Lebron haters, you can say whatever you want, but the man is great at basketball. Many would say the best in the league. Many would say one of the greatest ever.
And yet, in one of the most important games of Lebron's life, he had to be helped off of the court because off...severe cramping? He was unable to play the final minutes of Game 1, and his Miami Heat withered and lost to the San Antonio Spurs after he was taken out of the game.
People questioned Lebron's "toughness". Even Gatorade got in on the action. (Lebron is sponsored by Powerade.)
So what happened in Game 1 in San Antonio? The trigger was that the Air Conditioning in the arena was broken and game temperatures went above 90 degrees F. With temperatures that warm, it becomes much harder for the body to maintain a constant temperature and not overheat, especially for athletes who are expending a lot of energy and heating themselves up.
Most major marathons, such as the New York Marathon or Boston Marathon are run in the spring or fall when the temperatures are cool, around 50-60 degrees F.
In hotter conditions, like in San Antonio, not only are athletes expending energy on their game, they are also expending energy on staying cool. This takes the form of, most importantly and obviously, sweating. As water evaporates from your body and skin, it takes heat with it, and cools the body. It's evaporative cooling.
When you sweat, you lose both water and electrolytes (salt). But these electrolytes are really important. You nervous system communicates by tiny electrical signals. This includes the brain and all your nerves, and combined, they give the instructions to tell your body, like your muscles, what to do.
You may have heard somewhere that distilled water does not conduct electricity, but a swimming pool certainly does. This is true. It is the dissolved ions in the water that conduct the electricity. Pure H2O doesn't conduct electricity, but H2O with a bunch of sodium, potassium, and chloride dissolved in it will.
This works exactly the same in your body. If you lose water and electrolytes via your sweat (or urine, or other) and replace them with only water, you will change the balance between these critical nutrients. You will have fewer ions to transmit the electrical signals and it will make it harder for your brain to communicate with your muscles. Hence.... cramping.
Cramping, at its essence, is a breakdown in communication between a muscle and the brain. Sometimes this is caused by an imbalance in electrolytes, which make it harder for the tiny electrical signals to get through. Sodium and chloride are extremely important to the body, and come from common table salt. Potassium, also important, is common in popular natural foods like bananas or coconut water. Magnesium and calcium are also important, and are common in many different vegetables.
Is there a downside to electrolytes? Like we said, your body tries to maintain a balance between electrolytes and water. The scenario described above is a situation in which you were losing electrolytes and water, yet replacing only water, and thus becoming "over saturated" with water. What if there were too many electrolytes, instead? And why do I hear that sodium is unhealthy?
If you have too many electolytes, the water/electrolyte ratio swings the other way. Your body will become thirsty to get you to drink more and restore the ratio. Drinking these extra fluids can cause water-bloating and sometimes an increase in blood pressure, which, if the increase is enough, can eventually cause hypertension. This is why you hear salty foods sometimes demonized, and you read about choosing low sodium options. If you have high blood pressure, sodium is something to monitor.
Electrolyte depletion isn't the only thing that can lead to cramping. Fatugue is another. But if you put the two together? That's a bad combo. Immediately after the game, Lebron was put on an electrolyte IV treatment ahead of Game 2. Of course, we can't help but wonder what would have happened in Game 1 had Lebron taken a Brode or two at halftime.