New Thinking on Muscle Cramps

Rafa Nadal with muscle cramp

An article published this month in the active lifestyle magazine, Outside outlined the latest thinking on muscle cramps by a Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist, Rod MacKinnon and a Harvard neurobiologist, Bruce Bean. Below are the key points from the feature…

‘From tennis star Rafael Nadal (2011 U.S. Open) to marathoner Dathan Ritzenhein (2012 Olympic trials), athletes the world over have been plagued by painful muscle spasms that show up in the crucial late stages of fierce competition. Inevitably, these cramps are blamed on heat and dehydration. Research tells us that neither have anything to do with it.’

‘For much of the 20th century, physiologists believed that athletes cramped because they became dehydrated or lost electrolytes through sweating. But that hypothesis fell out of favour in the late 1990s, when a South African doctor named Martin Schwellnus theorized that distorted neural signaling between an athlete’s muscles and the spine was the true culprit. When you’re fatigued, he proposed, the motor reflex responsible for sending a “relax” signal to the spine becomes tired. When this happens, the “contract” signal keeps firing, and muscles become stuck. With no definitive research on how to combat the faulty signal, athletes were left with two options: don’t push too hard, or stop to stretch when cramps happen.’

Female athlete with muscle cramping

‘As they pored over the existing research, Bean and MacKinnon zeroed in on one thing: even though cramps didn’t have any relation to electrolyte balances, some studies showed that drinking pickle juice or eating mustard helped prevent them. The pair knew that pickle juice and mustard contain molecules called ion-channel activators, which trigger nerves in the digestive system. These activators are why spicy foods feel hot: they don’t burn you, but they trigger the same nerve response that occurs when you come into contact with heat. Bean and MacKinnon wondered whether the activators in pickle juice and mustard were simultaneously calming nerves in other parts of the body that are responsible for muscle contraction. “We thought, If this is correct, there are much more potent activators,” MacKinnon says.’

‘The pair had also come across research showing how to induce cramps in the lab by electrically stimulating muscles. They began experimenting with a home-brewed drink packed with several kinds of ion activators, taking sips and trying to zap their feet into cramps. The early results were so encouraging that they filed a patent for their [drink supplement.]’

‘MacKinnon says that they’ve tested the supplement in randomized, controlled studies and found that it reliably raised the threshold at which athletes cramp.’

footballer with muscle cramp

‘Jeffrey Edwards, an exercise physiologist at Central Michigan University who studies cramps is intrigued by [Bean and MacKinnon’s findings.] “We have all kinds of evidence that one set of receptors over here can affect nerve functions somewhere else,” he says.’

‘MacKinnon says that [the supplement] helps prevent cramps for approximately five hours. Just don’t expect it to taste like your favourite energy gel. “It’s a mix of hot and pungent,” MacKinnon says. “That’s what makes it work.”’

‘MacKinnon and Bean are also pursuing FDA approval for a drug that would treat cramps associated with multiple sclerosis and ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease].’

The article can be read in full here.



Pilates Inspiration – Nicolas Deveaux’s High-Diving Giraffes and Trampolining Elephants

Nicolas Deveaux 5 metres 80 giraffes

If anyone doubts the flexibility and effortless grace of elephants and giraffes, take a look at these two beautiful short films by French writer/director/animator, Nicolas Deveaux…

7 Tonnes 3


5 Metres 80



Time for a Holiday!

Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday on a scooter

Melissa is going on a short holiday, which means the following Pilates classes at The Wellbeing Studio in Clevedon will not take place:

  • Tuesday 20th October at 18.15
  • Tuesday 20th October at 19.15
  • Thursday 21st October at 12.30
  • Thursday 21st October at 18.00
  • Saturday 24th October at 10.00

Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.  The usual Monday lunchtime class at 12.30 will take place on 19th October though so the week is not a complete wipe-out!  Do come along to that class if you happen to be free.

Normal service will be resumed from Monday 26th October so hope to see you at one of the usual six Pilates classes on the weekly timetable.