What causes cramping… and how to avoid it?

We’ve all felt it at some point… that intensely painful and involuntary muscle contraction we know only too well as cramp.  Some people rarely get cramps… whereas others will have a crippling cramp just by pointing a toe in the water and seem to be more prone to them on a regular basis. 

It’s natural to want a ‘quick fix’ for cramps, and often athletes look at electrolytes and particularly magnesium as the answer.  But science tells us that cramping is more complex than that, and there are multiple factors at play.  

So, what are the causes of the dreaded cramp, and how can we avoid it?

Let’s start by looking at the top risk factors for cramp:

1. Muscle Fatigue

Overload from overuse (ie ‘going out to hard’) or insufficient conditioning (ie not training enough for race pace or intensity) can prompt localised cramping in these overworked muscle fibres.

2. Electrolytes and Hydration

Electrolytes control the shift of fluid in and out of cells, and extensive sweating and electrolyte loss (particularly sodium loss) can result in more widespread muscle cramping. This electrolyte imbalance, particularly when combined with dehydration can be responsible for cramping even when there is minimal muscle overload and fatigue.

3. Experience

Novice athletes are more likely to cramp than experienced exercisers as their muscles are less conditioned.

4. Weather Conditions

Hot conditions, and not being conditioned to the heat can increase the frequency of cramps, as can excessively cold conditions.

5. Carbohydrate Depletion

Carbohydrates are the muscles’ primary energy source during exercise.  Muscles require energy to both contract AND relax… and so if we continue to exercise without adequate fuel our muscle relaxation is impaired and cramp occurs.

So, knowing that cramping is a multifactorial problem, then prevention also requires an multifactorial approach:  How can you best avoid cramp?

1. Start Easy

As the seasons change, ease yourself into the hot summer workouts.

2. Fluids & Hydration

Carefully plan your fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrates. Studies have shown that avoiding dehydration will delay and, in some cases, prevent cramps.  The important point here is that dehydration is not the only cause and therefore the only prevention… but consuming adequate fluids during exercise will still improve performance.

3. Adequate Training

Basically, don’t go out too hard on race day! Ensure you are adequately conditioned for the task at hand

4. Maintain Adequate Carbohydrate Reserves

As your muscles fatigue and carbohydrate reserves drop, your muscles will be more prone to cramping. Start your high intensity sessions or longer sessions with adequate carbs on board. This can be as simple has having a banana prior to training and ensuring you are rehydrated from your previous session. For a training session longer than an hour, consume carbs and electrolytes during training, such as Bindi Natural Sports Hydration.

5. Maintain Electrolyte Levels

Fluid replacement requires not only water but the electrolytes essential for vital functions in your body. We’ve formulated Bindi Natural Sports Hydration to include sodium, magnesium and potassium – all necessary for conducting nerve impulses and contracting muscles. For a Sugar-Free and low carb option, use Bindilyte to replenish electrolytes.

6. Refuel and Recover After TraininG

The aim of recovery is to reduce muscle inflammation and to kick-start lean muscle development. Consume both protein and carbohydrates in the hour after training so that muscles will be less fatigued and better conditioned going into the next training session.

7. Physical Treatments and Preventions

Your physiotherapist or GP can also help if cramping is an ongoing issue and they may recommend therapies such as massage, stretching and icing – make sure you get them involved if you are having reoccurring cramps.

We know avoiding these cramps takes some planning, but follow these three simple steps to avoid cramps:

1. Acclimatise yourself and train and race appropriately.

2. Ensure adequate fluids, carbohydrates and electrolytes

3. Recover well both nutritionally and physically

Here’s to happy training and cramp-free racing!


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