Avoid Cramping This Spring


The warm weather is trying to break through to us and we’re all itching to run and/or bike. You may be at particularly at risk for cramping at this time of year though. Why? First some background on salts, muscles and muscular contractions.

Salts (aka electrolytes) specifically potassium, sodium, and especially calcium are key components of muscular contractions. Without them we may either experience muscular weakness or uncontrolled muscular contractions–cramping. We get these salts through our food and drink. We tend to lose these salts through sweating. Prolonged exercise and/or exercise in the heat typically requires us to consume more salts than we would during short bouts of exercise or exercise in the cold. Now, on to the particulars of cold-to-warm weather issues.

As it turns from cold to warm weather, our bodies are also adjusting the degree to which we sweat out our salts.  During the cold, our bodies will fork over the salt quite readily. We retain more salts during the warm weather.  So let’s say we get a nice warm day and we decide to get in a long run or ride.  We may be exercising like it’s warm but we may be sweating out salts like it’s cold. This is prime time for cramping.

Here are some ideas to avoid cramps:

  • Salt your food. You’re an exercising athlete and you need salt. Unless you have high blood pressure, you should be fine.
  • Keep a sports drink with you. Drink when thirsty and stop when you’re satiated.
  • Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.  These contain electrolytes.
  • Don’t overhydrate. Too much water will dilute the salts in your body.
  • Consume dairy products. Calcium is important for bones but it’s also massively important for muscular contractions. It’s rarely found in sports drinks though.
  • Ease into warm weather activities. Your body will adjust to retain salts if given some time.



It’s summer and it’s hot.  Seems like the ideal time to write about hydration.  First, I’ll comment New York Times Health Section features the piece titled In Summer’s Heat, Watch What You Drink.  The article has two main points.  The first point concerns our fluid intake and the idea that we likely aren’t drinking enough to replace water lost to perspiration.  The second point deals with high-calorie drinks and the fact that it’s easy to consume too many calories in our quest to hydrate ourselves.  This post regards the first point.

Regarding fluid intake, the article suggests that a) our thirst is a poor guide for fluid intake and b) a quenched thirst is equally unreliable as a guide.  The suggestion is that we should multiply our weight in pounds by 0.08 and then drink that number’s worth of eight-ounce cups of water daily.  Sounds a little complicated to me.  Prior to the advent of mathematics, how did early homo sapiens drink enough to survive?

(The above mentioned formula is almost as complicated as this one.  If you’d like to further complicate your drinking habits, try the test described here.)

In the recent past, we were advised to drink eight glasses of water a day.  No one is entirely sure where this advice came from.  Then we were given formulas like the above mentioned methods to figure out how much fluid we needed to consume.  There was and still is widespread fear that a little dehydration would certainly cause cramps, delirium, and possibly death.  Like the Times article, much of the popular advice told us our thirst wasn’t a good guide–that to wait until we were thirsty to drink was to wait too late.

In recent years though we’ve seen new hydration guidelines.  These guidelines are much simpler, more instinctive and easier to follow.

A list of the old vs. new rules of hydration can be found on Active.com.  The best new rule in my view is to drink according to your thirst.  Excellent.  That’s what thirst is for right?  A signal that it’s time to drink.  The article states,

“The idea that thirst comes too late is a marketing ploy of the sports-drink industry,” says Tim Noakes, M.D., a professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. While thirst is not a perfect indicator of hydration status, it does appear to be a good indicator of the optimal drinking rate during exercise, according to Noakes. “The answer is just drink as your thirst dictates.”

Another new rule is to drink to slow dehydration rather than drink to completely prevent dehydration.  Studies show that the effort to drink to completely prevent dehydration is nearly impossible and uncomfortable.  Slight dehydration is not a health threat despite many popular fear to the contrary.   To that point, overhydration or hyponatrimia is far more dangerous.

(One easy hydration check you can use regards urine color, as advocated at Ask the Dietitian.  Dark urine means you need more water.  Light yellow means your adequately hydrated.)

Next, sports drinks are superior to plain water if your activity lasts more than one hour.  Sports drinks contain important electrolytes such as sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphate as well as carbohydrates for fuel.

Some sports drinks such as Accelerade and Hammer’s Perpetuem contain protein.  At least one study suggests that consuming small amounts of protein during a workout boosts performance.  Be careful though.  Some people (like my wife) experience gastrointestinal turmoil when they consume such drinks.

Next new rule regards caffeine.  Previously, we were told that caffeinated drinks would dehydrate us.  Now we’re told that isn’t quite the case.  Caffeine can be a powerful ergogenic aid that may aid performance but it doesn’t seem to be inhibit adequate hydration.  (Alcohol on the other hand definitely promotes dehydration.)

Finally, cold fluid is best to drink when it’s hot.  (Similar to thirst, this seems instinctively obvious right?)  It was once suggested that warmer water emptied out of the stomach faster but that’s no longer regarded as true.  Nor does cold water promote cramping.

In conclusion, don’t complicate things.  Drink as much (cold) fluid as you feel is appropriate.  Drink a sports drink if you’re out in the heat for over an hour.  You may want to experiment with protein and/or caffeine.

Product Review: Gatorade G Natural and G2 Natural


I’ll admit I’m a little bit excited in that someone at Gatorade reads my blog and sent me a couple of their new products to test.  (I almost feel like a real journalist!)  Gatorade G Natural and G2 Natural are two sports drinks that Gatorade is marketing as a natural alternative to their regular sports drinks.  Both drinks are part of Gatorade’s Perform line of drinks.  This means they’re designed to be drunk during a workout or competition.  (Pre-competition/workout and post-competition/workout drinks are also available.)  G Natural is a full-calorie drink with 50 calories per serving while G2 Natural is a low-calorie drink with 2o calories per serving.  The G Natural I got was orange flavored.  G2 Natural was berry flavored.

I drank the G Natural on a tough, quick bike ride up Lookout Mountain in Golden, CO.  It was warm and the road was steep.  A sports drink was definitely in order.  I drank the G2 Natural after a five mile run.  I found it refreshing and adequate to the task.

Flavor is probably the most important factor as to whether or not someone likes a sports drink.  (Research has shown people will drink more if a drink is flavored as opposed to an unflavored drink like water.)  My personal preference is for a light-flavored drink but this is a rare find among sports drinks.  I found the G Natural flavor to be a bit strong, but it was nothing severe.  I’d be perfectly happy to find this drink at rest stops during a bike tour or a running event.

Overall, I think this new Gatorade product is just fine and if you’re a fan of Gatorade then you’ll probably like these drinks.  What has me thinking though is to what degree is this new product actually “natural?”  To me, calling something natural implies that it is a minimally processed product.  In my mind, natural foods should contain no engineered chemicals or food additives that I can’t pronounce or produce in my kitchen.  So what’s in Gatorade Natural?  (Specifically, we’ll look at what’s in the orange flavored drink.)

First is water.  Nothing remarkable there.  Second is sucrose.  What is that?  A sugar naturally found in plants but it can also be manufactured in a factory or lab.  I don’t know where Gatorade gets its sucrose.  Second is dextrose, AKA glucose.  Glucose occurs naturally but commercial glucose is derived from plants, most commonly from corn–but this isn’t corn syrup.

Erythritol is next.  (Ever cook up a batch of erythritol?)  This is a sugar alcohol.  It’s sweet but has almost no calories, therefore it’s often used as a sweetener in nutritional supplements and soft drinks like Gatorade.  It’s derived via fermentation of glucose.  This sugar alcohol tends to be easier on the digestive tract than other sugar alcohols like maltitol, sorbitol and xylitol.  Erythritol also doesn’t affect blood-sugar levels thus making it fairly safe for diabetics.  In my view, this is not a natural substance.  That said, it sounds like good stuff to me.  From the way it’s described, erythritol is a fairly benign sweetener and I have no problem using it on a consistent basis.

Next is citric acid.  That’s in a lot of things.  It’s used as a food flavoring and preservative.  It’s also found naturally, often in citrus fruits.  (Guess what else.  If you buy a large enough quantity of it, the authorities may suspect you of terrorist activity because of citric acid’s role in the production of HMTD, a very powerful explosive.)

The always popular natural flavor is next on the list.  The Code of Federal Regulations defines as natural flavoring as such:

“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in §§182.10, 182.20, 182.40, and 182.50 and part 184 of this chapter, and the substances listed in §172.510 of this chapter.”

So is natural flavor natural?  You be the judge.

Sea salt follows natural flavor on the ingredient list.  I’d call this some fairly natural stuff.  It comes by way of evaporating sea water thus leaving sea salt.

Sodium citrate is next on the list.  (One of three types of sodium citrate, trisodium citrate is the only food additive.)  This is a tart flavoring and preservative used in various drinks as well as an anticoagulant in order to help preserve blood in blood banks..  It’s a relative of citric acid.  How is it produced?  If you’ve got a chemistry background, it shouldn’t be too tough.  Can you find it in what most of us would call “nature?”  Unlikely.

Finally we’ve got beta carotene (for color).  (Can’t have a natural drink without color right?)  Well, it’s fairly natural stuff.  It’s what gives carrots and other orange veggies and fruits their orange color.  (Wouldn’t it be ironic if the beta carotene in orange flavored Gatorade Natural came from carrots instead of oranges?)  Beta carotene is quite possibly very healthy for you so long as it’s consumed in it’s natural state; that is as a whole food along with the thousands of other compounds found in carrots, oranges, pumpkins, sweet potato, orange peppers, etc.  In contrast, if you’re a smoker and you consume enough beta carotene in isolation, your chances of lung cancer go up.

What’s my point here?  The term “natural” can be applied to almost any food.  There are no specific regulations concerning its use.  We’re starting to learn that highly processed foods are unhealthy for us.  Organic foods are becoming more popular and many of us recognize the health benefits of eating non-processed or minimally processed foods (i.e. stuff that’s simply pulled out of the ground or yanked off a tree branch.)  Thus there is profit to be made by way of foods we might generally consider natural.  Is Gatorade Natural actually natural?  It depends on your definition.  Almost anything on earth or in the universe might be considered natural.  (Supernatural probably isn’t the correct term for  Gatorade Natural either.)  Does it contain some naturally found substances?  Yes.  Does it also contain some highly processed substances?  Also yes.

Am I calling Gatorade Natural a bad or unhealthy product?  No.  I truly have no idea of the overall health effects of Gatorade Natural.  I personally have no fear of consuming the product.  It may well be the ideal thirst quenching fuel for many athletes.  At the same time, it’s not quite what I consider to be a natural product.