Electrolytes and Cramping

October 17, 2016

Ever wonder why people say potassium-rich foods like bananas help prevent muscle cramping during a race? Bananas, coconut water, pickle juice, mustard, you name it - everyone seems to have a solution to prevent your legs from seizing up. But what do all these things have in common? They're electrolytes.

What causes cramping?

While there may be a wide range of reasons for muscle cramps, including - but not limited to - dehydration, lack of electrolytes, poor bike fit, the wrong shoes, muscle strain, etc..., we all want to do what we can to prevent it from happening. And in this post, we'll focus on the role of electrolytes.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals produced naturally in our body that carry an electric charge. Common electrolytes are sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate and chloride. Their functions include regulating nerve and muscle function, the acidity of your blood (pH), the body's hydration and blood pressure, and other important processes. 

How they work

Electrolytes act much like a spark plug in a car's engine. The spark plug fires and creates an explosion within the piston, which then makes the car run. Similarly, electrolytes fire to create the contraction within our muscle tissues, our brains and our cells that keep us moving.

When you need them

When we ask more from our bodies - like during exercise or competition, it is important to supplement electrolytes (particularly after one hour of working out or when you're sweating excessively) to make sure we keep our bodies functioning well.

Our bodies release electrolytes in sweat (ever notice that your sweat tastes salty?), so it's important to supplement during workouts to keep everything in balance. This can prevent going into a hyponatremic state and can help you avoid the dreaded muscle cramp mid-stride. 

Related: What happens when you drink too much water

Some people release more salt in their sweat than others. Signs you might be one of those people, if your sweat:

  • Stings your eyes, or stings if it trickles into a cut on your skin
  • Tastes salty
  • Feels gritty 
  • Leaves white streaks on your skin or clothes after working out 

If this is you, be careful to replace the electrolytes you've lost, along with the fluids.

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