Since about the time I turned 50 I've suffered from leg cramps. The standard solution is calcium, potassium and magnesium. I tried supplements of all three and found it helped. I could still cramp up on occasion, but it wasn't a constant problem.
Perhaps a little technical background would help here. Contraction of muscles begins with a neural impulse, but that is turned into an action by the opening and closing of ion channels that sit in the membranes of all cells. To contract a muscle Calcium signals the Sodium channel and the movement of Sodium into the cell brings on a muscle contraction. When the neural signal wants the muscle to relax, Magnesium encourages Potassium to flood into the cell, and the muscle cell relaxes. This same process applies to the triggering of neurons, it's all done with electrolytes. So if your body runs short on any of these minerals, you can get into trouble. Of course, Sodium gets sweated away quicker than the other minerals, so it's the one people worry about the most. But they're all important. Imagine not having enough Magnesium and Potassium. The muscle might contract and never let go. If the muscle in question is your heart, you'd be history.
Recently I heard about Acid Zapper, a product which claims to solve the problem for athletes. It contains calcium, potassium and magnesium. Yawn. No, no, this is a specific magical blend of specific forms of these three minerals that will solve the problem. Except it's essentially Rolaids. So I was skeptical. The thing is, there are people who swear by it. I got curious. I hesitated for a little bit, because, my goodness have they jacked up the price on this stuff. Their profit margins must be huge. But I was pretty regularly getting cramps in my calves when swimming and I really wanted to find a solution. I knew I could just buy the specific ingredients separately rather than getting Acid Zapper, but I wanted it to be a fair test. So I blew $63.20 for a two month supply. And damned if I didn't notice a difference. I didn't become impervious to cramping, but it was better. So here's Acid Zapper's secret ingredients.
Calcium Carbonate: 225 mg
Potassium Hydroxide: 36 mg
Magnesium Hydroxide: 1 mg
I was curious if I could get the cost down. So I studied what was out there and came up with the following supplements:
Schiff Super Calcium-Magnesium with calcium carbonate (1200 mg), magnesium oxide (400 mg) and vitamin D (800 IU)
Twinlab CellMins Potassium & Magnesium with magnesium aspartate hydrochloride (300 mg) and potassium aspartate hydrochloride (225 mg)
I've been taking one of each supplement three times a day with meals. (The price is about half of what I paid for Acid Zapper. It's also an easier regimen because Acid Zapper should supposedly be taken on an empty stomach and that gets complicated.) At first it felt like I had totally put the cramping issue behind me. But lately I've had a couple of moments where it seemed to be coming back. I suspect that the specific forms of calcium, potassium and magnesium really do matter. And it's clear to me that they help. I'm just not certain I've yet to figure out what's optimal for me.
You'll notice that none of the above deals with Sodium. In theory, Sodium is what allows the muscle to contract, so a lack of Sodium shouldn't be the cause of cramping. And I'd been doing so much better lately that I thought I'd left the issue behind me. Boy was I wrong. I recently did a open-water swim event. By the time I got to 1.2 miles I was finished. The legs were totally locked up and in spasm. But since my cramping issue really has been so much better of late, I had to consider the possibility that this was the same cramping that all athletes risk from sweating Sodium. The technical name for low sodium is hyponatremia, and a lot of sports nutritionists think this is the primary cause of cramping. If you run low on any of the basic electrolytes, including Sodium, you risk troubles. So the next time out I'm taking a solution which includes all four minerals before I get in the water. And I'll continue to take it as I do the bike. We shall see. (In case you're curious, I'm using Accelerade which also includes easy to process sugars and a little protein. It's by the same company that puts out Endurox, which I have serious doubts about. But the Accelerade seems to me to be a good mix of ingredients. An alternative solution without the sugars and protein is something called E-Lyte.)
There's some disagreement on this (a polite way of saying that the scientific research does not support it), but some believe letting yourself get dehydrated can lead to cramping. Regardless of whether there's a connection, you want to avoid getting dehydrated for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, if all you do is drink tons of water on a hot day, you run the risk of progressive hyponatremia again, this time because your blood is thinned out by too much water and not enough of everything else. Make sure what you're drinking at a bare minimum also has Sodium and Potassium. Keep in mind that moderate dehydration does not seem to have much affect on athletic performance.
Conditioning and Flexibility
All of the above is anecdotal. It's clear to me that the electrolytes I'm taking help me avoid everyday cramping. However, when studying Ironman triathletes in South Africa, scientists were unable to confirm that electrolytes had anything to do with race cramping. Here's what may end up being the bottom line: Muscles taxed beyond their training are prone to cramping. Strong, flexible, well-conditioned muscles are less likely to cramp. In the long run, I think this is the real solution. I've had my performance in a swim sunk by cramping and it's real tempting to blame it all on electrolytes. But it may very well be that I just wasn't trained adequately for the mileage I was swimming.
Have you ever felt a pain in your abdomen as you're running? That's due to your core muscles not being strong enough, forcing your diaphram to work overtime handling the loading force created with every step you take. Strengthen your core muscles with planks and such and the diaphram is then free to just focus on breathing in and out. Problem solved.