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Cramping Your Style. How Salt can affect your Performance

Picture the situation. You train hard since January, making sure your nutrition is healthy and clean, push yourself more in training so you can prepare for game time and hydrate extremely well coming up to your big game.

Come your championship day, the sod is dry, the sun is 23 high in the sky and you have no injuries. All of a sudden, 10 minutes into the second half, your two calf muscles start tingling and before you know it, you’re in a bad place. Cramp is hovering all over you like vultures in the Serengeti desert.

That was the situation that occurred to me at the weekend just gone. To make it worse, at 32 years old, I was chasing after a young, super fast player in a position that has no rescue net, corner back.

I got through the game but afterwards I was annoyed and baffled at this cramping at so early in the game.

For the last 2 days I have ventured into the research side of my brain and found some interesting studies on sports players and cramping.

One such study was carried out in Florida in 2007 by Josh Hingst, MS, RD, SCCC who was the Director of Sports Nutrition, Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach and Adjunct Professor of Sports Nutrition at Florida State University.

He found that when they practised twice a day there was a big difference in types of players and their Hydration.

He identified certain players as been “Salty Sweaters” and when the heat strikes, they are more likely than any other athlete to suffer from heart related illnesses.

As the name suggests, the salty sweaters lose more sodium when they sweat in some cases losing up to 2.5 kg of sodium loss per hour.

Also research showed him that they also lost about the same in chloride, potassium, calcium and magnesium as non salty sweaters.

Sodium loss was the main difference in the results from cramping players and non cramping players in a 2.5 hour training session. The authors of that study concluded that sodium completion is a recurrent theme in heat cramping and is most likely one of the main factors contributing to its cause.

Dehydration is also another risk for salty sweaters because they seem to lose more fluid than non salty sweaters. Fluid losses for those with muscle cramps averaged 1.49 litres per hour while those without cramps averaged 0.99 litres per hour.

So how do we identify “salty sweaters”?

Sports Scientists can use various tests such as absorbent patches and GPS data but what about your local club.

A simple questionnaire can help very quickly in sorting the groups apart. Two easy questions are all is needed:

How often have your experienced muscle cramps?

  • Never
  • Sometimes
  • Frequent

When you sweat, does your sweat often sting your eyes or taste salty

  • Tastes salty
  • Stings eyes
  • Neither

You can also check salt stains of practise clothing and skin and record anytime a player gets cramp. Now you have the data required for your squad.

Protecting salty sweaters from muscle cramps means making sure they replace their extra sodium and fluid loss during exercise. You can use electrolyte supplement but you can also work on your nutrition.

Now, I know you have being told time and time again that salt is bad for you and stay away from certain foods but as an athlete you must prepare your body for battle.

Adding one teaspoon of salt to foods provides about 2000mg of sodium. In some cases changing your diet may not be enough so you must use supplements to combat that. You can get a pre made mix of sodium and Potassium that can be added to water to add to your hydration practises.

Be careful though. Not all athletes are the same and you must experiment with sodium intake between 1500 to 3000mg. If the client is still cramping then increase the amount.

Competition day is the worst place to get cramps and you can pay particular attention to your pre sodium intake. Two or three days before you play your match, increase their sodium intake by 1500mg to 3000mg a day via dietary methods or supplementation.

Fluid or electrolyte replacement during game day takes on greater importance for salty sweaters.  Carbohydrates fluid and electrolyte fuelling during game day is crucial especially at half time.

Be careful though. Not all high sodium foods are created healthy so it’s important to eat the right ones and not some crap. You don’t want added saturated fat, additives and preservatives building up.

Some healthy choice is:

  • Pretzels
  • Peanuts
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Soups
  • Lean Luncheon meats
  • Canned tuna fish
  • Canned beans

UN healthy Choices:

  • Crisps
  • High fat deli meats
  • Fast Foods
  • Frozen pizza
  • Sausages
  • Pepperoni

Brian Roache.


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