Alan Couzens: Revisiting Electrolytes and Cramping, and How Heat Affects Fat Oxidation Rates

October 4, 2019



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On this show, we welcome back coach Alan Couzens to dive into two new studies that endurance athletes will want to hear about, especially those who are prone to cramping and/or those racing in hot conditions. Check out Alan’s blog or follow him on Twitter.

The studies discussed on this show include:

The effect of a physiological increase in temperature on mitochondrial fatty acid oxidation in rat myofibers.

Electrolyte beverage consumption alters electrically induced cramping threshold.


What we discuss:

  • Electrolyte beverage (EB) study:

    • Subjects, consisting of 7 males and 2 females in their 20s, had their tibial nerve activated to induce a toe cramp. These people reported regular cramps in calf as well as foot/toes, abs, triceps, or hamstring during activity or sleep.
    • Blinded study, each subject was tested twice; once with EB, once with placebo.
    • What they found:
      • EB can increase the electrical stimulus frequency required to elicit a cramp and decrease the pain experienced when a cramp occurred in euhydrated, cramp-prone individuals, which suggests that EB consumption independent of hydration can decrease cramp susceptibility in young people.
      • However, EB did not prevent cramps from occurring in any participants.
    • “There is still no well-controlled, randomized study that has determined if commercially available EB can decrease cramp susceptibility in euhydrated individuals. Thus, the purpose of the present study is to determine if EB consumption alters the frequency of nerve stimulation at which a cramp occurs (i.e. threshold frequency, TF) compared to a placebo beverage (PB) with similar fluid volume and flavor profile. We hypothesize that EB consumption will increase TF, indicating greater cramp resilience when compared to PB consumption.”
    • Some impractical aspects of the study that being that it took place in a well-controlled lab vs. out in the field, but that also allowed for much more specific measuring of key variables like hydration state.
    • Localization of cramps (e.g. overuse of muscle) vs. systemic causes of cramps.
  • Theories of why we cramp during exercise:
    • Pushing muscles harder and longer than what they’ve been trained to do (localized cramp).
    • E.g. cramping on the run coming off a very hard bike is more frequent.
    • Noakes and Maffetone theory say whole body stores are enough to deal with stressors of endurance exercise. But is a race like Kona different?
    • Maybe it’s just very individualized.
    • Hot Shot mention:
    • Muscle cramps are caused by hyperactive motor neurons and they tested the threshold in which a muscle will cramp and using this
    • When muscle is held in shortened position for long time and contracted the inhibitory neurons switch off, which can lead to increased excitability of neurons, thus cramping. We can in theory distract this excitability with a supplement like hot shot, pickle juice, spicy things, etc.
    • Pickle juice seems to be effective when it comes to reducing cramps.
  • In the study:
    • Increases the intensity that an athlete would have ot be performing at before cramping sets in.
    • No one avoided getting a cramp, everyone did cramp, it’s just that their threshold increased when using the EB.
    • What they drank:
      • Participants were given 0.5 L of their assigned beverage for consumption. Both beverages were similar volume (0.5 L), color and general flavor (lemonade), and mixed with the same brand of bottled water.
      • The EB was a commercially available beverage packet (Fuelocity Plus, United Citrus Corp, Norwood USA) with 120 kCals, 29 g of sugar, 840 mg of sodium, 320 mg of potassium and 5 mg of magnesium and 300 mg of l-alanine
      • The PB was a commercially available low-calorie beverage packet (Crystal Light, Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield USA) with 5 kCals, 0 g of sugar, 35 mg of sodium and 0 mg of potassium, magnesium and l-alanine.
    • Sweat rate and sweat sodium loss were not measured or utilized in this study.
    • This EB was heavy in sodium with 840 mg.
    • Using a drink like this in training and racing.
  • Real world application:
    • Don’t diminish the role of electrolytes especially if you’re an athlete who often cramps. Recently the tide has been a muscle fatigue and intensity issue with less merit on the electrolyte component, but should we be ditching electrolytes? Maybe not. We don’t have a complete answer and the complete answer may be that it is a combo of variables. So be mindful of electrolytes.
    • Utilize all the great resources we have these days to make the most of your fueling plan!
    • Individualize!!!


  • Fat oxidation in heat study:

    • They investigated the effect of temperature increase on mitochondrial fatty acid (FA) and carbohydrate oxidation in the slow-oxidative skeletal muscles (soleus) of rats.
    • One condition the muscle was heated to 40 degrees C or 104 degrees F, the other it was closer to normal body temperature.
    • They looked at two markers:
      • 3-HAD, a marker of beta oxidation.
      • Citrate synthase, a marker or oxidative phosphorylation (Kreb’s cycle).
    • What they found:
      • In the heated condition the rate of fat burning was decreased by 32% when compared to the normal body temperature condition. The activity of fat oxidation in the hot muscle was reduced by almost a third!
      • It’s not about fat transport – fat was still accessible, but the mitochondria was having a hard time converting fat to energy (ATP) in the heated condition.
      • So even if an athlete is very fat adapted, they will be less efficient with their fat burning in hot conditions.
    • Typical core temps in hot conditions can be up to or around 40C, as was measured in this study.
    • So what are ways we can deal with this decrease in fatty acid oxidation?
      • More reliance on glucose for fuel.
      • Make the most of BOTH systems you have: carb burning and fat burning!
      • In a hot race like Kona, athletes may need an additional 120 calories of CHO an hour, which is a lot especially if we also want to be a bit higher on sodium intake! So *gut tolerance* will become a limiter here.
      • Adjust your pacing plan knowing you will be less efficient.
    • Are athletes defying this physiological finding by still pushing their fat burning quite far?
    • The reality is that in hot races like Kona everyone is slowing down relative to their potential.
    • Paraphrased quote from Jan Frodeno on Kona – “You’re still going to give up 15-20% to the course.”
    • Other findings:
      • The study showed a decrease utilization of fatty acids means more free circulating fatty acids in the body. So considering liberating free fatty acids vs. taking in exogenous fats, and understanding the mitochondria will be less efficient at utilizing the fats for energy.
      • This study also showed heat was not a factor in increasing ROS, thus this was not a factor in decreasing fat burning.
    • Considerations:
      • Can we boost mitochondrial health as a way to overcome this issue presented in this study?
      • Would the results be different in fat adapted athletes vs. rats?
      • Real world application: Just accept that hot races take their toll and as such make a more conservative pacing plan.

One Comment

  • dunetrolley says:

    During an event, your leg muscles cramp when they're undertrained. If someone tells you to eat a banana, then tell them where they can shove it, because that won't work. I've called this exhaustion cramping, but I see that "localized cramping" might do as well. It means that you didn't train very well for the course, and no amount of fruit or salts is going to help you, because your muscles are cramping from exhaustion and need some rest.

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