As a running coach, sports nutritionist, and author of several books for runners, I often hear from runners who are looking for help in overcoming problems that are impeding their progress. Among the most frustrating of these problems are exercise-associated muscle cramps.
A typical case is Cathy, a 55-year-old ultra-runner from Northern California who contacted me with a desperate plea for aid with her cramping situation. “I experience painful, sometimes debilitating calf cramps after about mile 15,” she explained in her email. Cathy listed the many measures she had tried to keep the cramps from returning. These included drinking more fluid and ingesting salt tablets, taking a daily vitamin and mineral supplement, rubbing magnesium cream on her legs, and wearing compression stockings. Nothing worked.
In my reply, I told Cathy that I wasn’t surprised these measures had not worked. Most of them were based on the widespread belief that exercise-associated muscle cramps are caused by dehydration and/or by the loss of important electrolyte minerals such as sodium and potassium through perspiration. If dehydration or electrolyte depletion were the cause, then replenishment would prevent muscle cramps from occurring in everyone. For most, it does not.
When runners like Cathy discover for themselves that hydration, electrolytes, and other measures don’t prevent muscle cramps, they begin to look elsewhere for a solution. They may try stretching more to make the muscles looser, training more in case lack of fitness is the culprit, or wearing compression stockings because, well, why not? But these measures usually don’t work any better.
One thing that makes cramping so frustrating for runners is its psychological dimension. Not all runners experience muscle cramps as often or as severely as Cathy does. Studies have shown that some are especially susceptible to the problem. When such runners find that nothing they try is effective in reducing their cramping risk, and that many of their competitors are not limited in the same way, they begin to think something is wrong with them. Their confidence takes a nosedive.
Training and racing without confidence is bad for performance. So is training and racing in a state of fear; and frequent crampers are often saddled with fear of bodily mutiny, especially in competition. “At the start of every race, I pray for no muscle cramps,” Cathy told me in her email.
I’ve always dreaded receiving such messages because there was almost nothing I could offer runners in Cathy’s position. Fortunately, this is about to change. New research has identified the true cause of exercise-associated muscle cramps and led to a promising new solution.
One of the leaders in neuroscience is Dr. Rod MacKinnon, a Nobel Prize-winner and an avid sea kayaker who can relate to athletes like Cathy on an experiential level. MacKinnon became interested in finding a reliable way to prevent muscle cramps when a cramping episode ruined one of his sea kayaking adventures even though, like Cathy, he thought he had done everything possible to avoid the problem.
MacKinnon’s subsequent investigations led him to the realization that muscles cramp during exercise when fatigue causes the nerve that delivers movement commands from the brain to a muscle to become hyper-excited, sending the muscle into involuntary contraction. It so happened that MacKinnon’s Nobel Prize was awarded for work he had done on ion channels, which play a key role in the transmitting of movement commands sent through the nervous system into actual muscle contractions.
Based on his knowledge of ion channels, MacKinnon suspected that a nutritional intervention designed to stimulate sensory fibers in just the right way could prevent the motor nerves from becoming hyper-excited and greatly reduce the risk of cramping. Fortunately, a number of compounds that occur naturally in some foods are known to provide this type of stimulation. In collaboration with Bruce Bean, a neurobiologist at Harvard University, MacKinnon developed a formulation—essentially the first nutritional beverage for neuromuscular performance—and began testing it.
These early tests have been encouraging. In one of them, a small amount of the beverage was found to slash the occurrence of exercise-associated muscle cramps in half. That’s enough of a difference to restore confidence to cramp-prone runners and enable them to train and race without fear.
Consumer products that deliver this formulation will be available to runners in the first half of 2016. I look forward to the fast-approaching day when I can offer a real solution to men and women who reach out to me for help with their cramping woes.
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#ITSTHENERVE is the codename for the first scientifically-proven formula to treat and prevent muscle cramps. Developed by a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, this spicy proprietary blend of ingredients takes athletes beyond the traditional mindset that exercise-related cramps are caused by a problem with the muscle. Instead, the scientific breakthrough reveals the real culprit: the nerve. To learn more about, visit www.itsthenerve.com or join in on the conversation by following #itsthenerve on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.