It was a low-key indoor track meet last December—runners of all ages gathered at Boston University for a jump-start on the season. I was entered in the 200-meter dash, a one-lap sprint. The fastest entrants went first, so I was in the sixth or seventh section.
An Unexpected Turn
I was easily the oldest in my race, probably more than twice as old as any of the rest. But I was in good shape. I felt great when the gun went off, and barreled through the first turn and onto the backstretch. I was running smooth as we hit the second turn, and as we moved onto the homestretch it seemed likely that I was going to win.
And then the cramp hit.
My left calf seized up. Like a rock. I hobbled a few steps, regained my footing, and managed to finish. Only one runner passed me.
But I couldn’t run at all for the next several days.
Muscle cramps are bewildering. I’d been training for months and doing plenty of stretching and self-massage. I eat well and take a multivitamin. I’d run fast in countless training sessions prior to the race with no setbacks, and I’d warmed up sufficiently in the hour before. But an unexpected cramp cost me what would have been my fastest race in years.
What Went Wrong?
David Pascal, DC, a chiropractor and nutrition expert who advises Olympians and other athletes, attributes muscle cramps to a deficiency of important nutrients. “Many of the elite athletes I work with first come to me with mineral and electrolyte imbalances.” says Dr. Pascal, whose clients won 20 medals at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. “They tend to have a history of muscle cramps and pulled muscles. When I put them on a supplement program of magnesium and a multivitamin with trace minerals, the gramps go away and muscle pulls decrease.”
The venerable Prescription for Nutritional Healing by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, notes that “if a muscle contracts with great intensity without stretching out again, you feel the pain of a muscle cramp.” This is often caused by an imbalance in the body’s levels of electrolytes—minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Magnesium is often paired with calcium in supplements. Calcium causes muscles to contract, and magnesium helps them relax. Magnesium also works to maintain a balance of sodium and potassium, along with about 350 other bodily processes.
“If you are an athlete who takes your sport seriously . . . I believe you must supplement your diet with magnesium, a liquid multivitamin, trace minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, and a dash of sodium and potassium,” says Dr. Pascal. He adds that supplements must be bioavailable—that is, in a form the body can easily absorb and use.