Proper hydration before exercise is crucial for the human body. During a workout, you sweat and lose water through your sweat glands on your skin. And when you exercise, the temperature of your body increases and this causes more fluid loss than normal. Therefore, it is very essential to drink fluid before starting any type of exercise.
Staying properly hydrated is perhaps the most important thing you can do when you’re exercising. Not drinking enough water before, during, and after exercise is one of the biggest reasons people experience fatigue and don’t perform their best. Being in even a mildly dehydrated state can make a workout feel harder than it is. Water is a suitable hydration beverage for workouts of an hour or less, but if you’re prone to muscle cramps, it’s better to reach for an electrolyte-rich beverage. Here’s why.
Hydration, Electrolytes, and Muscle Cramps
The study, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, shows that drinking a beverage that contains electrolytes, including potassium, sodium, and chloride, as opposed to water may lower your risk of developing painful muscle cramps. These cramps often involve one of the calf muscles and can be painful enough to force you to stop your workout and grab the tight muscle. The soreness may linger even after the cramp has subsided.
What a Study Showed
In a study, researchers asked ten healthy men to run downhill on a treadmill in a hot room for 40 to 60 minutes. Downhill running is a type of eccentric exercise and is more likely to cause muscle cramps. During the run, the men sweated enough to lose 1.5 to 2% of their body weight. In one test, the guys drank plain water while in another they drank water enriched with electrolytes.
After their runs, researchers stimulated their calf muscles electrically to cause their calf muscles to cramp. The results? When the men drank water, it took a lower frequency of current to cause muscle cramping, but when they drank an electrolyte-rich beverage, they needed to stimulate their legs with a higher frequency current to get the muscle to cramp.
Their conclusion? Drinking the electrolyte-rich beverage reduced susceptibility to muscle cramps, as the muscles need more of a stimulus to cramp up. In contrast, drinking water increased the tendency to cramp. It’s a small study, but the results make sense. Some research suggests that fluctuations in electrolytes may contribute to exercise-related muscle cramps. They’re the bane of runners and cyclists who spend long hours enjoying their sport, often in warm temperatures.
Some scientists believe it’s dehydration that triggers muscle cramps. but this study suggests that loss of electrolytes is the more likely trigger. So, drinking plain water may not be the best choice if you’re prone to muscle cramps.
What Are Your Options for Hydration?
Since you’re less likely to get a muscle cramp if you drink a beverage that contains electrolytes, water isn’t your best choice if you’ll be sweating a lot and losing electrolytes. You could opt for one of the many sports drinks out there, but many contain artificial colorings or artificial sweeteners. On the plus side, sports drinks are manufactured with an optimal concentration of electrolytes, which will help replenish the electrolytes you lose through sweat.
A more natural option is coconut water. It may seem strange that this exotic drink, used as an alternative to water for people in tropical climates, is making its way into the world of athletics, but it’s become a popular alternative to sports drinks. You can buy coconut water with or without added sugar and take advantage of its natural electrolytes.
What electrolyte benefits does it offer? Coconut water has more potassium than a banana, 16% of the RDA in a 250ml (just over a cup) serving whereas a medium banana supplies only about 12% of the RDA for potassium. A serving of coconut water has five to six times the quantity of potassium a sports drink does. However, sports drinks typically contain more sodium than is in coconut water. You can get around this by adding a pinch of salt to your coconut water.
Is it a good alternative? One study, published by the American Chemical Society, found that coconut water is an effective sports beverage for a light to moderate workout. However, they recommend a commercial sports drinks to athletes engaging in strenuous exercise.
The reason? Coconut water is lower in sodium relative to a sports drink and maintaining a healthy sodium balance is important for health and performance. Yet you can always add a pinch of table salt to boost the sodium content of coconut water. You lose more sodium than potassium when you sweat.
Coconut water also contains natural antioxidants that you won’t get by sipping a sports drink. A study found that the antioxidants in coconut water subdued oxidative stress in rats compared to those who got plain water. Another study found that diabetic rats who got coconut water experienced a drop in blood glucose and also experienced reduced oxidative stress. Like fruits and vegetables, coconut water is a source of antioxidants.
The Bottom Line
If you get more than your share of painful muscle cramps when you work out, switch that water bottle for an electrolyte-rich beverage. If you don’t want to buy a sports drink, add a pinch of salt to natural coconut water and drink it before, during, and after your workouts. Most importantly, stay hydrated. Your body needs adequate water to perform and even mild dehydration can affect your workouts.
- Wing Yin Lau, Haruyasu Kato, Kazunori Nosaka. Effect of oral rehydration solution versus spring water intake during exercise in the heat on muscle cramp susceptibility of young men. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2021; 18 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12970-021-00414-8.
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