It was big news last week when pro tennis player Rafeal Nadal "collapsed" during a press conference while having severe muscle cramping in his legs. During an interview afterward, he quickly laughed and brushed off the reporter saying, “[It's] nothing new – It’s nothing important...I just drink - that's all. ” While Nadal was very nonchalant, muscle cramps are no laughing matter and can severely hinder your performance.
What are muscle cramps?
The reasons behind why muscles cramp are often unclear. It’s difficult to distinguish a single culprit, but an imbalance of electrolytes in the muscle may predispose the muscle to cramping. Electrolytes are present to help muscles contract and relax appropriately during exercise. You have probably heard the term “electrolytes” in sports drink or recovery drink commercials. This is because during exercise the body can lose a substantial amount of electrolytes in sweat. If they are not replaced appropriately, it creates an imbalance within the muscle, locking the muscle in a painful spasm.
Why would someone have problems with cramping?
If due to a nutritional imbalance, a few habits can lead to muscle cramping. The most common is an infatuation with drinking only water during exercise. While this is fine during moderate or even semi-intense short-term (lasting <60 minutes) exercise, those doing prolonged vigorous exercise – such as someone like Nadal playing for multiple hours at a high competition level – need more than just water because they are losing more than just water. As I mentioned above, there can be a substantial amount of electrolytes lost with water during sweating. So, those who are particularly heavy sweaters or those exercising for long periods of time need to cognizant of this fact. Other habits that can increase the likelihood of developing muscle cramping is exercising in hot and/or humid environments when the athlete is not acclimated or simply not drinking enough of anything during exercise – water or not.
How does one prevent muscle cramping?
So the obvious way to prevent cramping? Plan ahead and don’t drink just water during or after heavy exercise. This will assure that you are replacing your body’s losses. During exercise, use a sports drink or perhaps diluted 100% fruit juice with added salt. Particularly heavy sweaters may need something with extra electrolytes such as Gatorade Endurance, or may choose to add a separate electrolyte supplement to their regular sports drink, such as Nuun tabs. Read my blog here for more information.
After exercise, you may need to continue that sports drink or instead use a recovery drink such as low-fat chocolate milk. Assure you are also getting enough potassium in your daily diet from foods such as pinto and kidney beans, tomatoes, spinach, cantaloupe, and milk. Some athletes may need to use the salt shaker liberally at meals or eat salty foods such as pretzels, pickles, or canned foods to maintain sodium levels. But remember, these types of recommendations are very individual and don’t apply to every athlete every day of the training year.
If you are having problems with muscle cramping during or in the hours after exercise, it’s important to re-evalute your hydration plan before, during, and after exercise. What happened to Nadal may be COMMON in high-level tennis, but it is not smart and it IS preventable.