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Leg Cramps

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I sometimes get terrible leg cramps in the hamstring muscle on climbs. It occurs more often in the summer when it is hot out, but it happened again yesterday climbing Chair Peak. The cramps occur while resting when the leg is bent. We had just arrived at the base of the route and I was putting on my crampons when my left hamstring cramped. Nine times out of ten, it is the LEFT leg that cramps. Back at the car, both legs were cramping as I was trying to get my boots off.


I am in reasonable shape right now, but could be better. I know I tend to have fewer problems with cramps when I am fitter, but what can I do to avoid cramps in the future, other than training harder?


Here is additional information:

1) I had two cups of coffee that morning. Coffee is supposed to be bad. But Twight mentions using coffee on climbs.

2) I drank 1 liter of water on the approach and another throughout the day.

3) I do not think I was overdressed. I was running fairly cool.

4) Other than the cramps, I felt completely fine, with good wind and clear head.


Am I drinking enough water? One thought I had was that I might have some sort of salt imbalance. I use a small amount of salt with my food, but perhaps I am short on magnesium, calcium or potassium? I have a friend who swears by Cytomax.


Any advice would be appreciated. It would be terrible if one of these cramps were to occur when I was on technical terrain, although thus far, it has never happened.

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I got quad cramps while kicking steps in hard snow (four or so hard kicks per step) on Chair last weekend. I spilled half my Gatorade for the day, so I was somewhat dehydrated. Twight mentions coffee as a stimulant, but also warns that caffeine is a diuretic, leading to dehydration. Many other resources say that cramping is usually a result of dehydration. Who knows? I haven't had much experience with it, but I think that Dru has it right.

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Yes, they are all electrolytes, but it is calcium that plays an important role in signal transduction by neurons. There is a tendency for modern diets to contain too much sodium, which displaces potassium (also a monovalent cation). Too much phosphorus, in the form of phosphoric acid from soft drinks, can deplete calcium.


I don't eat a lot of sodium and neither do I consume many soft drinks.


I just found this very good paper on cramps. Apparently, there a lot of different causes and theories. The paper is rather technical, but from my understanding of it, I need to drink more water and stretch more immediately after completion of exercise.

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Another possible cause of cramps is use of creatine -- nowhere did you mention that you supplement with this, so I'm assuming it's not your case, but I know some strength athletes who were taking extra creatine, cramping badly on endurance outings, and as soon as they stopped using creatine the cramping ceased.


What I suggest most often is drinking a diluted juice of some sort -- whether that's in the form of Cytomax, Powerade or Gatorade, or the like doesn't matter so much, but having moderate carbs with your beverage also provides more endurance. Try different dilutions and see what works best for you.

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  • 1 year later...
Another possible cause of cramps is use of creatine -- nowhere did you mention that you supplement with this, so I'm assuming it's not your case, but I know some strength athletes who were taking extra creatine, cramping badly on endurance outings, and as soon as they stopped using creatine the cramping ceased.


What I suggest most often is drinking a diluted juice of some sort -- whether that's in the form of Cytomax, Powerade or Gatorade, or the like doesn't matter so much, but having moderate carbs with your beverage also provides more endurance. Try different dilutions and see what works best for you.

I saw this article in Tuesday's New York Times. They mentioned that the sports drinks only have about a tenth as much posassium as a piece of fruit, like a banana.



Preserving a Delicate Balance of Potassium



Published: June 22, 2004



Evolution is an excellent teacher when it comes to figuring out what and how much people should eat.


For example, primates (including those with two legs and big brains) evolved on foods rich in potassium and very low in sodium. Early humans evolved to conserve sodium, which was hard to obtain, and to excrete excess potassium, abundant in many fruits and vegetables.


But Western-style diets these days are the reverse of what those early humans consumed, rich in processed foods, loaded with sodium and relatively poor in potassium. Consequently, according to a report released this year by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, many people now consume diets deficient in potassium and high in acid-generating foods like meats and other animal proteins that further deplete the body's supply of this vital mineral.


According to national diet surveys, the average man in this country consumes only about two-thirds the recommended amount of potassium each day, and the average women consumes even less - half of the 4,700 milligrams a day considered to be an adult's adequate daily intake.


As the institute report explained, "Humans evolved from ancestors who habitually consumed large amounts of uncultivated plant foods, which provided substantial amounts of potassium. In this setting, the human kidney developed a highly efficient capacity to excrete excess potassium."


A Crucial Nutrient


Normal healthy kidneys are not effective at conserving potassium and are thus unable to prevent a deficiency when dietary levels of it are low.


Potassium and sodium, along with chloride, are electrolytes. They regulate the electrical potential of cell membranes and, thus, the conduction of nerve impulses. Potassium resides primarily in cells, while sodium and chloride are found mainly outside cells. All three have to be in proper balance to assure normal metabolic and neuromuscular functioning. And the imbalance of high sodium and chloride in relation to potassium is believed to be a major factor in several serious chronic ailments.


The potential consequences of a chronic potassium deficiency are often unrecognized, even by health professionals. The problems include high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, kidney stones and a loss of bone minerals that can lead to osteoporosis. Low potassium consumption can also cause a sensitivity to salt, further raising the risk of hypertension. That is a common problem among African-Americans, who have a much higher risk than whites of developing hypertension and its lethal consequences.


These and other effects of insufficient potassium can occur even when blood levels of the mineral appear to be normal. Furthermore, even small changes in potassium levels can harm nerve transmission, muscle contraction and blood-vessel tone. Most people have little or no warning of potassium deficiencies. They may feel tired, weak and irritable, but unable to pinpoint the cause.


To make matters worse, high-protein levels in diets result in acid formation that increases the loss of calcium, the primary bone mineral. Studies have demonstrated an association between higher consumption of fruit and potassium and increased bone mineral density. The more protein in relation to potassium consumed, the greater the risk of bone loss in the hips and spine.


In its report, the institute was especially critical of the currently popular low-carbohydrate high-protein diets. Although these diets may contain enough potassium from protein, they lack enough alkali-generating substances from fruits like oranges, bananas and grapes to counter the high acid formation associated with a protein-rich diet.


In a six-week study of 10 adults on a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, calcium loss in urine increased by 50 percent and was not compensated for by an increase in intestinal absorption of dietary calcium.


The researchers concluded that the diet overloaded the kidneys with acid, increased the risk of formation of kidney stones, led to a net loss of calcium and might have increased bone loss. The institute noted that there had been "no published studies of the long-term metabolic effects of this kind of diet in any group of individuals."


People taking certain diuretics - thiazide and loop diuretics -to lower blood pressure or to counter fluid retention may also incur a potassium deficiency, because those drugs increase urinary loss of both sodium and potassium. Such patients are commonly told to take potassium supplements, typically potassium chloride, although chloride has a counterproductive acidic effect.





Also at risk of potassium deficiency, even when consuming an adequate diet, are people who sweat excessively as a result of high heat or extreme exercise. Both situations increase the need for potassium, which is best met through increased consumption of potassium-rich fruits, vegetables and juices.


,strong>Dangers of Excess


Excessive blood levels of potassium can cause fatal disruptions in heart rhythms. And several common health problems can lead to high blood levels of potassium, even when potassium consumption is not above the recommended level.


People at risk include those with chronic kidney disease, heart failure, Type 1 diabetes and adrenal insufficiency, each of which can interfere with the kidneys' ability to excrete potassium. Also, drugs called ACE inhibitors, angiotension receptor blockers and potassium-sparing diuretics, commonly used to treat high blood pressure and congestive heart failure, increase the risk of a harmful excess of potassium in the blood. Also at risk are people suffering dehydration, extensive injuries or a major infection.


The institute suggested that people who have those conditions or who are taking such medications should have their potassium levels monitored and should, perhaps, consume somewhat less potassium than that recommended for healthy adults. Experts say no one should take potassium supplements or potassium salt substitutes without medical advice.


Improving Intake


To achieve a healthy balance of potassium and sodium, people should eat ample amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. When such foods are processed, potassium is commonly lost and sodium substantially increased. Nearly all processed foods are sodium rich and potassium poor.


For example, a three-and-a-half-ounce serving of fresh peas has 380 milligrams of potassium and less than one milligram of sodium. The same serving of canned peas, minus the liquid, has 180 milligrams of potassium and 230 milligrams of sodium.


Among the foods richest in potassium, in descending order by caloric value, are leafy greens like spinach, romaine and cabbage; vine-grown foods like tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, winter squash and pumpkin; root vegetables like carrots, radishes, turnips and onions; dried peas and beans, and green beans; fruits like apples, oranges, bananas, apricots and strawberries; and tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes, as well as milk and yogurt. Lesser amounts are found in meats, nuts, eggs, cereals and cheese.


In physically active people, potassium is important to sustaining good muscle function. But sports drinks, often consumed to restore the nutrients exhausted by vigorous exercise, are close to worthless when it comes to replacing potassium.


An eight-ounce serving of a sports drink contains about 30 milligrams of potassium. You would have to drink 12 servings of a sports drink, 600 calories, to consume the amount of potassium in one 65-calorie banana, or consume 375 calories of the drink to get the potassium in 27 calories of a half-cup of cantaloupe.


If you consumed 100 calories each of spinach, tomatoes, carrots, chickpeas, oranges and potatoes, you would easily take in a day's recommended amount of potassium and only 600 calories. A potassium-rich diet is also great for weight control. "

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I saw this article in Tuesday's New York Times. They mentioned that the sports drinks only have about a tenth as much posassium as a piece of fruit, like a banana.

Is anyone really guzzling Gatorade thinking it is going to supply them with their RDA of potasssium? Gatorade is supposed to replenish the amount of potassium that you lose through perspiration (and urination I guess) during extended exercise, above and beyond the RDA of potassium that you're supposed to get from a normal healthy diet. For this purpose, Gatorade's potassium concentration is designed to be similar to the amount of potassium lost per liter of fluid loss during exercise. As for whether it has too much sodium in it, I'm not sure. It very well might. But judging Gatorade against the nutritional content of spinach or canteloupe is kind of silly. To my mind, they serve different purposes.

Edited by Stephen_Ramsey
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I use cytomax for non competitive activities (daily runs/cragging); I order it by the 5 lb can from nutripro; it’s the cheapest I can find it (if anyone out there knows a cheaper source let me know please). Other drink mixes I use include succeed! products which can be found at Kevin's site. These are expensive for daily use, but for the big ones they are worth it. Finally, e-caps makes some truly amazing products including a drink mix that is almost entirely carbs (it literally tastes like paste… assuming you ate the paste in kindergarten you will identify it… blush.gif). They also sell a training CD that though is written in an orientation to ultra runners and bikers but has excellent application to climbers; specifically alpine. Take some time to browse there website; they offer a lot of training info (and fun products… ATP in a pill! hahaha.gif).


As far as your cramps go; you probably know it could be any number of thinks (dehydration, inadequate stretching, diet, fitness, etc etc). I would say start with the things that are simplest to fix: stretch religiously (during the week and while climbing on the weekend); hydrate correctly; and make sure to keep a strong baseline fitness level.


With that said generally cramps are a sign of either 1) dehydration or 2) serious lactic acid build up. Fighting the first with hydration will help with the second, but once you reach the wall/your limit cramps are inevitable… i.e running 6 miles a week religiously then jumping into a marathon. It’s only a matter of time before they hit.


Twight suggests coffee as caffeine is a known stimulant. However if you drink it all the time, the effects are greatly diminished. Additionally if you do drink it during the week, your body becomes accustom to it and the amount of dehydration is reduced if not eliminated. Unless you rarely drink coffee I would argue that it is unlikely that the coffee is the source of the cramps. If you are worried; switch to green tea: even more caffeine than coffee.

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Just a thought about Green Tea - 20Mg caffeine, Coffee 80 Mg.


Other places list green tea as high as 35Mg and coffee as high as 140Mg.


The whole green tea has more caffeine than coffee thing is a myth.


BTW - thanks for the info. I get some gnarly cramps in my quads.

Edited by fenderfour
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Coffee makes me twitchy when I haven't been drinking it. With green tea I barely notice any stimulant effect.


In my experience, cramps happen more often when I haven't warmed up enough before pushing hard, or when going from a hard uphill sprint to a dead stop (i.e., not cooling down properly). I bet this is related to the need to flush lactic acid. When you haven't warmed up and dump lactic acid into your blood, it gets "stuck". When you have been generating lactate and then stop moving, it gets stuck again because you've stopped the muscle movements and increased blood circulation associated with exercise, which had been helping to clear out the lactate. But I'm just speculating...

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Pickle juice is super concentrated with electrolytes and is great at preventing cramping. Gatorade really doesn't have that much in terms of electrolytes and it's loaded with fructose and sucrose. Gu20 has maltodexrin and has a lot of electrolytes and might be a good solution. Check out E-caps also, they may have salt tablets that are commonly used by long distance athletes.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I had good luck this weekend avoiding cramps during a climb (Mt. Adams). I did a bit of research on this and other forums and found a product at my local GNC store called Ultima. It is a powder that has a better electrolyte concentration than Gatorade and most other products I investigated. It also did not include sugars or simple carbohydrates. Sodium content was a little low, so I added more salt to my breakfast (oatmeal) and and to the PB&J Sandwiches I use for fuel during the climb. I added two packs ($1.25 ea) of the Ultima to the water in my 50 oz bladder. I refilled it once more with water and 2 packs of Ultima, and one time refilled with just water. The flavor I chose was Orange and it tasted similar to Tang- not too sweet. The recommendation on the product was 1 pack for 20 oz of water, but the concentraion I used was fine.


I suffered no cramps and I felt strong the entire day. I was even able to jog for the last mile and a half back down to the trailhead.


My conditioning, hydration, and fueling patterns were the same for this virtualy identical climb that I had done a year earlier. Back then (and on other climbs since then) I experienced some pretty strong leg cramps. Although the weather was cooler for this year's climb, I am attributing most of the cramp reduction to the Ultima. I will be doing further tests during the warmer summer weather to see if my results continue to be positive. YMMV

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A climbing partner recommended increasing my salt intake to prevent leg cramps. I decided to keep a boullion cube in pocket and to munch on it now and again. The end result after 3 climbs is no more leg cramps. Sure as hell beats paying all that money for fancy products.

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