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Examining a Common Myth: Does Salt Fix Muscle Cramps?

By Rafal Nazarewicz , Spring Energy Founder, PHD Nutrition | Sept. 12, 2022, 4:14 p.m. (ET)

Athlete Biking

How it Started

The myth of salt being responsible for muscle cramps is a few centuries old. The conclusion was drawn from the fact that the men who stoked fires on ships suffered from cramps. They were known as stokers cramp.” The observation led to the theory that a lack of salt and heat causes cramps. Salt was supposed to help with the problem. It seems that nobody really checked the success rate, and unfortunately, this idea has never been proven by science.

What Scientists have Found

When scientists compared athletes competing in various activities which took electrolyte supplementation with those who didnt, there was no significant difference in cramps occurrence. As we now know, the level of sodium stored in our body is much larger than it was estimated before; refiling sodium is not really necessary during physical activity. Although having sodium in drinks at the isotonic level is needed for faster water absorption. On the contrary, loading your body with too much sodium may cause many problems, including stomach issues.

A combination of numerous reasons causes the involuntary muscle spasms, these may include under-training and lack of event-specific training, neuronal overstimulation, oxidative stress, water imbalance, exhaustion of ion pumps in the cells, etc. Trying to address them while participating in an event might be challenging as we may never figure out the primary reason or combination of reasons. 

The Reasons Why

Keeping the leading causes in mind and taking steps ahead could be the best approach. Under-training and lack of event-specific training might be the most important and (relatively) most effective way to prevent many cases of muscle cramps. Additionally, taking appropriate care of hydration might address a whole list of reasons causing cramps. Two common mistakes are over-drinking just before a race (a frequent case for athletes who drastically change their normal habits right before race day) and not drinking enough during a race. It’s also essential that athletes keep up with fueling from the beginning of the race rather than waiting until they see a dip in energy. Starved nerves may voice their unhappiness by sending wrong signals to your muscles, so keeping vigilant on regular self maintenance is important.

The Solution

Do you want to have an enjoyable race without your muscles acting up and out of control? Then get ready! Prepare your body with consistent training and by following a race-specific training plan. Think through and practice your fueling strategy. And don’t make any big changes to your normal routine right before race day.

In the end, the thought of avoiding cramps might be just another great bit of motivation for you to stick to your training plan before that upcoming race!