How many times has it happened to you after a long walk or intense physical exercise such as a run or a bike ride, but also following a flu, to suffer from annoying and painful cramps. Until now, cramps were believed to be due to a condition of dehydration and that, to prevent them, it was enough to drink water, lots of water, even during exercise. Instead, things seem a little different. In fact, drinking plain water could even increase the risk of cramps, much better is to drink water with added electrolytes, as you easily find in chemist's shops or supermarkets. This is what emerges from a very recent scientific research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition by an Australian and Japanese team (Lau et al, JISSN, 2021).
It is estimated that the incidence of cramps in people who practice sports can be as high as 60%. Cramps are a very painful condition and therefore researchers have wondered what to do to counter them. To do this, they developed a research involving ten healthy people. Volunteers were asked to run on a treadmill for an hour in a room at 35° C, drinking plain water during and after the exercise. Later, the experiment was repeated but asking the volunteers to drink water in which electrolytes had been dissolved. At the end of both experiments, the researchers applied a small electrical stimulation to the volunteers' calves to induce cramps. The lower the frequency required to induce cramps, the more the participants are prone to muscle cramp.
Plain water vs Electrolytes, the results
What emerged was that drinking plain water promotes the appearance of cramps while water with the electrolytes protects against cramps. The explanation is that, unlike what is commonly believed, cramps are not due to dehydration but to a loss of electrolytes, which are mineral salts such as potassium, magnesium, sodium and chloride, through the sweat. Drinking lots of water therefore only further dilutes the few electrolytes left but does not replenish them.
The importance of electrolytes
Therefore, to avoid cramps, it is a good idea to prefer water in which the mineral salts have been dissolved rather than plain water. These electrolytes are easily found in pharmacies or supermarkets, they rebalance the mineral salts in the body and even help the body to absorb water more effectively than plain water. This advice, as indicated by the authors themselves, is good not only for sporty people but also for the general population. Everyone in fact may sweat a lot, as a result of a more intense physical activity but also during or just after illnesses or stressful periods.