While cramps are annoying for most people, the pros tend to get debilitatingly painful spasms in large muscle groups at the worst times -- like, say, the NBA Finals -- with potentially huge consequences. The most frustrating aspect of cramps is that they're pretty difficult to predict and prevent; why do they strike during sleep, or when people are adequately hydrated? Isn't extra potassium supposed to help? And did LeBron James really need to be carried off the court?
Well, thanks to the work of two scientists, you're better off biting into a ghost pepper or chewing on a hunk of wasabi than going for the traditional banana-and-sports-drink approach. And not just because the pain in your mouth will distract from the pain in your leg, although that probably couldn't hurt.
Doctors Rod MacKinnon and Bruce Bean (the former won the Nobel Prize in 2003) discovered that the short bursts of muscle stiffness and pain are more of a nerve issue than a muscular one. If your lazy ass gets them while you're dead asleep, then it's clear they aren't the result of physical exertion, so MacKinnon and Bean theorized that the nervous system could accidentally be firing impulses to your muscles causing them to cramp up. And it's not just a protective pain, like what happens when you burn yourself; we humans just have internal kinks that need to be worked out. Thanks, evolution.
Why do spicy foods prevent cramps?
When you eat something incredibly spicy or pungent, your neurons are too busy firing off to your mouth and esophagus to worry about sending faulty signals to your muscles. After a series of at-home tests where he induced muscle cramps with electricity, the masochistic Dr. MacKinnon consistently found the spicy drinks helped prevent said cramps. After testing the theory on others, he partnered up with a biotech company to make a specialized spicy concoction available to the masses.
The result is the HOTSHOT, an over-the-counter, drinkable supplement athletes can purchase online or in certain stores in Boston, Los Angeles, and Boulder. So far it looks like distance runners have been the quickest to embrace it; HOTSHOT says it has several US runners expected to compete at the Rio Olympics, along with Ironman champion Craig "Crowie" Alexander on board to use the shots.
You could also try to DIY it with your favorite hot sauce, but that's decidedly unscientific. At between $5 and $7 per shot, it seems pricey, but the mix of ginger, cinnamon, and capsicum could be enough to ward off potentially career-ruining cramps before a big game or event. Plus it probably doesn't taste much worse than a shot you'd buy at a bar for at least that much, and it's a hell of a lot better than having your Olympic dreams ruined.
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