Why is Lebron the only one cramping?

Posted on June 6, 2014

(Last Updated On: March 28, 2016)

Let’s get right to it. There’s no evidence cramping is caused by dehydration or electrolyte depletion. The Runner’s Body, a book I very much recommend, covers this well. That said, at the time the book was written, 2009, the hydration and electrolyte theories weren’t quite disproven.

In 2010, Matt Fitzgerald, gave a small update to the book in this article.

“..researchers at North Dakota State University used electrical stimulation to induce muscle cramps both before and after subjects cycled indoors in a hot environment until they were 3 percent dehydrated. The objective was simple: To see whether less electrical stimulation was required to induce cramping in the calf muscles when subjects were dehydrated than when they were hydrated.

In fact, there was no difference in the amount of electrical stimulation required to induce cramping before and after dehydrating exercise. This is very good evidence that exercise-induced muscle cramping is caused by a fatigue-related factor rather than by dehydration or electrolyte depletion, as fatigue is always present when cramping occurs “in the field” but was removed from the equation in this study.”

I believe he is referencing this studywhich looks to have a solid corroborated finding in this 2013 study:

“Significant and serious hypohydration with moderate electrolyte losses does not alter cramp susceptibility when fatigue and exercise intensity are controlled. Neuromuscular control may be more important in the onset of muscle cramps than dehydration or electrolyte losses.”

To get people dehydrated this study had them exercise one lower body limb -but not the other- as well as their upper body. This way they could keep one limb unfatigued.

I don’t want to go in to a ton of detail on this. Ross Tucker in particular (coauthor on Runner’s Body) is someone whose opinion I respect. [1] He is very much on board with the fatigue model. We’ll trust his judgment for the rest of this.

Quick recap: The best evidence suggests muscle cramping is caused by reaching a certain fatigue threshold, not dehydration or electrolyte depletion.

When has Lebron been cramping?

Towards the latter part of games.

Seeing Lebron in game one against the Spurs brought me back to game four against the Thunder in 2012.

Lebron Cramping 2012

Notice the “late in the fourth quarter.”

In the regular season in 2012, he cramped against the Celtics towards the end of the third quarter.

And game one against the Spurs was in the fourth quarter as well.

At this point, we have one obvious potential explanation for what we saw in game one against the Spurs. Even late in the third quarter, or maybe it was early in the fourth, you could tell Lebron was wavering. He stopped driving to the basket and was basically just standing and shooting on offense. “Man, he looks tired.”

Then he asked to be taken out, they cut to him on the bench, and I went “Holy shit, he is exhausted right now.”

Credit: nba.si.com

Credit: nba.si.com

He came back in the game, cramped like crazy, and that was that.

I read around a bit on Lebron and his cramping and he mentions fluid intake a lot. Apparently he used to carry around a water jug all day. Doesn’t matter. Water doesn’t undo the above picture. Especially when you’re already drinking a ton of it! In fact, there is a very strong likelihood Lebron is OVER hydrating. If you ain’t thirsty, you don’t need to drink. (Runner’s Body also covers this very well.)

Why is it only Lebron?

“It was right in my wheelhouse,” Ray Allen said.

“I don’t care. I’m from Texas, man. We couldn’t afford air conditioning in high school,” Chris Bosh said.

“It reminded me of the days at Cameron Indoor at Duke before they got AC,” Shane Battier said.

“It felt like I was playing in the European Championship. We never have AC in Europe so it didn’t bother me at all,” Tony Parker said.

Quotes from here.

For the first time I know of, Lebron James looked like a boy amongst men. At halftime Jalen Rose stated “These guys all grew up playing ball outside in the heat. They’re used to these conditions.” Him and Bill Simmons agreed the heat wouldn’t affect the players. Really, it didn’t. It affected one player. Chris Bosh, Tony Parker, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Tim Duncan, all these guys are older than Lebron, some much older, and they were fine. If that one guy affected was anyone but Lebron, the internet wouldn’t have exploded.

Based on pure fatigue, we have two theories to start with:

1) Lebron is out of shape compared to everyone else.

2) Lebron is overtrained compared to everyone else.

Look, I’m not some huge Lebron guy. I pretty much threw my remote when he did this shit after having a miracle happen in the finals last year:

Credit: ncwtv.com

Credit: ncwtv.com

But I know the guy works -at least- pretty hard. He literally rides a bicycle to and from games and practices, for extra conditioning. If nothing else, you know the guy has played a ton of minutes the last few years. Extra games with the playoffs, the Olympics, putting in extra minutes to win games. No doubt, he’s played a lot of basketball.

However, he specifically stated after the ESPYs last year he was going to take some time off to regroup. (Who knows how much time he actually took off.)

If he were truly overtrained, we could expect a decline in performance. But in 2012, when you would suspect him to be most fatigued, he had his best year. After taking some time off in the summer of 2013, he basically followed up with the same performance this year. (Click to enlarge.)

If he were overtrained we would have expected a drop in performance in 2012, not an increase. And if he were out of shape in 2013 from taking time off, we’d also expect a drop in performance. Neither of which happened.

Neither of these theories look good so far. You could say well, it’s the end of the season now. Maybe he fatigues throughout the year. But that Celtics game he cramped in was in Oct. 2012, the beginning of the season. “He’s plays more minutes than everyone else.” More than Durant? Nope. Five guys actually play more than Lebron.

The heat

After the 2012 Finals when he cramped:

“AmericanAirlines Arena was abnormally warm Tuesday night and Wednesday and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the whole team will hydrate more leading into Game 5 because of it.

“We’ll be more proactive now that we know what the environment is like,” Spoelstra said. “We’re from down here so hopefully it’ll be to our advantage.””

From here.

So in 2012 it was unusually hot in the arena, and we all know the Spurs arena was hotter than normal. But we’ve seen it’s not a dehydration thing. So what is it?

As the saying goes, “You get what you train.” There’s something to be said for being used to playing basketball in the heat. Back to those quotes above:

“It was right in my wheelhouse,” Ray Allen said.

“I don’t care. I’m from Texas, man. We couldn’t afford air conditioning in high school,” Chris Bosh said.

“It reminded me of the days at Cameron Indoor at Duke before they got AC,” Shane Battier said.

“It felt like I was playing in the European Championship. We never have AC in Europe so it didn’t bother me at all,” Tony Parker said.

Lebron after the game?

“It was an unusual circumstance; I never played in a building like that,” James said.

And here is where we see how there are always trade offs. Because Lebron was so precocious,

“In a move that stirred local controversy, they chose to attend St. Vincent–St. Mary High School, a largely white private school, instead of their local public school.”


While Battier, Bosh, Allen, Parker, all of the Spurs European players, grew up playing in zero air conditioning, people forget Lebron grew up playing in the comfort of the prestigious private school circuit. [2]

Kwahi Leonard grew up in Riverside, CA, where it is hellish in the summertime. (I live about an hour south of there.) Dwayne Wade grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Chris Anderson grew up in Texas and played in the Chinese Basketball League. Tim Duncan grew up in the Virgin Islands.

This might be a little out there, but I haven’t seen a better theory:

Lebron grew up in a cold weather place to start with. A place that does get hotter summers, but he likely barely every played in hot conditions. Because as soon as it was hot he could practice in his private school’s gym. Sure, he played football, but that’s not the same level of running basketball is. Not even close.

And when it comes to basketball, I doubt Lebron, who was already a celebrity as a teenager, played much in crappy conditions. As he said, “I never played in a building like that.” If nothing else, the guy probably couldn’t play pick up ball outside due to the media and fear of getting hurt by the random dickheads you encounter in pick up ball.

Look at the quotes from some of these guys again. You can see how quickly they were brought back to their teenage years. The heat immediately gave them nostalgia. Their minds haven’t forgotten those days, and to some degree, their bodies haven’t either. Especially in the developmental years, things stick with you.

When you’re not used to the heat, have little to no experience with it, it’s more work for you to play in those conditions. Familiarity breeds less effort, and Lebron doesn’t have the familiarity his contemporaries do. He is likely working harder than just about every other player in something like game one. His privileged high school basketball career is likely the cause of his biggest weakness.

Furthermore, the people around him seem to have no idea what actually causes cramping. They keep giving him more and more “fluids.” Remember how I said he could be overhydrating? If he’s drinking that much water, and likely mixing it with a lot of carbs, he’s making his body heavier, and he’s a big dude to begin with. (Another factor.) Carbohydrates pull water with them. We all know how much one can bloat after a carb binge. The last thing Lebron wants to be doing is making his bodyweight increase. That’s just making it even harder for him to run around. Plus, the guy can drink and eat whenever he needs to. It’s not like NBA games don’t have timeouts. Ingesting all this extra crap before a game is not only superfluous, I strongly bet it’s hindering him.

All in all, you have a guy who has much less experience playing basketball in hot conditions compared to others, a guy who has much more mass than most, plays more minutes than most, actually plays hard on both sides of the floor (I’m looking at you Durant), combined with a preventive program that is not only less than ideal, but which is likely making matters worse. All contributing to him having a harder time when the temperature rises, causing greater levels of fatigue than most, increasing the odds of cramping.

That said, not only am I a Spurs fan, I’m also a public school kid. Screw letting the gym get hot again in game two, I hope they crank the thermostat to 100. Smoke his ass out of there again! [3]

[1] There are some areas of The Runner’s Body  I think are off though. Most notable: the sections on corrective exercise and NSAIDs.

[2] Battier actually went to private school in high school like Lebron. However, considering he’s six years older than Lebron, there’s a decent chance his high school gym didn’t have AC. Regardless, Battier played college ball in North Carolina (hot) without AC, so he got the exposure a bit later on down the line.

[3] If you’re San Antonio, there is no doubt you let AT&T arena be hotter than normal for the rest of the series. Unless Lebron starts practicing in the heat more this offseason, this is something every team in the league should do. Because once he cramps, he’s screwed. Contrary to the asininity out there, and again, I’m no Lebron lover, cramping is not something you can will your way out of. Lebron is not a pussy. He just needs to spend more time in the kitchen…but this is still hysterical:

Credit: TSN.

Credit: TSN.

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Posted in: Miscellaneous, Sports