With winter sports kicking off across the country over the last month, the changing and often unseasonable heat in parts of Australia is leading to an all too common headache for players, coaches and support staff. Cramping.

It is an all too common sight. On a warmer day, just as the game gets tough, players digging deep in the final moments of the game, they are suddenly struck down, as though shot by a sniper. As a coach, physio or conditioning staff member your heart sinks. Have they strained a muscle? They yell out in pain and as you get to them they wail out, “I’m cramping”. 

The first and most inevitable question is have you had enough water to drink?  And most of the time the response is a resounding”yes”. Bucking conventional wisdom it may be the very reason that the cramping occurred in the first place. A 2021 research study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, a collaboration between researchers based in Western Australia and Saitama Japan, conducted a small scale investigation that exposes the simplistic idea that drinking more water will stave off cramping, particularly in warmer weather conditions. The study demonstrated that the threshold for cramping and the concentration of electrolytes in the blood were adversely affected when comparing the ingestion of spring water compared with an oral rehydration solution (electrolyte solution) during exercise in the heat.  This suggests that drinking water during exercise may actually dilute your blood electrolyte balance, with concentrations of sodium and chloride in particular reduced when comparing water with a rehydration solution (electrolyte solution). 

So what does this mean? 

Cramping is multifactorial. That means that although it is clear that electrolyte balance is a factor in the development of cramping, particularly in hot weather, other factors such as physical conditioning and local tissue capabilities (such as muscular endurance capability) are also factors in the development of cramping under fatigue.

So what can you do to reduce cramping? 

The best advice that we have at this time is to be prepared for warm weather conditions by increasing ingestion of electrolyte drinks (there are many different ones on the market), both before and during prolonged competition or training. The other major factor that will help is increasing your training and competition loads gradually, especially in hot conditions, to a level that meets or exceeds the requirements of the matches or competitions that you will encounter. 

To read the study mentioned for yourself head to: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-021-00414-8