Hydration Blog

Cramping and Electrolyte Loss - what is the link?

Monday, March 18, 2023

We get asked all of the time about whether electrolyte replacement (particularly sodium) can help with athletes who get cramp. It is always frustratingly hard to explain why sometimes electrolyte supplementation can be like a complete miracle cure for cramps in certain people, however for others it does not help much at all....

We believe it is likely to be because although electrolytes are implicated in some instances of muscle cramping, many other factors such as fitness level, fatigue and the type of movement patterns being undertaken can also be the cause.

In terms of our own experience in the field with 1000's of athletes we tend to find that a more tailored approach to sodium replacement (with drinks closely matching sweat composition, taken to thirst) reduces incidences of cramping in those who tend to suffer cramping late on in endurance events or in competitive games/matches/tournaments after prolonged periods of sweating. This effect tends to be magnified in hot weather or when intensity is very high, and is more pronounced in athletes with high sweat sodium concentrations and/or very high sweat rates. We have also noted some anecdotal experiences of athletes who used to suffer with cramps when taking in high volumes of plain water or low sodium fluids (because they were scared of becoming dehydrated) - and these athletes often see a reduction in cramping when they have either reduced total fluid intake to more normal levels or taken in additional electrolytes with fluids (or a combination of the two). 

Results with athletes who cramp at seemingly random times tend to be less positive (when using sodium supplements alone) - however programmes of targeted stretching, sports massage, more progressive training overload and general dietary improvement can be helpful in reducing the likelihood of cramping occurring in these individuals.

Because of all this we thought we'd share a review article that does a very good job of explaining the possible links between cramping/fatigue and sodium depletion - and it is well worth a read if you are interested in finding out more about the topic as a whole.

The reference is: 

Bergeron, Michael F. “Muscle Cramps during Exercise V Is It Fatigue or Electrolyte Deficit?” Current Sports Medicine Reports: Supplement-Sodium Balance and Exercise 7.4 (2008)

And the full article can be read of downloaded from this link

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