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If your first instinct is to reach for water when a muscle cramp strikes, you might want to think again. New research suggests that drinking electrolytes instead of pure water can help prevent muscle cramps. Let’s see how to do it right.

Muscle cramps are a common, painful condition that affects athletes across a wide range of sports, including around 39% of marathon runners, 52% of rugby players, and 60% of cyclists. Researchers from Edith Cowan University published a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that explores how electrolyte-enhanced water helps prevent this condition.

Coconut
Coconut is rich in electrolytes. © Profimedia

A lack of electrolytes, not dehydration

Lead researcher Professor Ken Nosaka said the study builds on the evidence that a lack of electrolytes, rather than dehydration, contributes to muscle cramps.

“Many people think dehydration causes muscle cramps and will drink pure water while exercising to prevent cramping. We found that people who solely drink plain water before and after exercise could in fact be making them more prone to cramps. This is likely because pure water dilutes the electrolyte concentration in our bodies and doesn’t replace what is lost during sweating,” he said.

Electrolyte water makes muscles more immune to cramps

The researchers studied 10 men who were instructed to run on a treadmill in a 35°C environment. They ran for 40-60 minutes to lose 1.5-2% of body their weight through sweat in two segments. In the first segment, they drank plain water during and after exercise. In the second segment, they drank a water solution containing electrolytes. Then the participants were given an electrical stimulation on their calves to induce muscle cramping. The lower the frequency of the electrical stimulation required, the more the participant would be prone to muscle cramps.

“We found that the electrical frequency required to induce cramp increased when people drank the electrolyte water, but decreased when they consumed plain water. This indicates that muscles become more prone to cramp by drinking plain water, but more immune to muscle cramp by drinking the electrolyte water,” said Professor Nosaka.

Electrolytes have many benefits

Professor Nosaka said electrolytes have many benefits for both athletes and the general population.

“Electrolytes are vital to good health – they help the body to absorb water more effectively than plain water and replace essential minerals lost through sweat or illness. People should consider drinking oral rehydration fluids instead of plain water during moderate to intense exercise, when it’s very hot or when you are sick from diarrhoea or vomiting.”

Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride. But you don’t need to buy special sports drinks to get them. You can make an electrolyte drink yourself at home. Check out our recipe to learn how.