Beat muscle cramp with a new research-tested trick – or old-fashioned hard work, says Alex Hutchinson

Avoid Muscle SorenessNext time you get a debilitating muscle cramp, you could try downing a quarter-cup of pickled gherkin juice. That’s what researchers from Brigham Young University in the US tried in a study published in May, and they found that it relieved cramps in an average of 85 seconds – 45 per cent faster than drinking water.

It’s not a cure, but it offers new evidence that our entrenched beliefs about exercise-induced cramps – that they’re the result of excessive fluid and electrolyte losses in sweat – are mistaken. The pickle juice can’t possibly have exited the stomach in 85 seconds, let alone replenished fluid and electrolytes.

Researchers are now considering the possibility that cramps are a phenomenon related to “altered neuromuscular control”, stemming from multiple factors including fatigue, muscle damage and genetic make-up. The new theory doesn’t offer any quick fixes, but it suggests that proper training and pacing could help minimise your risk.

Research comparing cramp-prone Ironman athletes to their non-cramp-prone peers at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa found that hydration and electrolyte levels in the two groups were almost identical. And a forthcoming study from the Brigham Young group found no change in volunteers’ susceptibility to cramps after they lost three per cent of their body mass through sweat. The neuromuscular cramp theory was first proposed in 1997 by UCT sports physician Dr Martin Schwellnus, who asks: “If it’s a systemic problem like dehydration, then why doesn’t the whole body cramp?”

Your muscles are always held in a delicate balance between an excitatory input that encourages them to contract, and an inhibitory input that encourages them to relax. If this balance is upset, Schwellnus says, “the muscle gets twitchy”, and if the imbalance persists, it leads to a full-blown cramp.

Interestingly, Schwellnus’s study of triathletes found that those who developed cramps had set higher pre-race goals and started at faster-than-usual paces. And in a further study he found that crampers tended to have trained more in the final week before the race. So the lesson is to taper for your races, train adequately and pace yourself. And if all else fails, it’s gherkin juice time!

Alex Hutchinson is a journalist and author specialising in sports science, with a physics degree from Cambridge University. He was a middle- and long-distance runner for the Canadian national team.

Team Talk

Racing Long – “Cramp is common on the Ironman run. Take walk breaks with a relaxed, long stride  to loosen your muscles.” – Liz Hufton, Editor

Make it work: Three stretches to ease common mid-race cramps

1. Calf

Step the affected leg back. Bend your front leg, and push the heel of the affected leg down, leaning forward

2. Foot

Sit down and take hold of the affected foot. Gently pull your toes up, then bend them back the other way

3. Hamstring

Step your bad leg out in front. Bend your back leg and bend forward at the hips to feel the stretch is the online home of Triathlon Plus – the best source of triathlon training advice, triathlon gear reviews and triathlon news.

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