Holy Cramp! The Science Of Exercise-Associated Cramping

Akin to say food poisoning, when it comes to cramping, especially exercise-associated muscle cramping (EAMC), there are two types of people: those who have cramped and those who have yet to cramp. Exercise-associated muscle cramps are defined as painful spasms and involuntary contractions of the skeletal muscles that occur during or immediately post-exercise (12). This therefore excludes cramps occurring outside of the context of exercise or because of underlying medical conditions such as familial nocturnal cramps, endocrine-metabolic diseases such as hypo/hyperthyroidism, and central and peripheral nervous system diseases like Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis (20).

To many of you, cramping is not news. It has been a topic of great debate for decades, especially in the endurance community. How do we prevent them? Stop them? Rid ourselves of them for good? Most of us have experienced mild to even debilitating cramps at some point in time, and there is nothing fun about being stuck mid-race trying to decide if crawling is a legitimate option.

In short, cramping sucks and despite our long affair with EAMC, we are not much closer to fully understanding their etiology–where they come from. If anything, our new understanding of EAMC is that they are complicated and likely stem from multiple compounding factors that make any one treatment or preventative technique unlikely to work for everyone, every time.

What has developed in the scientific community over the past five to 10 years is a clear movement away from the original dehydration/electrolyte-imbalance theory and an increased focus on the altered neuromuscular control theory. Since the early 2000s, study after study (2, 3, 4, 8, 9) emerged looking at hydration status and blood-electrolyte concentrations (primarily sodium and potassium) in endurance athletes post-competition and over and over again, there was no significant difference in the hydration status or blood-electrolyte concentration of athletes who cramped and athletes who did not cramp.

Examples of this data are shown in the graphs below comparing dehydration status and sodium intake across crampers and non-crampers in a long ultramarathon. Moreover, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances are system-wide issues and therefore should cause system-wide muscle cramping and not localized problems (17). Most EAMC primarily occur in asymmetry–one calf cramps. However if muscles are cramping bilaterally, like in both both calves, or become generalized/full-body cramping, they can be tied more closely to dehydration or a more serious medical condition. What this means is that we should not eliminate dehydration and electrolyte imbalances entirely from the EAMC playing field. Instead it’s more likely that hydration and electrolyte issues act as two of the many players that work together to cause EAMC rather than being the sole cause in most cases.

Details from many of these studies were covered thoroughly in columnist Joe Uhan’s 2013 article for iRunFar. If you haven’t read Joe’s article, consider doing so as an accompaniment to this one.

Exercise-Associated Cramping images 2 and 3

(Left) Dehydration has often been tracked by percent body weight lost during exercise. In these graphs, you can see that there is little to no difference in percent body weight lost and if the participants were cramping or not over the course (locations noted in kilometers) of a 161k race. (Right) Sodium supplements have long been used as a means of hopefully preventing cramping during ultra-endurance events. In these graphs, sodium supplements (milligrams/hour) ingested were measured multiple times during a 161k race. You can see that there is very little difference in the amount of sodium ingested per hour and if the participant cramped during the race. Images from Hoffman, M. D., & Stuempfl, K. J. (2015).

These studies suddenly opened up the door to new theories and possibilities. Chief among them was the altered neuromuscular control theory, or the idea that the root cause is coming from our nervous system’s relationship with muscle contraction. This theory suggests that EAMC are a combination of several factors coalescing in a perfect storm to over excite your alpha motor neurons resulting in, you guessed it, cramping. Alpha motor neurons are the largest neurons in your spinal cord and they are responsible for delivering the message for skeletal-muscle contractions and movement. The factors looked at most keenly are variables leading to heightened fatigue state such as: inadequate training or conditioning including improper heat and/or altitude acclimation; muscle damage; previous injury to both the cramping muscle or in compensating muscle group; and certain medications like albuterol (taken for asthma), conjugated estrogen (used during menopause), and statins (for managing cholesterol) (11). You can see how these variables build off each other in the chart below (11). These factors could also explain why EAMC seem to come on more in the heat where muscles are fatigued earlier at the same work load, and why athletes with a history of previous cramping are most likely to experience cramping in the future (5).

Exercise-Associated Cramping figure 3

Yellow stars represent the potential variables impacting muscle fatigue. Green circles indicate additional causes of neural imbalance telling the muscle to contract more. Image from Schwellnus M.( 2009) with edits by author.

So how do we treat the onset of a cramp?

Two methodologies to treat EAMC have emerged at the forefront of the altered neuromuscular control theory. They are: targeting your Golgi tendon organs (GTO) and your transient receptor potential (TRP) channels. I realize that is a lot of information packed into one breath, but bear with me, I’ll explain more shortly, but first your GTO.

Located in your skeletal muscles, Golgi tendon organs are your very own built-in anti-cramp tool. It’s important to understand that muscle contractions are not simple, but rather the perfect coordination between our nervous system, its sensors within our muscles, and the right messages making it back forth between the two. When functioning properly, GTOs act as the inhibitor to your muscle spindles causing contractions. Your alpha motor neurons and muscle spindles–the stretch sensor in your skeletal muscle–are the active “contract-contract-contract!!!” command and action that keeps us moving down the trails while the GTOs are the inhibition to the contraction that allow the muscle to relax. As our muscles fatigue, there is an increased firing from the muscle spindles to keep “contracting-contracting-contracting!!!” while, at the same time, there is a lessened response from the muscle GTOs to relax. When both of these things happen, we get over-excited alpha motor neurons that cause the contraction to win out time and time again, resulting in a contraction that won’t stop, or as we’ve experienced, a cramp (7, 12).

Exercise-Associated Cramping figure 4

Muscle spindle (left) transmits information about muscle stretching in order to contract your muscle and protect it from stretching past its endpoint and the Golgi tendon organ (right) senses and transmits information about muscle tension in order to signal your muscle to relax (inhibits contraction). Image from Qiu J, Kang J (2017).

Exercise-Associated Cramping figure 5

Multiple variables affect muscular fatigue and lead to an imbalance in communication between your muscle spindles and GTOs. This can cause incorrect information to be received by your nervous system (alpha motor neurons) and lead to extra messages to contract winning out and a muscle cramp occurring. Image from Qiu J, Kang J (2017).

Muscles that are most likely to experience EAMC are muscles that are contracting in a shortened position. This is particularly true of muscles that cross two joints, including your semitendinosus (one of the hamstrings), semimembranosus (another of the hamstrings), biceps femoris (the third of the hamstrings), rectus femoris (one of the quadriceps), and your gastrocnemius (one of the calf muscles). EAMC is not limited to biarticulated muscles of the legs, but they are the most common location reported by runners with EAMC. When muscles are contracting in an already shortened position, or in a small arc of movement, the GTO produces less inhibition than it does normally, because of altered muscle tension. This can be exacerbated if you have injuries or imbalances that decrease your range of motion (7). Giving your muscles an opportunity to lengthen, be it through your stride moving through a full range of motion, stretching outside of the occasionally compact ultra-shuffle, or in stopping and passively stretching the muscle, creating tension in the muscle increases the GTOs’ inhibitory input to the alpha motor neurons and relaxes the muscle (7, 12).

In 2010, Kevin Miller and his colleagues conducted the now-famous “Pickle Juice Study.” For decades, athletic trainers and coaches had anecdotally been prescribing pickle juice, apple-cider vinegar, and mustard to treat EAMC, but there was no concrete evidence as to why these substances seemed to quell cramps. Initially, there was some belief that it must be the sodium in the pickle juice that was helping to correct an electrolyte imbalance in the cramp sufferers. However, ingesting small volumes of pickle juice (30 to 60 milliliters) caused cramps to stop in as little time as 30 to 35 seconds. This response is much quicker than the amount of time it takes blood-electrolyte concentrations to change from drinking something. Miller induced cramps, using electrical stimulation, in hydrated participants and gave them either pickle juice or deionized water and saw the pickle juice dramatically cut down on cramp duration compared with deionized water or without any fluids ingested. They concluded that, while they were unsure which ingredient in pickle juice abated cramps so quickly (likely acetic acid/vinegar), it must trigger a neural reflex in the mouth, oropharynx, or esophagus quickly after ingestion, which in turn reduces alpha motor neuron activity to the cramping muscle (13). The conclusion from this one study opened up a new area of EAMC research, and has driven several new products to the market.

It has quickly caught on in the scientific community that the ingredients in pickle juice may very likely be stimulating what are known as transient receptor potential (TRP) channels. TRP channels are ion channels, excitable cells that convert chemical or mechanical messages into electrical signals, that help to mediate a variety of different sensations like pain, different tastes, hot, cold, and pressure. I first learned of TRP channels in my graduate thermophysiology course primarily as we focused on how the body perceives different temperatures. Many of these TRP channels can be activated by molecules found in spices such as capsaicin (part of chili peppers), menthol (part of mint), cinnamaldehye (part of cinnamon), shogaol (part of ginger), and allyl isothiocyanate (part of mustard). These relationships to particular channels are shown in the image below (14).

Researchers have become particularly interested in the TRPA1 and TRPV1 channels as they are found in the mucosal linings of the oropharyngeal region, or more specifically the mouth, oropharynx, esophagus, and stomach. With how fast-acting the acetic acid was on EAMC during the pickle-juice study, the presence of these channels above the stomach gives the theory some legs to stand on (15, 16).

Exercise-Associated Cramping figure 6

From left to right, the scale ranks TRP channels on the temperatures they are associated with from cold to hot. These same TRP channels also respond to chemicals in the food also shown on the chart. Image from Vay, L., Gu, C., & Mcnaughton, P. A. (2012).

What this means is that strong sensory stimuli activated at these specific TRP channels, by a TRP agonist, or activators for each channel, like capsaicin, can potentially cause the alpha motor neurons to become less excited which would in turn diminish or stave off a cramp (16). There are two possible scenarios being considered here: 1) pre-ingestion of a TRP agonist will increase the threshold one has to reach in order to cramp and keep the individual out of a cramp-prone state for longer, and 2) ingestion of a TRP agonist at onset of a cramp will ‘trip’ our electrical wiring, causing our muscle spindles and GTOs to work in harmony once again by decreasing the excitability of our alpha motor neurons.

This brings us to my favorite word of 2018: ‘bio-plausible.’ Bio-plausible arguably could mean something that adheres to biological reality as we presently understand things to work. Bio-plausible ideas, techniques, and specifically products are ones that are based on how we believe something should work at a mechanism level, in this case physiologically, but remains unproven. Or rather has yet to build concrete, thoroughly validated, evidence. Things that are bio-plausible, in essence, should work, at least… in theory, and sport is the perfect place for bio-plausible ideas as sport spurs innovation. A lot of great ideas start as merely bio-plausible but it takes years of trying to disprove such theories (because that’s how the scientific process works) that make them reliable, evidence-based, fact.

There a few products on the market targeting the exact theory that a strong orally ingested TRP agonist will help to prevent or abate cramps once they start. Some of these products include ACV Cramp Cure and Caleb Treeze Organic Farm Leg and Foot Cramps Liquid that are both formulated with apple-cider vinegar (acetic acid), garlic, and ginger. And more popularly, HotShot, which includes the TRP agonists capsaicin, ginger, and cinnamon.

As of 2017, there have been a few studies done on TRP agonists and EAMC. However, there is more work to be done as two of the three major studies published on TRP agonists and EAMC have been done by the creators of HotShot, a company called Flex Pharma (16, 18). Just as I’ve asked my students to do when evaluating research articles, I ask you to remain objective, unbiased, and open-minded when it comes to evaluating peer-reviewed journal articles. You’ll find that at the bottom of articles, after a limitations section, conflicts of interest, if any, are generally listed.

In both studies (16, 18), subjects were given an orally administered blend of TRP agonists and then had cramps both electrically induced or voluntary cramping via maximum isometric contractions of five to 90 seconds. The studies both evaluated time to onset of cramp, time to cramp subsiding, and intensity of cramping in small foot muscles. They found that ingesting the TRP agonists increased the time contracting and force output pre-cramp initiation, and a shortened time during cramping (16). In the former study, not only did they find that the intensity of the cramp was reduced by threefold, but that orally ingesting a TRP agonist could increase an individuals’ cramp-threshold frequency for up to six to eight hours after ingestion. The cramp-threshold frequency is the lowest electrical-stimulation frequency that can produce a cramp, which is inversely related to your susceptibility to cramping (19).

In a later, more recent study conducted also using HotShot’s proprietary blend of TRP agonists, researchers once again brought on electrically induced cramps after ingesting the TRP-agonist-containing supplement, but rather than focusing on the foot they chose a larger lower-leg muscle, the medial gastrocnemius (one of the calf muscles). Similar to the previous studies, they were able to elicit a quicker attenuation of the cramp and its intensity but they could not repeat the same prolonged effects. They found that the largest increase in cramp-threshold frequency was only present for approximately 15 minutes post-ingestion but was gone by their retest times of four hours, eight hours, and 24 hours post-ingestion (19).

So what does that all mean? It means that there is very likely an ability to activate TRP channels and create a stimulation that will suppress the alpha motor neurons hyperexcitability and alleviate an existing muscle cramp. It would also appear that at this time we do not know for certain if these same TRP agonists can produce a preemptive effect on alpha motor neurons and keep us out of a cramp-prone state in advance. I would add that at this time more research needs to be conducted on this and other products containing TRP agonists like mustard, apple-cider vinegar, menthol, and more. We are just at the beginning stages of understanding the complexities of TRP channels, the electrical component of EAMC, and their physiological intricacies.

To finish, I will add that the body is complicated and that we, and surely I, do not know everything. And as stated by Schwellnus & Hoffman this past fall, it is still apparent that EAMC is made up of a complex set of underlying variables that makes the idea that there is any one single treatment or prevention strategy for EAMC implausible (1). Which leads me to our takeaways:

  • Anecdote is not science. The brain is incredibly powerful, and placebos can have very real effects on physiological symptoms and performance. It doesn’t mean that something will not work, but the reliability of such methodologies remain unproven.
  • We should not completely write off proper hydration and electrolyte intake even if reliable evidence to support this practice as a foolproof preventative strategy for EAMC does not exist. Improperly done dehydration and electrolyte imbalance may be compounding variables to fatiguing muscles (6).
  • Train yourself specifically for the event you are undertaking. It’s thought that when the demand you put on your muscles does not match up with the training you’ve done, you are more susceptible to cramping (5). This goes for being properly heat acclimated, altitude acclimated, going faster than you train, and being prepared for the types of terrain you will be competing on. Nothing can protect you from being underprepared for an event, not even the powerful miscalculation of our own limitations.
  • Work on form, mobility, and range of motion. Muscles most affected by EMAC are those that are confined to a small arc of motion, in a shortened state, and used repetitively. Avoid heavy braking and focus on manipulating your stride length (in training for race day) so that you can maintain adequate hip and knee flexion and extension.
  • Make mobility part of your fitness and race strategy. Address your own body’s imbalances through stretching, physical therapy, yoga, and massage. There is evidence that preemptive self-care can make a difference come race day (7).
  • Fuel adequately. Glycogen depletion and inadequate fuel for your working muscles can lead to premature muscle fatigue and increase your risk of cramping.
  • Learn to recognize your body’s pre-cramping state and respond accordingly. Slowing down or stopping to stretch cramp-prone muscles could save you from that DNF or crawling into the next aid station.
  • Just like you practice your hydration and nutrition plan before your A race, consider practicing your cramping protocol. Experiment with different TRP agonist products or concoctions. Research has yet to be done on possible negative side effects of many of the ingredients used as TRP agonists in these products, such as thermoregulation changes and gastrointestinal distress.
  • Be reflective. Evaluate the training or race-day scenarios that may have brought you to your knees. What factors may have combined to lead to an over-fatigued state? For me personally it’s been a journey of rejiggering my biomechanics and imbalances.

[Author’s Note: The author of this article reports no conflicts of interest with this article. She is unsponsored and not financially supported by any of the companies involved in the research presented above and approached the writing of this article from an unbiased research-minded place.]

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Exercise-associated cramps, do you get them or not?
  • If you are, as Corrine says, a cramper, have you sorted out what underlying issues have exacerbated them in you? And, have you found anything that helps you end them?


  1. Schwellnus, M. P., & Hoffman, M. D. (2017). Transient receptor potential channels and exercise-associated muscle cramping: A tale of multiple complexities. Muscle & Nerve, 56(3), 355-357. doi:10.1002/mus.25668
  2. Schwellnus MP, Nicol J, Laubscher R, Noakes TD. Serum electrolyte concentrations and hydration status are not associated with exercise associated muscle cramping (EAMC) in distance runners. Br J Sports Med. 2004; 38:488–492. PubMed doi:10.1136/bjsm.2003.007021
  3. Schwellnus MP, Drew N, Collins M. Increased running speed and previous cramps rather than dehydration or serum sodium changes predict exercise-associated muscle cramping: a prospective cohort study in 210 Ironman triathletes. Br J Sports Med. 2011; 45:650–656. PubMed doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.078535
  4. Sulzer NU, Schwellnus MP, Noakes TD. Serum electrolytes in Ironman triathletes with exercise-associated muscle cramping. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005; 37:1081–1085. PubMed doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000169723.79558.cf
  5. Schwellnus MP, Allie S, Derman W, Collins M. Increased running speed and pre-race muscle damage as risk factors for exercise-associated muscle cramps in a 56 km ultra-marathon: a prospective cohort study. Br. J. Sports Med. 2011; 45: 1132–6.
  6. Buskard, A.N. (2014). Cramping in Sports. Strength and Condition Journal, 36(5), 44-52. doi:10.1519/ssc.0000000000000091
  7. Qiu J, Kang J (2017) Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps – A Current Perspective. Scientific Pages Sports Med 1(1):3-14.
  8. Stofan, J., Zachwieja, J., Horswill, C., Murray, R., Anderson, S., & Eichner, E. (2005). Sweat and sodium losses in NCAAfootball players: A precursor to heat cramps? International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 15, 641–652.
  9. Braulick, K., Miller, K., Albrecht, J., Tucker, J., & Deal, J. (2013). Significant and serious dehydration does not affect skeletal muscle cramp threshold frequency. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 47, 710–714. doi:1136/bjsports-2012-091501
  10. Hoffman, M. D., & Stuempfl, K. J. (2015). Muscle Cramping During a 161-km Ultramarathon: Comparison of Characteristics of Those with and Without Cramping Sports Medicine – Open 1(1). Doi:10.1186/s40798-015-0019-7
  11. Schwellnus, M. P., Drew, N., & Collins, M. (2008). Muscle Cramping in Athletes—Risk Factors, Clinical Assessment, and Management. Clinics in Sports Medicine,27(1), 183-194. doi:10.1016/j.csm.2007.09.006
  12. Schwellnus M. Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)– altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? Br J Sports Med 43: 401–408, 2009
  13. Miller, K. C., Mack, G. W., Knight, K. L., Hopkins, J. T., Draper, D. O., Fields, P. J., & Hunter, I. (2010). Reflex Inhibition of Electrically Induced Muscle Cramps in Hypohydrated Humans. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise,42(5), 953-961. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181c0647e
  14. Vay, L., Gu, C., & Mcnaughton, P. A. (2012). The thermo-TRP ion channel family: properties and therapeutic implications. British Journal of Pharmacology,165(4), 787-801. doi:10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01601.x
  15. Alvarez-Berdugo D, Rofes L, Farre R, Casamitjana JF, Enrique A, Chamizo J, Padron A, Navarro X, Clave P. Localization and expression of TRPV1 and TRPA1 in the human oropharynx and larynx. Neurogastroenterology and motility: the official journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society 2016;28(1):91-100.
  16. Craighead DH, Shank SW, Gottschall JS, Passe DH, Murray B, Alexander LM, et al. Ingestion of transient receptor potential channel agonists attenuates exercise-induced muscle cramps. Muscle Nerve 2017;56:379–385.
  17. Murray, D., Miller, K. C., & Edwards, J. E. (2016). Does a Reduction in Serum Sodium Concentration or Serum Potassium Concentration Increase the Prevalence of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps? Journal of Sport Rehabilitation,25(3), 301-304. doi:10.1123/jsr.2014-0293
  18. Short G, Hegarty B, MacKinnon R, Bean B, Westphal C, Cermak J (2015) Orally-administered TRPV1 and TRPA1 activators inhibit electrically-induced muscle cramps in normal healthy volunteers (S17.003). Neurology 84(14 Suppl).
  19. Behringer, M., Nowak, S., Leyendecker, J., & Mester, J. (2017). Effects of TRPV1 and TRPA1 activators on the cramp threshold frequency: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial. European Journal of Applied Physiology,117(8), 1641-1647. doi:10.1007/s00421-017-3653-6
  20. Parisi L, Pierelli F, Amabile G, et al. Muscular cramps: proposals for a new classification. Acta Neurol Scand 2003;107:176–86.

There are 38 comments

  1. Paul

    I’ve cramped in races and training runs. Overexertion and dehydration both seem to play a role. Electrolytes not so much.

    Regarding the placebo effect – I get it, scientists like to understand the mechanism – but from a practical standpoint, what could be better than the placebo effect – mix up a batch of harmless but weird tasting ingredients, label it “Cramp-be-gone”, and hand it out to cramping runners. If cramps go away I’m happy, I don’t care if it is a placebo effect or not.

    1. Adam St.Pierre

      I think you can go beyond harmless “Cramp-be-gone” and instead have a bioplausible placebo (you can still call it cramp-be-gone!). Something that you believe works AND that has a potential real life mechanism of action. I always carry ginger chews in ultras, but may throw a tin of Altoids in too! Or some habanero peppers!

      1. Bryon Powell

        I’ve never cramped when I’ve had whiskey during an ultra ==> carry whiskey** at every ultra!* ;-)

        * Neither of these statements is entirely true, but I’m willing to test the effectiveness of whiskey in the prevention or treatment of cramps.
        ** Specifically, Cramp-Be-Gone High Mountain Whiskey.

  2. Robert

    I suffer from cramping late in races. I read an article awhile back (can’t reference) that talked about the neurological aspects of cramping and changing the signals to the brain that occur when cramping – simply yelling out loud, laughing out loud, talking crazy etc overrides those signals by stimulating the brain in another direction. I suspect pickle juice is doing something similar. When I first tried it I was amazed my cramping stopped. My cramping has diminished now to the point it doesn’t bother me at all. Anecdotal evidence but works for me.

    1. Godfrey

      Anecdotal comments are not evidence. Anecdotes are anecdotes. Anecdotal evidence is when there is a scientific attempt to explain something, and there aren’t enough data to draw conclusions, but there are also directly corroborating causes and effects amongst unconnected experiments, trials or administration of a drug or treatment. Your personal experience does not constitute anecdotal evidence. You could replace “yelling out loud” with prayer or any other superstitious behaviour and it would result in the same correlation. Except correlation does not equal causation. And, if you actually read the article, it explains a plausible link between pickle juice and cramping quite clearly, and it has nothing to do with “stimulating the brain in another direction” which has zero grounds in reason or sense, let alone science. Read the article, keep your coincidences to yourself, and don’t cite them as “evidence” – it is definitively ignorant and an obvious attempt to center yourself in the comments instead of the information presented far more objectively and sensibly slightly just above where you blathered on and embarrassed yourself.

  3. Joe Uhan

    Outstanding presentation of current research and strategies. Well done, Corrine.

    As with most things I write about, I have a lot of experirence cramp. But seldom, if ever, any more.

    From my experience — as an athlete and coach/PT:

    Reversing/Preventing Factors in cramping:
    1. Fitness — namely optimal aerobic conditioning (hard-easy training balance). If you believe that cramping is a neuro-protective strategy against harm (either perhipheral or central), then cramping is a response to “over-load”. More often than not, it’s systemic. Good easy-hard training balance is the strongest defense against cramping. (Then, as another layer, “optimized fat metabolism”, plays another huge role). Less threat, less protection.

    2. Form. As Corrine stated: inefficient, “shuffly” running fails to provide tissues (muscle/tendons) a reciprocal break. Constantly half-working, they’re more likely to cramp as a protective response. Full, efficient range of motion works the muscle (and nervous system) in a different way. Thus, sometimes speeding up can break the cramp response.

    Mitigating Factors:
    1. Hydration
    2. Nutrition
    3. Salt

    Why? I think it’s simpler than receptors. “Give the brain good news, and it’ll relax”. Water, food and salt are nearly always “good news”. This explains the pickle juice study (“good stuff!”) and how volumes of ultrarunners feel salt/water/food “helps” cramping.

    But no amount of water/food/salt will completely reverse – or prevent – cramps. And, per the data above, has no actual internal physiological impact.

    So it boils down to:

    – Have balanced training (aerobic fitness = “brain confidence” = won’t over-protect)
    – Be efficient (moving body through full range, without excess landing stress = “brain confidence” = won’t over-protect)
    – Titrate your system with helpful nutrients (consistency in fueling = “brain confidence” = won’t over-protect)


    1. Godfrey

      Nothing is more predictable than a man coming along and mansplaining his “experience” when a woman writes a scientific article based on quantified and qualified research that also includes multiple caveats and numerous citations. Yes, science must be wrong and your woefully embarrassing “brain confidence” theory must be correct, because you are a man and you have “experience” – so, the next time you feel the urge to respond to an article in this manner, consider the fact that you aren’t anywhere even close to as smart as you think you are. Also, thanks for re-stating literally exactly two things the author explained very clearly and taking credit for those things. You obviously did not even read the entire article, which fits the model of mansplaining perfectly.

      1. Bryon Powell

        You’ve made two unnecessarily antagonistic comments in quick succession. I don’t know if you’re new to iRunFar or, perhaps, haven’t frequented the comments before, but I’d note that our commenters nearly universally remain civil whether they disagree with the form or the substance of an article or the commenters thereto. Therefore, the next time you feel the urge to respond to a comment in this manner, I’d suggest you try to be more civil and constructive in doing so.


          1. Bryon Powell

            Thanks for being observant as well as being willing to step in. I love the diversity of opinions in iRunFar’s comments and the amazing degree to which those differences are expressed civilly. While Meghan and I actively cultivate this where we can, we certainly welcome polite self-moderation from within the iRunFar community.


      2. Brent

        Yo, Godrey, Joe Uhan wrote the article that Ms. Malcolm linked to in her article above. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. He’s not mansplaining anything here, he’s (1) applauding the article, and (2) adding his own experiences in overcoming a tendency to cramp (as well as that of some of his clients), while corroborating much of what Ms. Malcolm proposed in terms of theoretical mechanism.

        It’s clear to me that he did read the article, but it’s not clear to me that you did. The theories and mechanism presented by Ms. Malcolm above are naught but that– theories. There is a dearth of research and evidence on this topic as a whole. Ms. Malcolm drives that point home multiple times and certainly makes no attempt to present any of the theories in her article as widely accepted or definitive. It’s all a bit speculative at this point.

        In that context, Mr. Uhan commented in order to celebrate and applaud the article, while adding his own personal observations about what seems to have helped him and his clients cramp less. Your comment gets full marks for trollishness and rudeness, but seems to add little to the conversation otherwise. I dearly hope you were just having a bad day. And I also hope that you’re currently having a better one. Happy running!

  4. Slang

    I get calf twitching after almost every run >5 miles and often they result in cramps either during the run, or up to 10 hours afterward. Even if they don’t fully fire to cramp status, the muscles twitching in my calves are something to see (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h81fIH6VHcQ). After a long race, I usually put my feet into night splints made for plantar fasciitis to keep the muscles stretched so they don’t cramp when I try to sleep.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t found the magic bullet that eliminates them for me. I’ve tried Endurolytes, S-Caps, pickle juice, Hot Shots, and plain water in various combinations and, so far, nothing has worked consistently.

    1. Joe Uhan

      Mr Slang-

      I’ve never met a calf-cramper who doesn’t have an over-stride — or a “mid-stance deflation” — issue. Working stride efficiency is your best bet:

      1. “Forward body, rearward legs”. Be sure your foot is landing (mostly) beneath you.
      2. “Tall” through mid-stance. Avoid excessive knee flexing in stance.

      If you can’t see the front half of your foot upon landing, you’re over-striding and/or “deflating”. Both are an awful double-whammy of stress and lost speed/endurance.

  5. Doug K

    thank you, excellent review.

    What I really like about these studies is that since the effect happens so fast, it’s quite likely it is not necessary to swallow the pickle juice, just rinsing with it for 30s is probably enough. This is similar to the carbohydrate studies which show just rinsing with sweet things improves performance, though the mechanics/neurology appear to be different.

    used to get calf cramps in swim races in cold water, which was very strange since I don’t use my calf muscles swimming.
    Most recently tore a calf muscle cramping on a perfectly ordinary training run, though I suspect in this case sciatica and nerve compression may have played a part.

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Doug so sorry to hear about your recent calf tear! You are correct in that it is likely you do not have to ingest the TRP agonist, although it might be beneficial to hit the TRP channels located just past the mouth oropharynx and esophagus. Lots of future research I hope! I’ve heard swimmers calves cramp due to their feet being plantar flexed (toes pointed) shortening the calf muscle.

      1. Doug K

        ” it might be beneficial to hit the TRP channels located just past the mouth oropharynx and esophagus.”
        interesting, thank you. So, gargling pickle juice then.. ;-)

  6. Andy

    Forgive me if I missed this in the article (which is outstanding), but are there data on the dose-response curve of TRP agonists and EMAC? For example, as someone who finds ingesting some fat and protein along the way helpful for my GI tract anyway how many chili-lime peanuts would I need to eat during a race to prevent or curtail cramping? (Yeah, I know, if it’s placebo, then it’s up to me!)

    1. Corrine Malcolm

      Hi Andy, you didn’t miss it. There unfortunately is no good data on that right now, they truly are super early in the applied research side of things when it comes to TRP channels/agonists and exercise. One of the initial HotShot studies did test against a placebo, however there’s some evidence that taste could influence the way the TRP agonists work and it’s hard to mask that strong spicy flavor of capsaicin. I hope future studies in this area monitor for side effects, and test dose response and swishing vs swallowing the agonists. A gal can dream!

  7. Cathy

    OMG! I am a human chemistry lab for exercise-induced leg cramps. I’ve literally hit the deck while my calf muscles bunched up into orange-sized balls. I’ve been running ultras for over 9 years, but every starting line begins with anxiety “when will the cramping start?” I have tried Everything, including the Old Amish Remedy, and rubbing magnesium solutions on my legs. When Hot Shot came out on the market, I decided it couldn’t hurt to try it, and maybe it would help. If you need anecdotal evidence of its efficacy, my experience speaks to this. My last couple of races using Hot Shot, while not completely cramp free, were definitely better. I know that every body is different, and every runner is different, but it seems to be working for me.

    1. Joe Uhan

      Sorry to hear about that, Cathy! Super-frustrating.

      Question: has anyone ever looked at your running stride mechanics, and if so, have there been any attempts to adjust. (Per above): calf cramps tend to occur in running due to:

      – over-striding (landing the foot significantly in front of the body’s center of mass)


      – “deflating” mid-stance — allowing the knees to bend past the toes (with the trunk “back-leaning”)

      Both repetitively (and, in tandem, doubly) over-stress the calves with each stride.

      Good luck,

  8. Nathan

    This article was really good. I’d definitely like to see more heavily science and research based articles on irunfar! Awesome how you explained the current research and theories, then explained how they can be applied practically speaking in ultrarunning.

    Also, I now wish I got cramps just so I could try HotShot! Definitely my kinda ingredients …

    I’ve read a couple pseudo-scientific articles on this site that disappointed me, but this one was really educational and useful. (Not going to call those other articles out here, but I made comments to the effect at the time.)

  9. BB

    I am a believer in ACV against cramps, and not just during exercise. I used to get horrible night cramps in my calves after speedwork. Eating LCHF has greatly diminished these in occurence and intensity, but if I get them then I always have ACV at bedside and they get shut down within a minute. Also effective against nausea and stomach cramps, throat cramps caused by certain foods, and my girfriend has had a lot of luck with ACV against menstrual cramps.

  10. AP

    I’m unfortunately an interesting example. I frequently cramp at the start of races, so no dehydration/ tiredness factors.
    The only thing that makes sense for me is the “over-excited” aspect, although I don’t think I suffer from any more pre-race nerves than the next person. I don’t do anything pre-race that I don’t do in training, yet I never cramp in training…unless it’s just after a race, and I think at that point it’s due to the damage caused.
    I warm up adequately (I think) yet will cramp in the first 5-10 minutes of a run, or on triathlons it’s been at the start of the bike leg (I’ve never cramped swimming). If I get past the first 10 minutes or so I know I can finish the race, as I’ve never cramped later in a race.
    I am trying different variables, although the cramp is severe and I really do not want to go through it, however at this point I’m left with thinking that the pre-race taper/rest means my muscles are so well recovered they therefore work too well and so over-contract. I may need to try the TRP approach though.

  11. Pete

    I have extensive experience with cramp immediately after long races where the average temps are above 20 celsius. My calves will look identical to Doug K’s above, which has freaked out a few post race massage therapists :). I generally associate this with having felt uncomfortably hot during the race, possibly due to dehydration/electrolyte imbalance as I’m a heavy sweater, or to a protective response to pushing a little too hard.
    Following this I would expect to suffer night sweats, and occasional cramping the following day (diaphragm and hands mostly).
    Still looking for a solution, other than making sure I slow down to cool down when feeling uncomfortably hot.

  12. Andrea

    Thank you! FANTASTIC ARTICLE!! This is the best running article I’ve read in several months. I am a mere marathon runner, not an ultra-runner, but cramp up on very long runs. Every time I cramp, it’s towards the end of a very long run that my body is not used to or my muscles haven’t had enough rest before a long run. It’s always in my dominant leg too.
    I love all the ideas here for what to do about them. Thank you all! I’m going to pick up some pickle juice and/or mustard packets. You’ve all given me such hopes that I can finally overcome my distance running limitations!

  13. Spencer

    Thanks for the excellent article. There are some suggestions in the comments I’ll be experimenting with, too.

    My cramping is definitely related to my running form, either degenerating as fatigue piles up or injury compensation. Stretching, pickles, and salty citrus energy gels seem to help. Now I have bio-plausible explanations!

  14. Miranda

    Thanks for this article! Definitely going to give pickle juice a try. I never cramped until this year and now it’s happened quite severely in 2 races. I’ve been analyzing all the things to see what’s been different… here are the maim things for me:

    I broke my foot earlier this year – so lack of training and muscle imbalances could definitely hold true.

    I switched to tailwind from nuun (I was wondering if this was the issue but it seems unlikely).

    I stopped taking NSAIDS (I have RA and have been on some form of NSAIDS my whole life). I am wondering, if some medicines can make you more prone to cramping, could some also inadvertently stop you from cramping? Just a thought.

    Definitely going to try to work on my muscle imbalances and use pickle juice if/when I have issues!

  15. Rob

    This is the most comprehensive article on cramping I’ve read, thank you. Like many others, I suffer from cramps; however, the term “cramp” can be subjective. For me, cramping feels like I’ve been stabbed or shot in my hamstring that stops me dead in my tracks for 30-60+ seconds usually after racing for 90-120 minutes. I’ve been cramping like that for 15 years, and have tried everything to resolve the issue including sweat testing in a lab to dial in electrolyte replacement. To date, nothing has worked, so I stick to shorter races and no longer compete in longer races like marathons or Half Ironman. For years, I’ve been told it’s dehydration, sodium loss, training, etc., which I’ve eliminated as possibilities. I do believe research is headed in the right direction; however, products like Hot Shots is not a “one size fits all” solution (as least not for me, as I’ve tried that too). If other products like Hot Shots exists, please share as I’m open to any possible solution. Thanks again for sharing this very informative article!

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