Over the years I've attended hundreds of high school games and one thing that has always stood out to me is how many athletes (especially football players who were playing both ways) were having to leave the game due to muscle cramps. Looking for some tips I could pass on to the athletes I train, I consulted with Angie Asche MS, RD, LMNT, who has helped athletes like Riley Pint (4th overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft) along with multiple other professional athletes.
What foods and fluids you consume prior to game time is crucial in preventing cramps. You already know the importance of hydration and electrolytes. Here are five fueling tips from Asche to prevent cramping on game day.
1. Know Your Sweat Rate
Common sweat rates range anywhere from 1-4 pounds per hour. Due to such a wide variation, I recommend calculating your own sweat rate. Knowing this number will help you identify exactly how much water you should drink every 15, 30 or 60 minutes during your practice/game. So how do you find this out? Weigh yourself immediately before a workout and immediately after – while also keeping track of how many ounces of water you drink. Plug these numbers into a calculator such as this one from GSSI. For each pound lost in sweat, 16 oz. (or 2 cups) of water should be consumed immediately after practice.
2. Use The Urine Color Hydration Chart
One of the easiest visuals to use to tell if you are dehydrated. Urine color should remain a pale yellow (like lemonade) even after exercising. If it's a little on the darker side, you probably aren't drinking enough fluids. You can use the urine color chart which uses numbers (1-8) and try to stick between 1-3. Also, know that several supplements, including multivitamins, could alter the color of your urine to be darker or bright yellow.
3. Start Hydrating In Advance
Proper hydration should begin several hours leading up to your practice/game. Start drinking at least 17-20 ounces of water 2-3 hours before, and 7-10 ounces of water about 10-20 minutes before to ensure you're well-hydrated. In order to maintain hydration status during your practice or game, aim to drink up to 8 ounces every 15 minutes during exercise. Remember that hotter temperatures increases sweat rate, which will increase fluid needs.
4. How to Replenish Electrolytes
There is such a thing as "too much of a good thing" – when you're only drinking water and never taking into consideration the electrolytes that are also lost in your sweat. Low levels of electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, can increase your risk of cramping. Incorporate sodium and potassium-rich foods in your meals and snacks leading up to game time, and continue replacing them during your practice or game. Some examples of potassium-rich foods include potatoes, bananas, coconut water, apricots and yogurt, and one of the easiest ways to replace sodium includes salt, salt tabs, pickle juice or sports drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade, and Pedialyte. You could also make your own sports drink at home by combining coconut water, orange juice, and salt.
5. Pre-Game Meal and Carbohydrates
Proper hydration and electrolytes are already pretty well known, but one step athletes don't always think about is consuming proper carbohydrates pre-game. Carbohydrates are the No. 1 source of fuel, and adequate intakes could prolong muscle fatigue. Because muscle fatigue can increase the risk of cramping, it's important to consume adequate carbohydrates in your pre-game meal 1-4 hours prior, pre-game snack 30 minutes prior, and continuing to consume 30 grams every hour for workouts lasting longer than 60 minutes.
Potatoes are a great food to include in your pre-game meal, as they are high in both carbohydrates and electrolytes. A good pre-game snack could be a banana and granola bar, and then probably the easiest source of carbs to consume during exercise are sports drinks.
Sports drinks come in handy because they incorporate all three of these components: fluids, electrolytes, and carbohydrates.
Other factors to consider outside of nutrition that could help reduce your risk of muscle cramps include being acclimated to your training environment, proper progression in training, and proper warm-up/stretch pre-game.