Countless times each season, I will have athletes tell me “I had a great race until I cramped up,” or “I was racing phenomenally until I bonked!” These experiences occur each and every year, to both elite athletes and beginners. Let’s delve into the areas of hydration and supplementation so that we may surface some of the primary reasons we’re derailing those potential breakthrough performances.
First, we will discuss hydration during training and racing, with the assumption that we’re entering at an adequately hydrated state. Believe it or not, the typical endurance athlete has a sweat rate (or loses water) at approximately 50 ounces (1.5 liters) per hour, with as little or as much as a quart or two an hour. So if you’re out there performing at a moderate to high intensity, you may be losing somewhere between 32 – 64 ounces (2-4lbs.) an hour. Given a 165 lb athlete, we’ve easily lost 2% of our body weight per hour. Without adequately replacing a sizable portion of this loss, significant performance decline will begin to occur. Furthermore, if your hydration rate is just barely enough to stave off a noticeable performance decline, then you’ll likely experience muscular contraction, cramping, or even dizziness issues late in the race. If you’ve ever experienced any of these symptoms during training or racing, then you need to take a hard look at what your nutritional and hydration intake was over the prior 24 hours, but especially the few hours leading up to the event.
What about electrolytes? You’ll often hear people comment, “it was probably an electrolyte deficiency.” Generally, that normally means that one or more of what I call “the big four” are imbalanced. The four key electrolytes that most often contribute to muscular spasms, cramping, and even locking up from a failure of the contract-relax cycle are sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Once an imbalance or deficiency surfaces by the symptoms just mentioned, other minerals and chemical bonds are broken away and diverted to rectify the imbalance. Subsequently, all of these series of “rescue attempts” result in diminishing returns of muscular contractile functions. Until adequate replenishment of water and these key minerals are back to a homeostatic or normal stable state, normal muscular contractions will be erratic or even nonexistent in the worst cases.
So what’s one to do at the onset of some calf cramping on the bike or run? Hit the fluids hard and consistent for the following hour in hopes of getting things under control. Hard and consistent means a few good gulps of your beverage every 10 to 15 minutes – totaling a 16-20 ounce bottle within the hour. Whether or not the cramping continues beyond that, continue this consistency until the training or racing is over. I have had athletes say “I’m so caught up in the race, I forget to drink, Coach.” In this situation, I recommend having an alarm on your watch or heart rate monitor set to beep every 10 minutes. If this consistency doesn’t fix the problem, then we have to revamp our hydration and nutrition regimen leading up to and including race day. Until you can eliminate these symptoms, you will have to continue to experiment with the volume and “strength” of your fluids during training. The best time to do this is during “race simulations,” training that is at race intensity and distance. Once you find a product and intake level that works for you, stick with it, and never try new products on race day! So bottom line, if you’re experiencing symptoms of electrolyte imbalance(s), experiment with other products that have higher mineral content, as well as your intake volume and intervals – until you fix the problem. Otherwise, you’ll continue to fall short of your optimal performance potential until you do. So go out, train smart, and hydrate that body in order to meet your goals and expectations. Good luck!
Todd Parker is a World-Renowned Cycling & Triathlon Coach, Influencer within the Sports & Fitness Industries, and Corporate Wellness Consultant – consulted by Coaches, Athletes, Corporations, Governing Bodies, and Sports Supplement, Gear, and Apparel Companies Worldwide. Todd is one of the most sought after Coaches, Trainers, and Authors to train with, test products, and to have guest lecture or author within the United States and Europe.
Todd is former Professional Triathlete, Elite Cyclist, Cycling & Triathlon Coach, Personal Trainer, Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Exercise Physiologist, Author, Public Speaker, Guest Lecturer, and Professor with a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology & Human Performance. You can reach Todd at TP2Coaching@gmail.com or via his website at www.toddparkertrainingprograms.com.