needs, as far as nutrition and training load. I am a firm believer that everyone is different, and the needs of one many not be the needs of everyone. For example, to assume every athlete has a similar sweat rate, or basal metabolic rate is foolish. Some gain weight easily, others can eat whatever they want and will stay as skinny as a rail. Some people have a maximum run heart rate of 210, such as my college teammate Craig Donnelly, whereas my run max heart rate is about 175; and I know Craig was as fit or more fit than I when were had compared. People and their bodies are very different from one another, and too many times everyone is lumped together and told there is one common fix for us all.
Sometimes trying a few different things is the only way to discover why your body is doing what it is, and training is the perfect time to experiment with certain things to figure out what works. Although we are different, we are all human, share similar anatomy, and all need some staple things to function and perform well. One of my best friends, an All-American 800m runner in college who ran a 1:49.0, could perform just fine on sugary candy orange slices, skittles, starburst, etc. before a race. He frequently ate fast food, very few veggies, and this seemed to do ok for him. Surprisingly, he NEVER cramped! I was the one eating healthy foods all day, and would be awoken at 1am with my calf cramping and seizing up, while sleeping! But his race was less than 2 minutes, and ours as triathletes is 2 hours or more. I’d like to think he couldn’t pull off his poor eating habits as easily if he were a triathlete, but who knows?
I have studied muscle cramping, read many articles, talked to Ironman world champions as I’ve trained with them, as well as approached nutritionists about it, and I’ve seen a trend. The Ironman athletes almost always say muscle cramping is due to salt and electrolyte loss, and recommend things like taking salt tablets during races. The nutritionists tend to said it’s about your day to day diet. It’s clear why the Ironman athletes say it’s salt loss, because after 8 hours on the road, yes you WILL lose a ton of salt. However, if cramping occurs 10 minutes into the swim in an Olympic distance triathlon, as it did for me, I hadn’t even begun to sweat yet… so I was having a very hard time accepting that my cramping was caused by heavy salt loss. I have concluded yes, it can be both theories- caused by a lack of sufficient salt and other electrolytes, as well as a poor diet. It also may be caused from other things. In my personal theory, established from experience and study, I separate muscle cramping into different categories, depending on when in the races or workout the cramping beings. There is cramping right at the beginning of races, or while sleeping at night, and then there is cramping after a long strenuous hot day on the course, like in the Ironman athletes’ case often.
1) I used to cramp 10 minutes into the swim during races. Obviously I’m not losing a lot of salt yet through my sweat, thus I believe this is from nutritional deficiencies.
2) In a long road cycling race, I once cramped two hours into it. It was 110 degrees out. I had been sweating for hours, and had lost tons of salt. In this situation, I believe it was from a loss of key electrolytes and salt.
These were theories I established from a few individual cases of cramping. But what about all those other times when it just happens under normal circumstances? Without any simple answers, I realized the only place to stay is to simply try every possible aid and see if anything works. So, I began with more salt in my diet, less salt in my diet, salt tablets during races, getting massages, taking a multivitamin, taking a Calcium-Magnesium supplement, stretching, eating even more bananas, staying hydrated daily, taking a SuperGreens probyotics supplement, and anything else I could think of.
Cramping Remedies… or should I say “possible” remedies
Again, I reiterate what I said previously. I believe we are all different and need to find what works best for our unique bodies, but here are some places to start. As I also said, I’m no nutritionist but wanted to share what has helped me. I have always thought I generally ate pretty healthy, but have had to completely revamp my diet. This takes DISCIPLINE, time, and planning.. and possibly a bit of money. Eating healthy is not as cheap as eating crap! You can come out of McDonald’s having spent $3 and feeling full, if you order Dutch off the value menu…as I always do… or did
Here are a few recent additions and general daily needs in my diet, with the help of a nutritionist (for 26 year old male, 160 lbs). Seek advice from a qualified nutritionist prior to beginning any new nutrition program:
-Eat 9-10 servings a DAY of vegetables, or 5 cups/day. Greens are a high alkaline food, and can help neutralize lactic acid in your body. “Eat a rainbow daily,” colorful foods.
-Magnesium Malate Chelate: 1 capsule 4x/day, 250mg/capsule
-Protein: 1.5 grams of protein per lb. body weight per day, over 4-6 servings
-OmegaAvail Marine TG (liquid form, 8oz bottles, from Moss Nutrition), 2 teaspoons per day or Omega 3-6-9 fish oil from other companies
-Post-workout: 30 grams protein + 45 grams carbohydrates (within 30 min of workout!)
Take a multi-vitamin daily. (Ideally in powder or liquid form, for better absorption, and as directed with a meal)
Race Day / Hard training day changes:
If you find yourself cramping during races or hot training days when you’ve sweated a ton, then for you, perhaps salt and electrolyte loss may be one cause of cramping in your specific case.
Endurolytes by E-Caps/Hammer Nutrition, Succeed S-Caps, and Salt Stick tablets are a few different types of salt/electrolyte tablets. In and Olympic distance or longer race, start with two tablets (or 3-4 if using Endurolytes) mid-way through the bike portion. (Endurolytes have the main 5 – sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and manganese - elements. These 5 work together synergistically, meaning they work extremely well together – in tandem – so they need one other to function optimally) I have read various things on salt intake. I do know this is very individualized, some people need none, some need a lot. You do need to be careful, however, to follow recommended amounts to some extent, as a high salt intake can be hard on the kidneys, and are related to water retention in your body. Extreme cases of too much salt can leave you bloated and unable to urinate. I have read various accounts of this with ultra-runners, who are often popping 20-40 tablets over the duration of their day.
Prior to the race, add a few scoops of salt in your water/electrolyte drink to take on the bike.
Massage: Although expensive, a frequent massage is great for your legs, and is another thing I experimented with and felt that helped my muscle cramps. Looking back, there’s no way to know for certain in my case if the massage was helping, or if it was the other things I was trying at the same time as well, such as nutritional changes. There are often local massage schools offering discounted prices (although don’t always expect the best massage you’ve ever had). Another alternative is using a foam roller to simulate self-massage, something I use daily to loosen up my muscles.
In my experience, I’m also convinced part of the reason athletes cramp often in races is due to the shock to their body that they are not used to. Their muscles are not used to the stress, and therefore implementing similar stress to the body in workouts is very important. For me, I believe I need to incorporate brick workouts in training, or running off the bike. However, those like my former teammate Jordan Jones, who’s been a pro triathlete for a few years now, don’t seem to ever deal with cramps while running off the bike or in races, and he believes brick workouts aren’t crucial for him. Once again this reiterates the importance of learning your body, as we are all different. I rarely cramp on a hard ride or a hard run, but when I run off the bike it’s a different story. Running hard is very different than running hard directly after a hard bike workout, as different muscles are already fatigued prior to even starting the run.
If one was to ask me what I think helped the most in my case, as I now rarely cramp, out of the possible changes I’ve made, I’d say to main things. First, it seems like my high intake of spinach and greens, as well as multivitamins and magnesium supplement, has made the most difference, because that is the area I’ve been the most disciplined and staying on top of. I was most likely nutrient deficient somewhere. Secondly, it’s possible that after another year or two of hard training, the body is adapting to the stress load that it wasn’t used to prior.
As I have shared my experience and random ramblings on muscle cramping, hopefully it can help those of you who have struggled with similar issues. I can’t necessarily tell you what will work for you, but those are a few things to start thinking about that might be helpful. Listen to your body, and find out what works for you.
Borger Endurance, LLC.
Ryan Borger lives and trains in Denver, Colorado and races as a professional triathlete. Ryan is also the owner of Borger Endurance LLC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org