Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 74

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The latest research on mitigating muscle cramps, from an unlikely source, and a discussion with a Guinness world record triathlete.

Welcome to Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. Greetings to new listeners in Guatemala and Zimbabwe. To listeners in Guatemala, I hope you had a personal best at the recent Ironmaya half Ironman, and in Zimbabwe, congratulations on hosting the 2010 Troutbeck ITU Triathlon African Cup. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk Episode 74.

Big thanks to Ben Greenfield who hosted episode 73, you can see why he is one of the biggest names in endurance coaching. I hope to have him back on the podcast again soon. I’m excited to be podcasting in front of a live audience from the world headquarters of PowerTri in Lehi, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City.

Today on Tri Talk I’m going to cover a breakthrough study on muscle cramps. You may have heard or read about this study already, but we’re going to cover muscle cramps in general, and include an interview with one of the researchers of that study. Plus, a conversation with a triathlete who recently broke the official world record for the number of half-Ironman events in a year. How did he do it? Why did he do it? How many half-Ironman events could you do in 30 weeks?

Let’s get onto the good stuff!

Muscle cramps are one of the most frustrating challenges for a coach. I recognize that muscle cramps are most certainly more frustrating for the athlete than the coach, but they are still top of the list of enemies for a coach. Additionally, there is no consensus among physiologists as to the cause of exercise educed muscle cramps, and this is likely because there is no single cause, but each athlete may experience a different reason behind their cramp. Let’s cover the 5 main reasons that scientists believe contribute to muscle cramps which are lack of fitness, lack of fluids, lack of electrolytes, lack of flexibility, and finally a neurological response from prolonged and intense exercise.

Let’s start with lack of fitness. The reason muscle cramps are so insidious, is that they almost exclusively occur when racing, the worst time for them to occur. Although they often happen when training, I’ve worked with many athletes who never had a cramp in their entire training season, only to have them occur when racing.

This phenomenon is easy to explain. An athlete who has executed an appropriate taper, will achieve a level of performance in a race that was never seen in training. The goal of training is not to be at your fastest when training, but to be your fastest on race day. A smart training plan with a meticulous taper will allow an athlete to achieve a 2% improvement in performance compared to peak performance when training. As a result, the athlete is experiencing intensities they have not experienced that training year, and are exposed to new potential side effects of that intense performance, including muscle cramps.

Therefore, individuals who claim that muscle cramps are a result of lack of fitness, are unfortunately and technically correct. The athlete experiencing muscle cramps is experiencing them because their current intensity level does not match their level of fitness. However, to argue that athletes with muscle cramps must increase the intensity of their training does not solve the problem of maximum intensity being achieved at a race. This partially explains the higher dropout rate of Pro triathletes compared to age groupers. We often ask ourselves, “how on earth can an individual who trains 20 hours a week drop out of a race? Don’t they train for this?” A reason is that they are much more likely to have trained in a method to maximize performance on race day, and therefore they, too, are experiencing the highest level of intensity of the year. Sometimes even that extra 2% performance improvement has enough consequence to shut down even a Pro’s body.

In summary, while it is true you may not be able to eliminate cramps on race day through training, increasing your training intensity will raise the ceiling at which you experience the cramps. For example, if you trained at a peak 6:30 minute miles in training, but hit 6:22 when racing (an approximate 2% improvement), that stinks, but it is better than training at 6:45 and having them hit at 6:36 during the race. Meaning, the more intense you train, the faster you’ll be going before the cramps hit.

Let’s discuss both lack of fluids and lack of electrolytes next as a unit. No theory of muscle cramps has been more prevalent than lack of fluids and muscle cramps. Entire companies have made their fortunes on this premise. PowerTri makes good revenue off nutritional supplements that contain electrolytes. The problem is there is no independent scientific basis for this theory. Sure, there is plenty of research from the nutrition companies themselves. They pay a research group to do a report on their product, and it’s a miracle! Their self-funded study shows that their product works! The trouble is finding a peer-reviewed, independent study that indicates that excess fluids and electrolytes will reduce cramping. The studies do exists, but they tend to focus on football and tennis players, not endurance athletes. Plus, for every article you can show me on cramps being caused by electrolyte imbalance, I can refute it with another showing no link.

Don’t get me wrong, extreme dehydration and extreme electrolyte imbalance will certainly cause cramping, that’s not the question. The question is not “are electrolytes and fluids required to properly contract muscles” The answer is yes. The real question is: “will taking in additional fluid and electrolytes supplements beyond a normal balance prevent muscle cramps.” Let me put it this way. Does the goldfish in your fish bowl need water? Yes. Will pouring 2 gallons into a 1 gallon tank be any better for him? No. Why are we pouring electrolytes and water into our bodies more than is necessary?

Let’s take a look at one study published in Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise in 2005 done on Ironman triathletes. The study took 20 Ironman athletes and divided them into those who experienced severe muscles cramps and those who did not over an Ironman event.

The group who did not cramp at all during the event actually lost more body mass through dehydration than the group that did cramp. Let me repeat that. The group that did not cramp was more dehydrated than the group that did cramp. This is pretty strong evidence that you don’t need more than sufficient fluid to avoid cramps in a triathlon.

The non-cramping group also has more potassium and magnesium than the non-cramping group. If anything, this would indicate that having too much electrolytes and fluids will cause muscle cramps, not eliminate them. In fact, the majority of research suggests that dehydration to a certain point will actually improve performance as echoed in this audio clip from Joe Friel back in 2008.

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Joe continued to say that you just need to drink when thirsty in an endurance event, not to aim for a certain amount.

One thing that athletes need to remember is that as they lose water, the concentration of electrolytes actually increases, without any need to add more electrolytes. Taking in too much fluid actually decreases those concentrations, as explained again by Joe Friel.

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Now, I can spend all day telling you that you don’t need electrolytes outside of a normal diet to avoid muscle cramps, but I know too many athletes who swear by it. If you take electrolytes and you think they prevent cramps, don’t change a thing, because the truth is that there is no indication that too many electrolytes is a problem. Our body just won’t use them. In short, there is no risk to taking in additional electrolytes, but there is no established benefit, other than saving some money.

The researchers in the previous study cited concluded that “acute exercise associated muscle cramps in Ironman triathletes is not associated with a greater percent body mass loss or clinically significant differences in serum electrolyte concentrations”. Again, if you take electrolytes and feel they work, no problem. However, there is a real danger in taking in too much fluid, and the risks are greater from taking in too much fluid, than too little

Let’s move briefly onto the #4 potential cause of muscle cramps, which is a lack of flexibility in the muscle. I don’t have research on this topic, but the theory is that if the muscle has more flexibility, it will either be less likely to cramp, or if it does cramp, the cramp will be less severe. I’ll leave it at that.

The fifth reason for muscle cramps is the most fascinating, to me. New research published in May of this year shows promise in how to treat muscle cramps as a neurological problem, and the findings as described by Dr. Ty Hopkins, a physiology researcher at Brigham Young University, were surprising.

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Did he say pickle juice? That’s right. Pickle juice. Something that has long been an underground solution for muscle cramps with football players and triathletes alike, finally was taken seriously by Hopkins’ team. The research showed that cramps in a particular muscle were 50 seconds shorter with pickle juice compared to water. As Hopkins explains, its more than just electrolytes at play with a muscle cramp.

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Or, in other words, it is possible that the fatigue of the muscles themselves won’t allow the right amount of electrolytes into the system. Regardless of how much electrolytes you have in your system, if the muscle isn’t accepting it, it will begin to misfire. But why does this study support a neurological response, as opposed to simply reinforcing the electrolyte theory due to the salt in the pickle juice? Could it be that the pickle juice is just a really bad Gatorade flavor?

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Basically, the pickle juice works too fast, in a matter of seconds, in reducing the cramp for it to be the result of additional electrolytes being absorbed by the digestive system, and then into the muscles. It works so fast, that it must be an electrical impulse generated by the pickle juice. Hopkins went on to explain that there is no indication that taking pickle juice prophylacticly is a good idea, and it may actually do hard in inhibiting muscle contraction when you actually want it to contract. The current research only supports pickle juice as a reactive way to mitigate the cramp.

It’s one thing to have a study support this pickle juice theory, but how about a field test? I spoke with one of my athletes, Kimberly Shattuck, of Massachusetts, about her cramping and pickle juice experience this year at the two half-ironman events. Like many of my athletes, Kim did not experience any cramping during training, but it was a different story on race day.

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This isn’t the first time Kim has experienced cramps in a race. At the 2009 USAT National Championships she was hit with another series of devastating cramps during the run. Disappointed with her performance at Timberman due to the cramps, Kim signed up last-minute for another half-Ironman to see if she could do better just 3 weeks later. Having just read the full study on pickle juice that week, I called her the evening before the race and asked her to bring pickle juice with her the next day. The results were encouraging.

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In fact, Kim shaved 24 minutes off her pervious half-Ironman time from the event just 3 weeks prior, in part due to the control of the cramps.

The pickle juice researchers did not provide the brand of pickle juice used, and I gave Kim very little notice and instruction other than dill pickle juice, so I asked Kim on a recent phone call, how she made her pickle juice selection.

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So there you have it. Some good research backed by anecdotal and field evidence that pickle juice just might be what is missing in the muscle cramp puzzle. Although, during my phone call with Ty Hopkins, I did have one complaint…

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Pretty smart indeed!

Now, let me make one more thing very clear. I’m not suggesting that there is just 1 grand unified theory behind muscle cramps. I’m not saying that you need to pick 1 of the 5 possible reasons behind cramps and ignore the others. The best strategy would be to cover all of the possible causes. Train hard, have enough electrolytes in your diet or even take in some supplements if you feel they work, drink when thirsty, keep your muscles flexible, and bring some pickle juice along for some insurance.

Hey, if you are ready to take your Sprint and Olympic racing to the next level, it’s time for you and I to talk. At TrainingPeaks.com, you can access Sprint and Olympic training plans written by me and Joe Friel, plus 2 coaching calls to review the plan and your progress. It’s a great solution for the athlete looking for some customized guidance on a budget.

Moving on! Could you do 22 half-Ironman races in just 30 weeks? Could you afford to do 22 half-Ironman races in just 30 weeks? One triathlete asked himself that question late last year, and took up the challenge to aid a charity close to his heart. I sat down recently with James Lawrence, world record holder for half-Ironman races in a year, at his home in Lindon, Utah to talk about his record, and the charity behind it.

Also, if you want to see our PowerTri staff in action, or even see what the heck I look like, visit our YouTube channel. Just search for PowerTri Videos on youtube and check out the entire series of staff favorites, including bloopers of me messing up badly. I’ll see you next time!