Let me just start by saying that I am a cramper.
Hi. My name is Michelle and I am a cramper.
I have suffered debilitating cramps in most of the long races I have done in my lifetime. The most spectacular ones occurred at Ironman Brazil in 2003, where my leg seized up so severely that I stopped half way up a hill at mile 90 and spent a few minutes bent over my bike, unable to even swing my leg over the top tube. Or there was Ironman Arizona in 2005 when I stopped and sat on the side of the road half way through the bike and watched my quad muscle spontaneously seize and relax. Cramps have cost me HOURS in Ironman races. I have walked for miles of an Ironman marathon (like 8 at a time) because a single running step would cause severe cramping.
If you are a cramper, you'll sympathize with me. It sucks being a cramper.
Naturally, I was willing to do just about whatever it took to make the cramps go away. Must have been a dehydration issue, I was told. Drink more. Drink drink drink. Don't wait until you're thirsty or it'll be too late. Over the years, I taught myself to drink a lot in training and races. When that didn't solve the cramping problem, I was told that it must be an electrolyte issue. Take salt tabs to replace all that lost sodium and electrolytes. Ok, I can do that.
So for years I was all about salt tabs. I'd take them... and still cramp. Maybe I wasn't taking enough? Some people are salty sweaters (I am one for sure!!) and I heard they need a lot more. So I took more. I took a lot in races- was I taking too much? Hard to tell, given that I am not a pro and there was nobody inviting me into a lab to do a sweat rate test. So how the heck do I know how much salt to take? It was all a big guessing game. The problem with the salt experiment is that you sacrifice an entire year of training so you can experiment during an Ironman race with how much freaking salt to take and once again, get it wrong and end up walking half the marathon once your quads seize up.
This past year, I did a lot of reading... mostly a lot of research on cramping and the causes of cramping. In my research I came across some eye-popping and enlightening information regarding fluid balance in endurance running and racing.
The link above will take you to a page where you'll find a whole bunch of awesome blog posts by the Sports Scientists Jonathan Dugas and Ross Tucker. Essentially, they argue against the drink as much as you can campaign and tell you to just drink according to thirst. They say that our thirst mechanism is actually very well developed and that you can indeed, trust it. They say that you're going to get a bit dehydrated during long endurance events, and that's ok. Long races are an exercise in 'Managed Dehydration'. The people who win the race are the most dehydrated. They rehydrate after the race is over.
The first time I read this, I didn't believe it. I thought these guys were NUTSO. I thought they were talking about other athletes- this surely couldn't work for me. Could it?
The thing I found most interesting was this- When you sweat, you lose fluid and electrolytes. BUT, you lose so much more fluid than electrolytes that the concentration of electrolytes in your system actually goes UP. So, there is no need to supplement with electrolytes, unless you are over-hydrating to begin with. Your electrolyte concentration only goes down when you drink too much- and that goes for water OR Gatorade. So, if you listen to your body and drink to thirst, you do not need to replace the lost salt because your body is keeping it all in balance on its own. In a nutshell, when you sweat a lot, you lose lots of fluid... your electrolyte concentration goes up, your thirst mechanism kicks in, and then you drink to replace some of that lost fluid... TA DAH! Back in balance. Without a single salt tab.
The other thing that was a shocking bit of news to me is that cramping is not caused by dehydration or electrolyte imbalance. Instead, they theorize that cramping is due to fatigue that makes your muscle fibers fire uncontrollably. Or something like that. Read their post- they explain it much better than I could. They say that to prevent muscle cramps, essentially you need to train appropriately, stretch, and pace yourself appropriately during your long races.
So hmmm. How do I apply this to myself so I can race the hottest Ironman on the planet without ending up doubled over on my bike or walking half the marathon? Well, for starters, I trained appropriately. Then, during the race, I consciously drank less than I normally would have. Remember, over the years I have taught myself to drink drink drink, so for me, drinking only to thirst means drinking less than normal. I paid close attention to my pacing on the bike, making sure I was never pushing too hard, I stood up and stretched early and often, and I didn't screw up my fluid balance by taking any electrolyte tabs. That's right. NOT ONE.
A risky experiment for sure. I was actually afraid to tell too many people before hand that I was going to race at Ironman Hawaii and not take any electrolyte supplements. I figured people would think I was NUTSO. But I wanted to try it and see what happened. And you know what happened? I had a very solid bike and for the first time ever, didn't have a twinge of a cramp while riding.
I did have two instances of cramps on the run- once at mile 15 and once right at the end... my sartorius muscle is always the first to seize up, and it finally did in the later stages of the race, but I am convinced that it had nothing to do with dehydration and/or electrolyte imbalance. It was simply a matter of fatigue and a weak muscle in there that was tired and overworked.
Anyway, if you want more info about this, read Jonathan and Ross's blog. And then buy their book. I did. And it allowed me to be smarter about fueling and hydrating myself- which led to a 30+ minute Ironman PR.