Recently I was climbing one of the volcanoes in Washington State. If you haven’t been to Washington, we have 5 volcanoes that are extremely visible nearly anywhere in the state. Which means that these mountains are much taller than the other mountains surrounding them.
We were within the last 1500 vertical feet of the summit, when people around us started to drop to the snow.
It wasn’t because of an unpredicted eruption, or even weather. It was because of muscle cramps.
Sarah and I are usually doing some sort of outdoor activity at least 2 days per week, if not more. We have seen a lot, and have been in a lot of weird situations. But this was the first time we saw so many people suffering from muscle cramps while hiking.
What Causes Muscle Cramps
That day on the mountain, the weather had warmed up significantly compared to our normal weather. In fact, not only was it completely sunny out, there wasn’t any wind to help cool you down.
Typically these types of climbs include a decent amount of walking to get to the start of the climb, and then once you hit the mountain, it is pretty steep.
So what causes muscle cramps? Usually there are a couple of factors at play that cause the muscles to cramp:
- An imbalance of electrolytes
- Over-exertion or fatigue
The conditions of any climb or hike constantly changes, so all these factors need to be monitored carefully.
The nice weather made for a perfect storm that influenced all these factors negatively:
- With the sun out, and reflecting off the snow, it heats up the body more than normal. This causes an increase in sweating, which depletes electrolytes and causes dehydration.
- The more dehydrated you become, the less muscle activation you get. Therefore you have to physically work harder for every single step.
- Since your muscles are having to work harder, your body is requiring more minerals to be used for fluid exchange in and out of the cells. This then depletes electrolytes even more!
As you can see, in this scenario it was easy to see why so many people were having muscle cramps.
So what can you do to reduce the chance of cramps, or to stop a muscle cramp while it is happening?
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps
1. Stay On Top of Your Electrolytes
Electrolytes are specific minerals that help to conduct nerve impulses, contracts/relaxes muscles, and can help with your hydration levels.
Every single person needs electrolytes for their body to function properly.
Luckily, most of us aren’t spending hours a day doing strenuous activity that completely depletes our electrolytes. However, just because you aren’t getting cramps on the way up a mountain doesn’t mean that your electrolyte levels are adequate.
The most common electrolytes are:
Calcium is the main mineral that causes contractions in the muscles. Since we have a huge storage area for calcium (aka your bones), it is easy for your body to overdue the calcium compared to the other electrolytes.
As you exercise, your body becomes more acidic. This helps to mobilize calcium to try to alkalize your body, and remove the acidity.
Magnesium is needed for the relaxation of muscles. When our magnesium stores are low, then it can be difficult for the muscles to relax. Magnesium and Calcium work together.
Sodium and Potassium are important for the water and fluids to move in and out of the cells, and for nerves to talk to the muscles. Both minerals are extremely important for muscle contraction and relaxation.
How to Get More Electrolytes While Hiking or Climbing
There are quite a few different ways to increase electrolytes in your body. While most people think of Gatorade as the drink of choice, I would rather avoid the chemical-rich fake crap and try to get something a little better for the body.
If you are cramping really bad, and have immediate access to salt tablets, take that. It will provide pretty immediate relief. In these situations, we like to use these salt tabs. Break open the capsules and place the contents directly on the tongue for instant relief.
If you aren’t cramping, then you can still use the same salt tabs mentioned above. I would take 1-2 capsules every hour while doing strenuous activity.
I would also add in salty foods like jerky, and eat nuts and some fruit to stay ahead of the electrolytes while you hike.
2. Make Sure to Hydrate
When in the heat, or exerting a lot of energy, we can forget how much water we are losing through sweat. The average person sweats out between 25-48oz of water per hour during exercise!
While we all know how important water is for the body, we often don’t even notice we are getting dehydrated until it is too late. If your mouth is drying up or you are constantly thirsty, you are already behind schedule for replenishing fluids.
Since the body is made up of 60-75% water, water is extremely important for all functions of the body. In the case of hiking, it helps in the production of energy, muscle function, and to lubricate our joints.
A 2% reduction in hydration can reduce muscle activation by up to 15%! That is a significant change in your ability to step up the mountain. Muscle cramps usually start to set in around 5% dehydration.
How to Increase Hydration While Hiking
There are many ways to increase water intake while hiking. But, the best way to avoid dehydration is to make sure to stay on top of drinking water. This can be done by:
- Utilizing a continuous water reservoir (aka Camelback-type setup). This allows you to have quick access to water the entire time you hike. You can use hydration bladders, or get hoses for nalgenes (like this one).
- Stopping every 500ft elevation gain or 1 hour of hiking for a quick sip. While this might not seem like much, it can definitely keep you away from the “cramping zone” of dehydration.
Here are some other ways to increase your hydration:
- Take electrolytes or add salt/potassium to your water
- Add some coconut water to your water bottle
- Eat some carbohydrates. Carbs hold about 4 times more water than protein, and can help to hydrate you.
Moral of the story, stay on top of your water and it will greatly improve your performance.
3. Get Creative With Your Surroundings and Make a “Foam Roller”
Have you ever used a foam roller, you know those cylinder-shaped pieces of foam that you lay on and discover your IT bands hurt extremely bad?
Well, the idea behind a foam roller is that it puts compression on adhesions (knots) in your muscles, which can help to alleviate the tightness. This works great as a warmup or recovery option for any type of exercise.
However, who really wants to carry a foam roller on their back when they hike?!
Since you probably answered “not me”, then it is time to get creative!
In most cases, you can create a makeshift foam roller or tennis ball that you can use on your cramp. This can be a rock, chunk of ice, a log, or whatever else you see.
If nothing seems to be relieving the cramp, then try to put your makeshift roller underneath the cramp, and put some pressure into it.
Yes, it will probably hurt like a MoFo. Go slowly and softly into the pain, trying to keep the pain manageable but not overpowering (too much and your body will guard against it).
Allow your body to slowly sink into it, and see if the muscles can relax around it. This could take a couple minutes to happen.
You may not get full relief, but you can get a significant reduction in the cramp. Combine this with steps 1 and 2, and you should start to feel better.
*Note: If you are at the point where you have to create a makeshift foam roller, it might be time to turn around.*
4. Eat the Right Foods That Provide Adequate Nutrition to the Muscles
For some reason, nutrition seems to be the one area of health that most people shove to the side and try to avoid at all costs. This is a problem because literally the entire body runs on the nutrients that we digest, and if we don’t get the right nutrients in, then some things won’t work right.
So if we did care about nutrients and feeding the body, what should we be eating? I’m glad you asked!
There are many different “diet camps” out there that ranges from the strict vegans to the hardcore keto’ers, and everything in between. So instead of focusing on “what diet is best”, let’s just focus on which types of foods support your muscles.
Protein is needed to build and repair muscles. However, most of this process happens when we are not exercising.
So protein needs are more important before and after your trip. Make sure to get adequate amounts of protein in your diet. Most people need between 0.6-1g of protein per pound of body weight (the more active you are, the more protein you need).
If you are open to animal meats, then you will naturally get most of your essential amino acids from the meat.
However, if you are vegetarian or vegan, make sure to eat a wide variety of high-protein plants (don’t just eat peas or beans). It takes more variety of protein sources from plants to make up for all the essential amino acids.
Foods Rich in Electrolytes
To stay ahead of the electrolyte game, make sure to eat foods that are high in electrolytes. Here are some foods rich in each of the 4 main electrolytes:
- Potassium- avocado, cooked spinach, sweet potato, wild-caught salmon, bananas (can see more here)
- Sodium- meats and seafood, celery, artichoke, eggs
- Calcium- sardines, kale, some dairy products, almonds, beans
- Magnesium- cooked spinach, dark chocolate, almonds, pumpkin seeds, black beans, yogurt
In a Standard American Diet, most people are doing just fine on the sodium and calcium side of things. So it would be beneficial to focus on potassium and magnesium rich foods.
Carbohydrates From Veggies and Fruits
Carbs are usually the main fuel source that most of us run on (except Keto’ers), which means it is very important for getting glucose into the muscles to keep the energy up.
But, carbs are also great for hydrating, which is also important for muscle function. For every 1g of carb in your body, you absorb 3-4g of water. So carbs can be very beneficial for hydrating on the trail.
(This is also important for the low-carb group to know as well since their water stores are usually much lower after switching to low carb).
Ideally it would be better for your body to get carbs in the form of fruits and veggies (which as you see above, also can be rich in electrolytes). And if you are really savvy, you might know your plants on the trail and can load up while hiking!
Fats, Especially the Omegas
Fats have a whole list of important function in the body, but we will keep it simple for muscle cramping.
Fats can be used as a fuel source for the muscles and body. Each person’s metabolic systems are different, so your capabilities to use fat as fuel will vary.
Another important part about fats is their ability to transport the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Vitamin D helps with calcium metabolism, which can make your muscles stronger. Vitamins A and E are antioxidants, so can remove the free radicals in your body that are created from exertion, which allows your muscles to perform better and for longer.
The other key piece about fats is the Omegas. The Omegas are important for how well the cell membrane works. With an increase in Omega 3s, the cell membrane becomes more fluid which makes it easier for water and blood to enter cells, as well as easier for energy (glucose or ketones) to get into the cell.
Omega 6s help with the repair process after your exercise. So they are important as well, just more important after your trip.
5. Improve Overall Endurance
It is no surprise that the more you train, the easier hiking and climbing will get. Training in different types of conditions can help out as well so you don’t cramp up.
Training can mean a lot of different things, even though most people just assume it means how often we workout or hit the gym.
If you are training for a hike that has a lot of elevation gain, you may do the stair stepper with a weighted pack at the gym. Or you could do training hikes where the elevation isn’t as much as what you are training for, but you can load up a pack with a bunch of water so you build up the endurance for the bigger climb.
If the hike requires a lot of distance, then the same rules can apply. You can train with hikes that aren’t quite as far, and build up to it. Or you could jog on a treadmill and stair at the tv in the gym.
These are all great ways to train your legs to be able to handle the stress that these bigger objectives require.
But then we have weather conditions to train for, which isn’t necessarily something people think about. That can range from whiteouts, heat waves, strong winds, and more.
While we can’t replicate all of these in a totally safe environment, you want to try to experience some instances of these so you are comfortable in any situation, and your body can adapt in any situation.
In the muscle cramping scenario that I talked about previously, it was a situation where the weather went from cold, rainy, and weather you would normally see at the end of winter, to temperatures that mimic the middle of summer.
So how would I train for that?
The first step for me is knowing that the conditions in the Spring in Washington are extremely variable. This state does a great job of teaching you that mother nature has some mood swings.
So I would train for the worst case scenarios that result in massive fatigue to the muscles and body, and would burn up the most nutrients.
This means to train for the extreme heat. If it is cold out, then you won’t be sweating nearly as much as in the heat, and as long as you are moving, you typically stay warm. The air is pretty dry in the cold, but you don’t lose as much fluids as you do in the heat.
This means that some of the training hikes or workouts should be tested with an increase in temperature. Easy way to do that is to throw on some extra layers, and keep them on throughout your workout.
You want to get to the point where you are sweating a ton, and wearing out your legs. This will require you to utilize electrolytes and fluids as best as possible, and practicing it will teach your body to become more efficient at it.
Just make sure to monitor yourself while you do these trainings. The last thing you want to do is pass out or injure yourself. Proceed with caution.
The more you can train for different scenarios, the better your body (and brain) will be at adapting to keep you functioning optimally.
To Wrap Everything Up
Even if you don’t get muscle cramps while hiking, all these steps can still benefit you.
Almost every single person can improve on their electrolytes while on the trails, especially since most of us don’t have access to the same foods that we normally would eat at home.
If you have ever been dehydrated, then you know how important staying on top of your water is. Plus it doesn’t need to be difficult to get water!
Ideally you want to be in the best adaptive shape for any situation you come across, so the more you train and stay on top of your fitness, the easier hiking will be.
And eat food that provides rich nutrients to your body!
All these steps will make your time on the trail more fun, and much more enjoyable.
Now get out there and have fun on your trips (and share in the comments where the last hike was that you went on).