Finding the root cause
Dehydration may contribute to cramping in athletes along with imbalances in electrolytes. Over the cooler months, we naturally reach for comfort warming foods and reduce our consumption of salads packed with magnesium rich leafy vegetables. Also, our natural thirst cues to drink fluids may also be reduced and our thirst mechanism sluggish over winter.
Coffee, alcohol and some drugs (such as oral contraceptives) may also accelerate the excretion or reduce the absorption of water and electrolytes such as magnesium and calcium.
Another factor is stress. It is pretty rare to find a person who can honestly say they are stress free, especially in the current environment. The body uses up Vitamin C, sodium and magnesium during periods of stress.
Get good at the basics
Increasing magnesium rich foods such as spinach, broccoli, squash, legumes, nuts, wholegrains and cocoa (quality chocolate can in fact be beneficial!) may help reduce cramping in athletes.
Most athletes underestimate their daily fluid needs when taking into account fluid losses from training. Endurance athletes are notorious for skipping hydration opportunities during a session (especially long-distance runners) despite large sweat losses. Many athletes are shocked how many litres of fluid they lose in a single session and ignore the increased risk of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and other gastro-intestinal problems due to dehydration. However, excessive fluid intake also causes issues such as hyponatraemia (low sodium concentration in the blood). Therefore, knowing your individual sweat rate is the best way to determine how much you should be drinking during and post exercise.
Total Fluid intake
During recovery, you will continue to lose fluids through sweating and urination. Plan to replace 125-150% of this fluid deficit over the next 2-6 hours. Sip small amount of fluids constantly over a few hours rather than sculling large amounts at once.
Make sure your daily total fluid intake includes both your exercise associated requirements and physiological needs. Although we are led to believe 8 glasses is sufficient as a basic requirement, it is now being suggested that 15.5 cups (3.7 litres) for men and 11.5 cups (2.7 litres) of fluids a day for women is more appropriate for adults living in temperate climates. Typically 20-30% of your hydration needs are obtained through water containing foods and the remainder through liquids.
Athletes with a limited intake of dietary sodium (strictly wholefoods diet) may benefit from adding a small pinch of sea salt to evening meals or drink bottles (except athletes with elevated blood pressure).
If you are unsure about supplementation, it is best to speak with a health professional.