Muscle Cramps, Dehydration and Running

In the past I have addressed side-cramps or “side stitches” in runners. The bottom-line on stitches: There are as many possible causes as cures. No single approach remedies all stitches for all runners. The topic I will address this time is whether non-side-stitch muscle cramps (typically in legs) are any different in cause and cure.

There has been both formal research and of course a plethora of anecdotal accounts on both causes and cures for cramping. Some runners seem prone to muscle cramps more than others (as is the case with side-stitches). Some runners are virtually immune to them (as is the case with side-stitches).

Like so many others I have recommended guidelines along the lines of keeping hydrated to above a 3% body weight loss to help decrease chances of cramping. And some studies had shown that over 3% body weight loss also tended to meet with a gradual decrease in actual performance (slow down). And it is widely quoted that at 2% loss you often will not even feel the urge to drink yet. But, like everything, more research, better research, more controlled research instead of mere correlational studies reveal clearer evidence of what is happening.

Dehydration alarmists are bolstered by hydration studies like the one presented to the American College of Sports Medicine Conference: “The runners underestimated their sweat losses by an average of 46 percent and their fluid intake by an average of 15 percent, resulting in the runners replacing only 30 percent of their fluids lost through sweat.” (But don’t swallow this one that easily. It was conducted by Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI). They have a stake in your intake!) But, it did not address if cramping occurred or if performances dropped off as a result. In other words, it is an observation – not necessarily a need for alarm.

3% dehydration is accepted as mild; while moderate dehydration is 3-5% weight loss and greater than 5% is considered severe dehydration.

Yet researchers like the renowned Dr. Tim Noakes found that things like elevated body temperatures are not correlated to dehydration status; and dehydration was not an indicator for increased medical tent likelihoods.

It also is widely written about that an imbalance or great loss of electrolytes (potassium and sodium most often) via sweat loss is the cause of cramping and performance decrement. Electrolytes are essential to muscle contraction and performance. It all makes sense. Or does it?

Several correlational studies have now shown that many of the most dehydrated individuals are among the fastest finishers in marathons. This of course flies in the face of the dehydration-cramping connection theory; if the most dehydrated were the fastest and in fact did not suffer from cramping. It also flies in the face of dehydration-performance decrement theory. Best performers were most dehydrated. It has also been noted that hyponatremia (low sodium – at least low in the places you need it due to over-hydration) most often afflicts the slowest of marathoners and who demonstrate minimal dehydration.

Studies on cramping now show when muscles are examined after workouts (cramped and non-cramped conditions) it reveals no significant difference in electrolyte content in the blood between the cramped and non-cramped states.

One guy who is conducting research on the topic is Kevin C. Miller, Ph.D. One of his study results show that “pickle juice relieved the cramps about 45 percent faster than if the men drank no fluids and about 37 percent faster than those who drank water.” The acidity of the juice appears to be the reason – but he’s studying that more. (By the way, the amount of pickle juice fluid or sodium content is irrelevant because it did not have time to be absorbed to effect dehydration or electrolyte replacement itself.)

His conclusion at this time is that cramps are the result of a muscular exhaustion is the issue not dehydration or electrolyte loss issues.

The point here is that they now believe it is a neuromuscular fatigue. “Misfires” occur in a muscle when exhausted. That is a conditioning issue – a training issue. We train muscles and nerves to work together in a coordinated effort to get us from point A to point B in the fastest time possible. Nerves tell muscles when to fire and how hard to explode. Muscles respond to what they are told – up to the point that they have been conditioned to respond.

The message to runners is to evaluate when cramps take place. Evaluate pace, distance, stride, terrain, pattern of training days, goal paced runs, hard days and rest days. For instance a cramp may indeed show up in mile 20 of a marathon and not in training because the terrain is different (i.e. slant in road side you run on), the surface is different (i.e. train on trails race on roads) you are unaccustomed to pace (i.e. not enough goal pace miles in your training program) or you are under-conditioned (i.e. insufficient goal paced long runs). Dr. Martin Schwellnus from South Africa states that “cramps are best avoided through proper training at race intensities.” Interestingly of course is that all this suggests that faster running – quality running – race intensity running – is a recipe for cramp prevention in races – not more long slow miles.

Current expert advice on hydration is – drink when you are thirsty.

And if you like, have a swig of pickle juice instead of Gatorade.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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7 Responses to Muscle Cramps, Dehydration and Running

  1. mizunogirl says:

    LOLOL. I wonder if I should fill a part of my fuel belt with pickle juice. but luckily I am not prone to cramps.

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    Ms Mizuno… give it a go and tell me how it works! Wait, if some works to relieve cramps that is… make the muscle work right again… MAYBE we need to use it as a performance enhancement product and take it in copious amounts before working out?

    By the way, do you know Batgirl (bananarunning) or MyIronShoes (Mesh)?

  3. Greg says:

    Coach Dean, thanks for this great article and most of all for echoing the latest research on this usually totally misinterpreted issue.

    There are two things I’d like to add:
    (1) strength training, especially for those under-used lateral and medial stabilizing muscles, is an effective method to slow down the onset of fatigue and thus helps to prevent cramps. At the least one should do hill-sprints or both, depending on where one is in the periodized training plan.
    (2) I think “long slow miles”, better continuous aerobic activity at an easy pace, still have their place in a training plan. However, the closer to the goal race they should be replaced with increasing mileage around race pace intensity.


    • Dean Hebert says:

      Strength work would be a reasonable supplement but I’ll add that the strength work should be running-specific and not your average gym workout on machines. Hill training definitely fits the bill. LSD still has it’s place in a training program, however, more and more research is indicating that less and less of this is needed than ever imagined before – at any stage of a training cycle. High intensity training is now being shown to get great results even for ultra marathoners! The actual mechanisms seem to be not fully understood yet but high intensity workouts are yielding excellent results for endurance/stamina. So much for what we all used to think about those slow miles.

  4. mandy says:

    Hi I am doing a marathon in may and am starting to put the miles in but I have been having abdominal stomach i also have Celiac Disease so I am aware that food is difficult to start with when I go for a long run 14/15 miles i start get stomach pain at about 10 miles should I have a smoothie before a run rather than gluten free bread and a cup of tea ?
    thank you

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Though I do not have (or currently coach anyone who has) Celiacs I do have several runners who have gluten and lactose issues. A smoothie would be a worthwhile experiment. It has the nutrition you need and very likely little to no GI irritants. But, in truth, everyone is so different, you’ll have to experiment. That includes what KIND of smoothie as well as how much. Wish I could be more help. But the “experiment of one” is all there is. Drop a post on how it works because we can all learn from you. Good luck and thank you.

  5. It is refreshing to read such an informative article. Thank you.
    I appreciate the point you made about studies like the one presented to the American College of Sports Medicine Conference about sweat losses. When we read the results of investigations or tests, as you infer, it is important to check who financed the study as there is always a chance that the results can be a little biased.
    And your point for runners to evaluate what is happening to them – and when – is a very sensible attitude. All generalities are made up from individual results and, when it boils down to it, we are all individuals.
    Thank you again for an informative post.

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