Hot weather and warmer days are upon us. Summertime is here and so are outdoor sports and activities. But as many know, Summertime activities and muscle cramps go hand in hand. Muscle cramping is the bane of athletes exercising in the heat. It’s a painful condition that can range from annoying to disabling. That makes it important to know how to prevent one.
Researchers believe that cramping is simply the result of muscle fatigue, which causes a breakdown in the communication between the central nervous system and the muscular system. Studies have shown muscles that cross two joints are more prone to cramping than muscles that cross only one joint. This is thought to be due to the increased workload on that muscle. But cramping, specially in the summertime, can be closely related to dehydration, or the lack of proper hydration, for sports and activities practitioners.
According to a recent review of the literature on the causes of muscle cramps during exercise published by the American College of Sports Medicine (Bergeron, 2008), there appear to be two possible causes for muscle cramping in athletes and people that practice sports on a daily basis. The first category of exercise associated muscle cramps is related to skeletal muscle overload and fatigue. According to this theory, the neuromuscular systems embedded in the muscles for the purpose of maintaining safe control of muscle contraction are affected. According to this theory, the part of the neuromuscular system that initiates contractions is increased (hyper-excitement of muscle spindles) while the part of the neuromuscular system that inhibits contractions is decreased (Golgi tendon organ). With the Golgi tendon organ inhibited, the muscle is inundated with messages to contract by the afferent muscle spindle (brings messages from the brain to the muscle).
The uniqueness about this type of muscle cramping is that it would only affect the specific muscles that are fatigued and it is close to impossible one would see a generalized system muscle cramping as one would see with a case of dehydration-based muscle cramping.
The second type of cramping is caused by excessive sweat losses associated with a decreased level of electrolytes (specifically sodium). Electrolyte deficit-related muscle cramps are sometimes the first level associated with heat illness. The body has a complex system for cooling itself as the core temperature of the body begins to increase with exercise and an increase in the outdoor temperature. Basically, Electrolyte deficit-related cramps are a mild heat illness that, fortunately, can be easily treated. They are best described as intense muscle spasms and they usually develop after an active person or athlete has been exercising for a significant period of time and sweating excessively.
How to PREVENT muscle cramps during this Summer?
People should be adequately conditioned when training begins. That means, hydrating carefully and properly throughout the day, eating healthy, sleeping well. I have put together a blog on how to maintain a healthy and effectful diet to help and prevent things such as cramping. You can check it out here. There should also be a planned schedule for practices and activities so that the person can become gradually accustomed to strenuous activity in the heat and humidity. The sooner you start your awareness/prevention journey, the better. People who exercise at a high intensity for too long are at a higher risk for dehydration alongside people with certain medical conditions like kidney stones or bladder infection. People that are pregnant or breastfeeding and people that are trying to lose weight and not getting enough fluids during the day should also be very careful!
How to TREAT muscle cramps?
The effective treatment of muscle cramps is dependent on the cause. For people suffering from overuse or fatigue muscle cramps, the most effective treatments are passive stretching, massage, icing of the affected muscles, and contraction of the muscle on the opposite side of the muscle cramping (i.e., if the hamstring is cramping, contract the quadriceps muscle group to relax the hamstring muscle group). People suffering from fatigue-related muscle cramps will not be able to continue their activity without further cramping. The people need time for their muscles to heal and recover before trying to exercise again.
For people suffering from muscle cramps prompted by excessive sweating and a sodium deficit, the same treatments as above can be immediately applied to reduce the pain and muscle spasm. However, along with the stretching, massage, and applied ice, these people need to consume fluids with additional sodium and electrolytes.
Proper hydration is a key component in making sure you have a successful summer training in terms of being physically prepared for each workout and properly recovered at all times.
As I have mentioned before, a study published in 2015 Asker Jeukendrup & Michael Gleeson at Humankinetics, suggests that “A loss of sweat equal to 2% of body weight causes a noticeable decrease of physical and mental performance. Losses of 5% or more of body weight during physical activities may decrease the capacity for work by roughly 30%”. Therefore we can conclude that the lack of proper hydration will cause major damage to your athletic performance as shown. Making sure you are always replenishing fluid and electrolytes if you are engaged in a physical activity is a must if you are looking to perform at optimum levels.
In this other article, I show you exactly how to stay properly hydrated during summertime season. During a two hour swim session, I probably go through 1L or more of sports drinks, which would be the equivalent to 34 fl.oz., and that’s only DURING the workout, not considering what I drink before and after! During summertime I’d say that quantity of Electrolyte Replacement drinks would even double for me. It’s vital that we stay properly hydrated if we are looking to achieve any level of progress in performance, and summertime is when we need to be extra careful with our hydration.
I suggest you try as hard as you can to stay on top of your fluid intake because it will not only prevent potential health complications, but also help you make the most out of your training sessions. Most importantly, be aware of the early signs of dehydration and listen to your body.
In case you are like me and like to practice sports or physical activities on a daily basis, there are also electrolyte replacement products available that are low-sugar and low-calories. Hydra-Guard Sports Drink for example is a great way of replenishing your essential electrolytes after a workout but keeping the calorie count low and consuming only 5g of natural sugars per bottle. You could use the code JOAO10 for a special discount on their website, and I also recommend you to subscribe to their newsletter because they are always releasing special codes for even higher discounts on their products.