This Nutritional Change Could Help Reduce Cramps in Your Next Tennis Match
Apr 15, 2015
It happens to someone in every tournament. You (or your players, if you’re a coach) are playing well. You are on your game. You would even go so far as to say you’re treeing that day. Locked in competition with your opponent, you’re aware of his every move, enough that you counter perfectly. This game is yours. And then… BAM! A cramp in your right leg. Then, sadly, the match just goes downhill. You can fight through and do your best to shuffle around the court, but cramps do more than hinder your physical performance. The mental edge you previously enjoyed is gone, as half of your focus is now devoted to overcoming the cramp. What is a tennis player to do? Most coaches and players are aware that cramping is often related to low electrolyte levels, which is why no tennis tournament is complete without mounds of sport drink bottles, bananas and nutrition bars. However, this is clearly not enough; otherwise, cramping would not be such a widespread issue. In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the common solutions to cramping, and then provide our view of how this situation can be avoided. We talked to tennis players of several levels, including pro tour, age group and teaching professionals about the methods they use to counteract cramps. A quick disclaimer: The science for what causes cramping is inconclusive. Some studies suggest low electrolyte levels may be the cause; other studies suggest it’s more of a neurological issue, or using under-trained muscles. However, increased (and balanced) electrolyte consumption is correlated with less frequent occurrences of cramps. Our hope is that players and coaches can take this information, test it, and come to a conclusion of what may work best in their individual situation.
What you may have heard:Many methods for dealing with cramping are based solely on anecdotal evidence. Because there are so few science-based approaches, tennis players are forced to rely on the “hey, it worked for me!” approach. Needless to say, what works for someone will not work for everyone. Here are a few remedies you may have heard or tried: Salt + Gatorade: While not as popular anymore, one approach to obtaining enough electrolytes is to dump table salt into Gatorade, to increase sodium levels.
- Why it may work: Commercial sports drinks contain only about half of the necessary sodium lost in sweat. This is entirely due to marketing concerns, as more sodium would cause the drinks to taste like seawater -- a definite turnoff compared to the sweeter counterparts currently on the market. By adding sodium directly, players may return the sodium-to-water ratio back to what’s actually lost through sweat.
- Why it probably doesn’t work: Like we’ve blogged about multiple times, your sweat contains more than just sodium. The average person loses electrolytes in a ratio of 220 parts sodium to 63 potassium to 16 calcium to 8 magnesium. Which means, if you are only adding sodium to your sports drink, you’re likely missing out on some key nutrients that will keep your electrolyte levels normalized.
- Why it may work: While there’s no proven cause for mustard’s effectiveness in fighting cramps, some people have postulated that the acetic acid (contained in vinegar) prompts the body to produce more acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that prompts muscles to work. Another hypothesis is that mustard contains a significant amount of magnesium, which is often the most-forgotten-about electrolyte. Everyone knows to take sodium (thus the salt + Gatorade) and potassium (thus the plethora of bananas at all tennis tournaments), but magnesium sometimes slips under the radar. Mustard could also have a placebo effect (i.e. if I believe it will reduce cramping, it will reduce cramping).
- Why it may not work: Aside from the lack of scientific proof for the mustard solution, we again want to emphasize that your body loses several electrolytes in sweat. Replacing magnesium may help, but it’s not the full solution.
- Why it may work: A 2010 study comparing pickle juice, sports drinks and water as cramp remedies found that pickle juice was the most effective. The researchers proposed that the acidic pickle juice triggers a reflex when it hits a nerve center on the back of the throat. This reflex sends a signal to the nervous system to shut down the overactive neurons causing the cramp. Researchers concluded that drinking 2-3 fluid ounces of pickle juice—in the studies, strained from regular Vlasic dill pickles—as soon as possible following the onset of a cramp should be enough to diminish the effects. There is also a considerable amount of sodium in pickle juice which may work as described in the "salt" section.
- Why it may not work: While research shows pickle juice can be an effective remedy to cramps, the 2010 study only tested pickle juice as a response to cramps, and not as a way to avoid cramps beforehand. Any tennis player knows it would be better to avoid cramps altogether, and not be forced to keep a shot of pickle juice on standby.