Muscle cramp continues to be a major performance-limiting issue for endurance athletes, especially those competing in hot and humid climates, according to a recent survey by hydration experts Precision Hydration.

Cramp1 in 4 athletes questioned said they suffer with cramp ‘often’, with more runners suffering regularly (36%) than cyclists (32%) and triathletes (28%). Only 18% of athletes responded that they “rarely” have issues with cramp, highlighting just how prevalent the problem is.

The survey also suggested that men suffer more than women (with 27% of men saying they suffered ‘often’ vs 14% of female respondents) and that age can also have an impact, with nearly twice as many athletes over the age of 35 reporting regular cramp than those under 35.

The potential role of hydration (and, more specifically, sodium depletion) in these episodes of cramp was illustrated by both the facts that respondents reported increased issues in the heat and that sweatier athletes seem to cramp up more often. The percentage of athletes with a ‘very high’ sweat rate reporting cramping up ‘often’ was 34% vs just 7% of athletes with a ‘low’ sweat rate.

And it’s not like athletes aren’t doing anything to combat the issue. 93% of athletes claimed to have tried at least two common methods for combating cramp, with stretching, sports massage and changing up their nutrition plan being the most popular tactics.

Many of the respondents seem to have had success avoiding/reducing cramp by taking in additional sodium and electrolytes, with 90% of athletes who used PH’s strongest electrolyte drink – which has 3x more sodium than typical supplements – claiming that it helped alleviate/remove their problems with cramp.

Here’s a summary of the key findings;

  • 82% of athletes said they suffered from cramp ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’, highlighting that cramp is a widespread issue for endurance athletes.
  • 61% of respondents said their issues with cramp were increased in hot/humid conditions. This might suggest that hydration, and specifically sodium depletion, is playing a major role in endurance athletes’ cramps.
  • Sweatier athletes apparently cramp up more often. The % of athletes with a ‘very high’ sweat rate reported cramping up ‘often’ was 34% vs just 7% of athletes with a ‘low’ sweat rate. Further evidence of the role of hydration perhaps?
  • Athletes racing ultra-distances suffer more often than those racing shorter distances – for example 29% of athletes competing for 4+ hours suffer regularly from cramps vs ’just’ 22% athletes racing less than 1 hour.
  • 93% of athletes have tried at least two common methods for combating cramp.
  • 4 out of 5 athletes surveyed have tried using used electrolyte supplements to combat cramp, with 90% of athletes who used PH’s 1,500mg/l drink saying that it helped them reduce or avoid their cramping issues.

Andy Blow, Founder of Precision Hydration and former cramp-sufferer, said: “Despite the fact that muscle cramps are a very common phenomenon, no-one really knows the full story behind them yet. But our survey results, the anecdotal evidence we’ve collected through years of working with athletes suffering with cramp, and at least some of the scientific literature, suggest that sodium depletion caused by sweating – and not replacing what’s lost in that sweat – is a major cause of exercise-related muscle cramps.”

For more on the science behind exercise-related muscle cramps and on the things you can try to combat them, read Precision Hydration’s full piece on why athletes suffer from cramp’.