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The Science Of Cramping Might Be In Your Head (And Stomach)

Sports drink company HOTSHOT is changing the way we view, treat and even prevent cramping on the run.

Nothing cramps your running style like a … well … a cramp. Rarely are they bad enough that you have to pull out of a race or completely stop a run. And yet cramping on the run never seems mild enough that you can just power through without any interruption.

In a word, cramps are: annoying, vexing, bothersome, loathsome, irritating … OK, that’s five.

But did you know that recovering from cramps, minimizing their damage or even preventing them all together could actually be in your head? Well, sort of. Your digestive tract is involved too.

At least that’s what the folks at HOTSHOT are banking on. The Boston-based company is diving into the neuroscience behind cramping. Gone are the days of the high school gym coach in the undersized shorts with the oversized whistle telling you to just eat more bananas.

Nothing against the good people at Chiquita, but that conventional wisdom is from a bygone era.

The major contributors to cramping are conditioning (or lack thereof), hydration/electrolyte balance and neural stimulation. It’s that last one that HOTSHOT is focusing on.

These days it’s about neuromuscular performance—in other words, how your brain and muscles communicate. In the human mouth, stomach and esophagus there’s something called the Transient Receptor Potential channels (TRP). Cramps are believed to occur when hyperactive motor neurons send repetitive signals to the muscles. The end result is a cramp.

Stay with me …

The folks at HOTSHOT postulate that by activating the TRP channels through its spicy formula, it will send impulses through the spinal cord to inhibit the repetitive signals being sent to the distressed muscle.

In layman’s terms, it’s a liquid shut-off switch.

RELATED: How to Beat Marathon Muscle Cramps

This idea to focus on neuromuscular performance came about when Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Rod MacKinnon, who is also an endurance athlete, was ocean kayaking (like, can’t-see-land-anymore-ocean-kayaking) with Harvard Medical School neurobiologist Bruce Bean. At some point, both started cramping in their forearms, and thus neither could help the other. Fortunately, swells weren’t bad and the sharks weren’t circling and both were able to eventually continue unscathed. But as they sat adrift, it was an ah-ha! moment to tackle the cramping issue from a neuromuscular angle. HOTSHOT is the result.

The proof of concept already exists. And triathlete Tim Reed swears by its results. Reaching the podium was an issue for the Aussie—who categorizes himself as a “twitchy, crampy sort of guy.” He started using HOTSHOT before he became one of their endorsed athletes because he said the results were substantial. In the one year he’s used the product, he’s gone on to win the IRONMAN 70.3 Asia Pacific Championship, IRONMAN Australia and the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship. The company has also paired with IRONMAN and is available on course.

“It’s been a real game changer,” said Reed, who visited the Competitor headquarters in San Diego last week. “I seem to be far more prone to cramping than most people. I had tried everything—from different conditioning of the muscles, maintaining a better electrolyte balance, fascial release and much more. I saw a few minor improvements, but definitely no breakthrough results until HOTSHOT.”

Bob Murray, the co-founder and director of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute from 1985-2008, is also working with the HOTSHOT team and told Competitor that studies to determine HOTSHOT’s ability to increase performance and aid recovery are expected to be completed by the end of the summer. They are also expecting their first patents in the U.S. and Europe to come through in 2018.

It’s also noteworthy that the brand isn’t just for endurance athletes. It’s made its way into the NFL space and is also being used for medicinal purposes for patients with muscle disorders who suffer from cramps.