If we look at fatigue as a factor in cramping then it makes sense to look at strategies that improve the amount of energy available to your muscles.
But where do you get the energy from and enough of it to prevent cramping? The answer is carbohydrates.
Sports drinks will always provide the best and most readily available source of carbohydrates.
But according to sports nutritionist Richard Renton, it's the ones with added protein that are thought to have the advantage of improving carbohydrate conversion into glycogen by helping to elevate and maintain higher levels of insulin.
Renton agrees with the beneficial use of protein in sports drinks:
“Certainly as a trainer this has always been my experience and I also prefer my sports drinks to have added antioxidant vitamins (A,C and E) to reduce natural free radical damage that occurs in the muscles, B group vitamins for energy (they are involved in the energy production pathways) protein, minerals and additional electrolytes as well as natural caffeine for added energy and sustained performance.”
In terms of carbohydrate, the amount of carbohydrate intake for best performance should equal about 60 to 80 grams per hour and you can get this from a sports drink with around 4 to 6% carbohydrate solution. This equates to approximately 200 to 300 calories. Any more and you won’t get much more benefit.
The best way to get this carbohydrate will be, without doubt, from a sports drink and not from a gel. Gels will deliver a lot of carbohydrate but processing this heavy load will take longer and may cause an initial ‘dip’ in energy when you really need it and will require more water to help process it. Also, gels don’t typically contain many electrolytes so you’re missing out here as well.
Gels have their place, but more so on ultra-endurance events where you can carry extra water and have access to electrolyte drinks and when you’re totally ‘bonked’ to the point where you have to stop.
Carbohydrate Loading - Do You Really Need It
The general rule to maximizing your energy reserves is to increase your carbohydrate loading prior to any race or training session – and this is more important for activities lasting longer than 30 minutes.
Many athletes practise carbohydrate loading as a means to increase the body’s glycogen reserves and extend their endurance.
A true carbohydrate load protocol can be pretty hard on the body. In the week-long period before a race it calls for first severely depleting your reserves by consuming only around 10% carbohydrate of your total calories and conducting hard workouts for the first three days.
Then following this up by a series of light workouts for the next three days and boosting your total carbohydrate intake to 90%.
While this may have some benefits, it is only really suitable if you are performing in ultra-endurance events a few times during the year.
Paul Newland is a health and nutrition consultant, trainer, martial arts instructor, commercial helicopter pilot and author. His Ultimate Cramp Busting Guide is one of the internet's leading health information books and is the definitive guide to preventing, treating and curing cramps associated with exercise. In the Ultimate Cramp Busting Guide Newland speaks with 6 health, sports, nutrition, medical and complimentary health care professionals and explains why you get cramps, the best ways to treat them and how to prevent them from happening again.