If You Can’t Stand the Heat . . .

For the past several days, the outside temperature has moved into triple digits here in Atlanta, so I figured I’d write a little about how to help our junior players stay healthy in the extreme heat.

What is heat-induced cramping?  According to Dr. Scott Riewald, USTA’s Administrator of Sport Science, heat cramps come from dehydration and electrolyte loss that result from sweating.  There are other factors (e.g. anxiety, psychological stresses) that can contribute to heat cramps as well.  The end result is there is a change in the way the nerves communicate with the muscles – the nerves send inappropriate electrical signals to the muscles that cause them to contract or spasm.  The cramps often begin as subtle “twitches” in one or more voluntary muscles and, unless treated quickly, can rapidly progress to widespread debilitating muscle spasms that leave the afflicted player on the court writhing in pain.  If you’ve never experienced this type of cramping yourself or never seen your child go through it, let me just say it’s frightening.  It can cause even the toughest player to scream out in agony.  And, just when one muscle cramp subsides, another can burst onto the scene in a completely different area of the body.

It goes without saying that being fit and well-hydrated are the first steps in preventing heat exhaustion and heat-induced cramping.  But, oftentimes, drinking plain water isn’t sufficient.  According to several scientific articles I’ve read, the real culprit behind cramping is sodium loss, and the only way to prevent it is to take in more sodium than you sweat out.

One case study from March 1996 looked at a 17-year-old, nationally ranked, male tennis player who had been suffering from heat cramps during match play. His medical history and previous physical exams were normal, and his blood work showed normal levels of all minerals and nutrients.  On-court evaluation and an analysis of a 3-day food journal showed that his sweat rate was extensive and that his potential daily on-court sweat sodium losses could easily overtake his average daily intake of sodium. The combined effects of excessive and repeated fluid and sodium losses predisposed him to heat cramps during his matches.  The good news is that he was ultimately able to eliminate heat cramps during competition and training by increasing his daily dietary intake of sodium.

Another study from 2003 shows that “although a variety of other mineral deficiencies and physiological conditions are purported to cause muscle cramps, evidence suggests that, when a tennis player cramps in warm to hot weather, extensive and repeated sweating during the current and previous matches and a consequent sodium deficit are usually the primary contributing factors.”

Contrary to popular belief (even by the pros), bananas are NOT the cure for cramping.  Yes, bananas are high in potassium, but they are not high in sodium which is the mineral responsible for keeping heat cramps at bay.  Therefore, sports nutritionists agree that taking a salty snack – such as pretzels – on court to eat IN MODERATION during changeovers is a great preventive tactic.

Also, drinking a sports beverage high in sodium and other electrolytes – such as Gatorade, PowerAde, or Pedialyte – can help replenish sodium as it’s sweated out of the body.  The key is to drink enough fluids (minimum 2 ounces every 15 minutes during practices and/or at changeovers) to prevent excessive salt and fluid loss.  The best way to gauge fluid intake and loss is to weigh yourself immediately before stepping foot on the court then again immediately after play – any change in weight will be due to fluid loss and should be replenished immediately at the rate of 16 ounces of fluids for each pound lost.

According to the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, the prevention and the cure for heat cramps is salt plus fluids.  Please note that Pedialyte contains almost twice the amount of sodium as Gatorade which contains almost twice the amount of sodium as PowerAde, so to increase the sodium content of either Gatorade or PowerAde, just add 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of regular table salt per 8 ounces to ensure adequate sodium intake.

If your child has taken the proper precautions and still cramps either during or after a match, move him to a cooler environment and get him to drink at least 8 ounces of a high-sodium sports beverage right away.  Usually heat-related cramps go away on their own once the athlete has cooled down and taken in enough fluids and salt.  But, if the cramps become worse or if your child begins vomiting or develops dizziness and shortness of breath, get him immediate medical treatment.

If you or your child have ever experience cramping, please share your experience and the steps you’ve taken to prevent a recurrence in the Comments box below.