Cramping is an inevitable part of an athlete's journey, a challenge that most of us face sooner or later. The burning question is: why does it happen, and how can we steer clear of it?

Last weekend, I raced the UCI Gravel World Championships, held amidst the captivating Veneto region in Northern Italy, stretching from Lago Le Bandie to Pieve di Soligo. The course spanned 169 kilometers and featured an elevation gain of 1890 meters. This terrain had it all, at least during the 142 kilometres that I raced.

Imagine tight single track sections, rugged rock beds, undulating terrain, punishing 15% climbs, and more – this course was a true test of mettle and fully deserving of the coveted rainbow stripes.

The initial two hours of the race were a whirlwind, with an average speed of around 38 kilometres per hour. Consider the exertion required over such diverse terrain, and add to that the presence of 200 other professional racers – it was nothing short of organised chaos.

Unlike the other events I participated in this year, I was fortunate to have a dedicated support team by my side, providing mechanical assistance and ensuring I had bottle handouts at the feed stations. However, where I messed up and encountered severe cramping was in my failure to maintain proper hydration in the early stages of the race – a rookie mistake that should never have occurred.

Yet, this experience serves as a valuable lesson on the critical role of electrolytes in preventing cramping.

Electrolytes play a crucial role in preventing cramping, particularly in athletes and individuals engaging in prolonged physical activity. Cramps are involuntary muscle contractions that can be quite painful and are often associated with dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance.

Here's a thorough rundown of why electrolytes are important in preventing cramps:

  • Muscle Function: Electrolytes are essential for proper muscle function. They help transmit electrical signals between nerve cells and muscles, allowing for muscle contractions and relaxation. The most important electrolytes for muscle function are sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. When these electrolytes are imbalanced, it can lead to muscle cramping.
  • Sodium: Sodium is critical for muscle contractions and nerve impulse transmission. During exercise, especially in hot conditions, you lose sodium through sweat. When sodium levels drop too low it can lead to muscle cramps.
  • Potassium: Potassium is essential for maintaining proper muscle function. A deficiency in potassium can result in muscle weakness and cramping. Athletes often require more potassium during exercise to replace what's lost through sweat.
  • Dehydration: Electrolytes are closely linked to hydration. Dehydration, which occurs when you lose more fluids (water) than you take in, can lead to an imbalance in electrolytes, particularly sodium and potassium. When your body is dehydrated, it struggles to maintain the proper balance of electrolytes, making you more susceptible to muscle cramps.
  • Imbalance: An electrolyte imbalance, whether it's too much or too little of a specific electrolyte, can disrupt the normal functioning of muscle cells. For example, an excess of calcium inside muscle cells can lead to sustained contractions, causing cramps.
  • Heat and Humidity: When exercising in hot and humid conditions, you tend to sweat more, leading to a higher loss of electrolytes. This heavy sweating can further increase the risk of cramping.

My typical race-day routine involves starting with electrolytes and gels in the initial part of the race to maintain my energy levels. As the race progresses, I alternate between a carbohydrate mix and electrolytes. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse in this race when I neglected to stay properly hydrated during the intense first leg. I ended up losing more fluids than I could replace.

It's a common mistake to get caught up in the excitement of the race and overlook your hydration needs. From my experiences this year, I'd like to share some essential tips. Make sure to prioritise hydration by setting reminders on your bike computer or watch and taking notes on your stem.

I hope you can take away some valuable insights from this article, just as I have learned a crucial lesson. Even after years of racing professionally, I'm constantly working on perfecting my nutrition strategy.