Could a muscle cramp cost you a million dollars? If you ask sprinter Michael Johnson, the answer is yes.
At the Olympics, the title of “World’s Fastest Man” traditionally goes to whoever wins the gold medal in the men’s 100 meters, whether or not he breaks a world record at the competition. In 1996 the winner of that event was Canada’s Donovan Bailey, who not only won but erased all doubts by breaking the world record in the finals with 9.84. Well, not all doubts.
At that same Games Michael Johnson won the gold medal in the 200 meters and set a world record of 19.32. In an NBC broadcast Bob Costas split Johnson’s 200-meter time and explained to the audience that 9.66 was faster than 9.84 – making a case that Johnson, not Bailey, should be considered the fastest man in the world. However, that idea doesn’t hold water because that second 100 meters is considered a flying start; and in fact, when Bailey anchored the 4x100 relay team that won gold that year, his time was 8.95.
Rather than trying to solve the debate by having Donovan run the 200 or Johnson the 100, promoters staged a hybrid race of 150 meters. The event was held on May 31, 1997, in Toronto, and each man was guaranteed $500,000, with an additional $1 million to the winner. Coming out of the turn Bailey was clearly ahead, which was shocking because Johnson was considered the best turn runner in history, but Johnson pulled up with an apparent cramp. That was not the only frustrating cramping incident for Johnson, because he also pulled up in the 200-meter final of the 2000 Olympic Trials, losing a chance for another Olympic gold in that event.
Cramps during sprinting events are obviously the most dramatic instances, but cramps can affect any athlete in any event. The problem is that once a cramp occurs, even if treatment (such as ice, medication, massage and stretching) is immediately applied, it is often difficult to return to play – sometimes the pain can last for hours. Unless you’re competing in a championship game or event, it makes no sense to risk a more serious injury by trying to work through the pain. Instead, it’s best to focus on ways to prevent cramping before it can spoil your day – or cost you a million bucks.
For this discussion we’ll define a cramp as an involuntary shortening of skeletal muscle fibers. The contraction can be prolonged and accompanied by painful spasms. Interestingly, cramps can occur not just during exercise but also several hours after exercise. During a press conference after the 2011 US Open Tennis Championships, Rafael Nadal experienced a cramp so painful that he slid out of his chair and disappeared under the table – an event that fellow pro Caroline Wozniacki had considerable fun imitating at her press conference that followed.
The Cramping Solution
Muscle cramps have essentially two causes:
1. Excessive skeletal muscle overload
When the muscular demand is higher than the level the muscle has been trained for, there is a greater risk for cramping. By logical extension, the best to prevent cramps is to get in shape progressively and wisely. Of course, one also has to warm up properly, such as with dynamic stretching and even some low-level plyometrics, and performing a post-workout cooldown and stretching. I realize that’s a rather broad recommendation, but training must be progressive and relevant to what you are training for.
2. Dehydration/electrolyte Imbalances
The most common advice for preventing cramps is to ensure you are well hydrated. It follows that you need to go into a workout or athletic competition hydrated – and not try to catch up by drinking during the activity. Actually, for distance runners, one of the primary advantages of “glycogen loading” is that it helps retain water.
You must also consider the role of electrolytes in preventing cramps. Electrolytes are chemical substances that when dissolved in water transform into ions; ions are molecules that are involved with conducting electrical impulses throughout the body. If there is an electrolyte deficiency, the muscles will not be able to contract properly. If you drink only plain water, the electrolytes in your tissues become diluted. To restore the electrolyte balance in the body, the kidneys must excrete this water from the body, carrying electrolytes with it.
Regarding some of the popular sports drinks, consider that water enters the cells through a process called osmosis. Sports drinks often have such a high concentration of sodium (to improve the taste) that the water cannot enter the cells – in effect, you are hydrated and dehydrated at the same time! One of the best natural sources of electrolytes is coconut water; another option is to add an electrolyte replacement mix to your water.
In a study published in the April 2005 Journal of Athletic Training
, 13 college-age men with a history of exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMCs) participated in an experiment to determine how well electrolytes could prevent cramping in the calves. The authors concluded, “Consumption of a carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage before and during exercise in a hot environment may delay the onset of EAMCs, thereby allowing participants to exercise longer.” The authors did note that 69 percent of the subjects still experienced cramping from their training protocols, suggesting that other factors, especially physical conditioning, are necessary to deal with cramping.
Another cause of cramping could be a deficiency in magnesium, a mineral involved in muscle contraction. The literature suggests that between 54 percent and 75 percent of the general population in the US is magnesium deficient; in France, one study conducted in the mid-1990s found that 72 percent of men and 77 percent of women were deficient in this mineral.
Magnesium is the most common mineral deficiency seen in athletes; one reason is that resistance training increases magnesium requirements. In fact, during the last 12 years not one of the first-time trainees I’ve worked with has had acceptable magnesium levels. Compromised absorption and utilization of magnesium commonly interfere with achieving optimal levels.
Over the years, I have accumulated extensive research and experience in restoring magnesium levels, and I believe it’s best to use a combination of four different magnesium complexes: magnesium taurate, magnesium glycinate, magnesium fumarate and magnesium orotate. Adding vitamin E and D3 will also help restore magnesium levels.
Potassium, like magnesium, is an alkalizing mineral, and it is also associated with the prevention of muscle cramps. All the medical food powders used in the Poliquin line for the purpose of enhancing detoxification provide an extremely high dose of potassium citrate, which is highly absorbable.
Michael Johnson will be remembered as one of the greatest sprinters of all time, but his legend could have been even greater had he been able to avoid his bouts with cramping. Likewise, don’t limit your own athletic potential – be sure to follow these steps to keep your muscles running smooth and strong.