“No Body Likes a “Crampy”… I mean “Crabby” Athlete! Your hydration levels may be the culprit of your poor performance, and let’s be honest, if you’re feeling more than just muscle cramps (perhaps mental cramps) and poor perforamce; drink more water so you can go the ultra distance.”
As an ultra runner, I have been prone to injuries from time to time – wait… what am I saying. Okay, as an ultra runner I have pretty much had EVERY injury and this year has been no exception.
So why do I run? Because the feeling of accomplishment, of all those long hours running at the crack of dawn when the city is silent, the endless and countless miles clocked, and more importantly, the insurmountable, evolutionary personal changes, maybe a better word would be – epiphany – makes it all worth it. For me, it’s about the choice to run, when others cannot or do not have that choice – it truly that simple.
Last week I suffered intense abdominal pain; which is unnatural for me as a clean eater and for the most part I live a gluten free lifestyle, almost vegan (primarily out of the convenience of “I don’t cook” and prepare quick meals). As it turns out, this abdominal pain was an intestinal blockage (I know, I know… highly attractive), but one contributor to this was dehydration, but rather than “muscle dehydration,” my body had “organ dehydration.” Which means because of the amount I am currently running, training etc – my water intake has not been enough to sustain proper efficiency and even though I drink a lot of fluids – it ain’t enough and hasn’t been for some time. Combine this with the high stress, of my second ultra event on May 20th “Walk In Her Shoes for CARE Canada, an event I am also organizing single handedly – I guess you could call it a stressor… but I love it… but my innerds are a little agro. And looking back, my muscles have been “crampy” primarily in the calves and hamstrings a little more than usual.
Why do we Cramp?
Many endurance will experience muscle cramps at some point during their training or racing. An article that outlines this on going discussion very well is from “Utra Fitness” online where they look at the differing theories of where cramping comes from (in simplest terms). Their findings can be broken down into 3 pillars; however, I am narrowing my scope to reflect and comment on the first two;
- Dehydration and electrolyte depletion
- Abnormal spinal reflex activity
- Carbohydrate depletion
“Using a definition from Dr. Martin Schwellnus a cramp is “a painful, spasmodic, involuntary contraction of skeletal muscle that occurs during or immediately after exercise”(1). While most athletes understand what a cramp feels like there is much confusion as to what causes cramps and how they can be prevented. “ (ultrafitness)
In the 1930s a theory was put forth that dehydration and electrolyte depletion were the primary causes of cramps. This is still a popular theory that has come under fire recently and how does that relate to post running??? Since my pain was associated post run (actually a week after my last long run of 52km)?
The article goes on to say that Schwellnus and Noakes , put forth the new theory that abnormal spinal reflex activity could be the real culprit behind muscle cramps. This theory is built on the understanding of muscle fatigue leading to abnormal functioning at the spinal level of the muscle contraction mechanism; which causes the muscle cramping during activity.
Review of anatomy 101, receptors called muscle spindles cause muscles to contract when they are stretched; while other receptors called Golgi tendon organs (GTO) cause muscles to relax when they are contracted. Both types of receptors are needed to help protect muscles from over-stretching and over-contracting, respectively. These receptors act on muscles by sending an electric signal to the appropriate motor neuron, which is located in the spine, and as we know the fascia assists with all of these responses.
During a normal contraction, signals from both receptors are in balance. According to the theory, when a muscle fatigues the activity of the muscle spindles increases (causing a contraction) and the Golgi tendon organ activity is inhibited (no relaxing) leading to muscle cramping.
Looking at these two theories; I would say that both hold a high degree of merit and (in my opinion) there is no dichotomy between the two. I would say they both contribute to cramping during and after a competition requiring a high degree of volume and/or endurance. Let’s take a look at fascia and hydration and also the tensigrity of the fascia itself as a contributor for cramping.
Ergo, a great opportunity to revisit the fascial system and integration of the above…
The fascia is our body’s protector. We also know that at the microscopic level, the fascial make up resembles that of micro tubules that acts as a transfer/communication highway to move nutrients and transmit nerves impulses to and around the body. The nerves themselves, along with blood vessels run through the fascia. Therefore, if the connective tissue is tight, the associated tissues will have poor nutrient exchange.
In times of stress, and high volumes of load, along with what we are here today to discuss – dehydration, this exacerbates the situation because toxic metabolic waste products build up which will further aggravate pain receptors and reduce proper transfer. Needless to say, this can create a mechanical breakdown and a vicious cycle that undoubtedly creates more muscle tension, leading to further thickening and hardening of the fascia, which will further limit mobility and performance!
One important fact to note is that the fascia holds imprints of our posture and even old injuries, which is one reason why older injuries can still affect present day overall functions and/or re surface at a later date. The fascia (amongst other systems) dictates our shape and freedom of movement.
Are you Tense?
Fascia thickens and hardens where there is chronic tension. Chronic tension can then lead to joint restrictions, movement impairments, pain, decreased performance and/or cramping and twitching. Manual physicians; (ie. Chiropractors, Physical Therapists, Osteopaths, Acupuncturists and other non-physicians) can manipulate the fascial ‘networks’ in a variety of ways, either directly or indirectly. This is done by breaking up fascial binding and tone of the tissue, as well as re patterning and “waking up” the parasympathetic system. Also very important in recovery and rehabilitation.
I know from personal experience, there is no way I could fully operate as an ultra-runner without regular tune ups from my health team. There are certain things we cannot do on our own; which us why an integrated support team is essential. For more info on my health team please see under sources.
Fascia is composed mainly of collagen fibers, together with water and other proteins which provide a glue-like quality. Due to the regular alignment of the fibers, fascia often has a crystal-like appearance. The connective tissue fibers extend deep in between individual muscle cells and between practically all cells of the body. Fascia tends dry out as we age, becoming stiff and tight. Proper hydration, vitamins, minerals and overall nutrition assist with the rehydration and overall health of the fascial network. Regular movement of the fascia through exercise and mobilization helps to greatly reduce the fascia from stiffening and ultimately effecting performance.
The Hydration Study:
The Fascia Research Group , is part of the Division of Neurophysiology, of Ulm University, Germany say that,
‘When fascia is being stretched, water is being extruded from the ground substance and simultaneously there are some temporary relaxation changes in the longitudinal arrangement of the collagen fibers. When the stretch is finished, the longitudinal relaxation of the fibers takes a few minutes to revert (provided the strain has not been too strong and there have been no micro-injuries); yet the water continues to be soaked up into the tissue, to the degree that the tissue even swells and becomes stiffer than before.’
So, how important is recovery and rehydration? I would say very! During the recovery period of the elongated tissue (minutes, even hours after), a gradual re hydration of the muscle should be expected; which is also in conjunction with the balance of the tissue through a gradual regaining of the initial tissue stiffness. Active loading and subsequent rest in proportion to each-other will achieve the desired outcome.
Dehydration as little as 2% of body weight can begin to significantly impact performance. For an athlete that has a higher sweat rate (greater than 2 liter per hour), that level of dehydration can occur after 30 minutes of exercise in hot and humid conditions. Additional, research has shown that level of dehydration can slow 10-km run times by 6.3% compared to running in a hydrated state. That equates to a race time almost 3 minutes slower if you usually run a 40-minute 10k!
This of course depends specifically on someone’s unique mechanics and factoring in muscle fibre composition, sport they engage in will affect muscle tissue response etc etc, and as we have seen above – stretching as well.
Yin to Your Yang:
Passive stretching and Yin Yoga stretches can load the tissue and fascial lines in a way that induces a temporary decrease in tissue water content; which has been shown to contribute to alterations in tissue stiffness; however, this is to be expected with any load placed upon the tissue. When the tissue is in a state of elongation the question then becomes; how long will the tissue remain in elongation, as well as how important is rehydration recovery.
The key factors in this article today are to ensure that you are aware of your personal mechanics and body responses during, before and after your training. If you decide to venture into the realm of ultra-distance athletics, take the time to understand the force applied and the necessary nutrients your body will need to sustain you, not only during the performance, but the months and weeks (sometimes even years) leading up to your goal. My greatest lesson learned is to never underestimate the power of the body and the will and drive to succeed. In all the chaos of the last 2 weeks, I forgot to listen to my body and even though during the taper, we decrease our mileage – it is an essential time to get our bodies ready by recovery, resting and fine tuning the mental and emotional aspects of our journey.
If you are unsure of how much water your mechanics need – ask a professional. Also, keep in mind electrolyte balance is essential as well. I always make sure to have at least 2 options with me at all times. Eboost; which is a special blend of active vitamins and minerals focuses on 3 vital elements of the athletes super world (endurance, immunity and recovery).
The Key Ingredients of Eboost:
For ENDURANCE: Glucuronolactone, Chromium, Vitamin B12, and Anhydrous Caffeine For RECOVERY: Minerals (including potassium and sodium for electrolyte replacement), and essentials vitamins including Vitamin C For IMMUNITY: Vitamin C, Zinc, Selenium and Copper. You really can’t go wrong, and super tasty (Pink Lemonade, is my fav).
I also put a few drops of Elete Electrolytes, provide balanced ions of magnesium, potassium, sodium and chloride, just a few drops in your water and you are ready to rock. Happy running!
Nourish the body and the soul will grow.
- Fasica Research Center (Germany) – http://www.fasciaresearch.de/#For
- Strain Hardening of Fascia: Static Stretching of Dense Fibrous Connective Tissues Can Induce A Temporary Stiffness Increase Accompanied By Enhanced Matrix Hydration ( fascia research, Robert Schleip, PH.D , M.A and others) http://fasciaresearch.de/Schleip2012_StrainHardeningFascia.pdf
- Muscle Cramps During Endurance Activities. 1. Schwellnus, Marti P., “Skeletal Muscle Cramps During Exercise”, Physician and Sportsmedicine, 1999; 27 (12) http://www.ultrafitness.net/article_5.htm
- Physiotherapy –Behnad Honarbakhsh MPT, BHK, CSCS, CAFCI, CGIMS, DO (c) , Fit to Train
- Chiropractic – Dr. Giselle Chamberlain, B.Sc, DC, ART, Evolve Nurturing Vitality, Family Chiropractic
- Massage Therapy – Gael Bishop, RMT, CPT, ACSM
- Naturopath, ND – Cliff Harvey, ND, Dip.Fit, HbT, Adv.Psych-K, Reiki lll
- Strength & Conditioning – Human Motion S&C (TEAM)