We’ve all experienced it before. It can be enough to see you collapsing to the ground in agony. While exercise induced muscle cramps are often short lived and intense, once you understand what’s going on beneath the surface, you can be better equipped to avoid, or limit the duration of a cramp when it does strike. If you lead an active lifestyle, then this topic’s going to hit close to home. You’re about to learn a handful of techniques that are known to reduce cramping, allowing you to better enjoy your workout.
A cramp can occur with no prior warning and is commonly experienced during or after exercise. The muscle groups that are most frequently affected include muscles of the feet, calves, thighs or hamstrings. Rather than one causal link, it is believed that muscle cramps occur as a result of a combination of factors that occur simultaneously.
Why do we cramp?
Believe it or not, the true reason behind muscle cramping still remains a mystery, even to medical professionals. Currently there are multiple theories as to why muscles cramp including:
- You may find that you cramp easily in cold or hot weather, when you’re fasting or have chosen a low carbohydrate diet. Any of these factors can deplete natural levels of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is your ‘energy currency’ and can prevent your muscles from relaxing.
- If you’re not replacing fluids that are lost during exercise, particularly through sweating, you may experience an electrolyte depletion, which in turn sees nerve terminals becoming sensitized. With further exercise, pressure is placed directly on the motor nerve endings leading to cramping of the muscle group.
- An electrolyte imbalance is the most common theory among health professionals and includes loss of magnesium, sodium, potassium or calcium.
- When you overload your muscles, you disrupt many muscle receptors and tendons. One organ called the golgi tendon organ is responsible for sensing changes in muscle tension, and when the muscle is shortened, rather than lengthened, this can lead to cramping.
Because these actions are likely to be playing out interchangeably in your body, there’s no guarantee that one single action will prevent cramping.
For instance, if you were to rehydrate adequately throughout exercise, this doesn’t guarantee you will have a win over cramps. One study found that 69% of athletes who matched their fluid loss, still experienced cramping
Action list for preventing cramp
Now that you’re aware of the common factors that can lead to cramping above, it’s time to do what you can to cover all bases in the prevention of cramping:
- Adequate Hydration: Aim to replace fluids at the same rate in which they are lost through vigorous exercise. If you experience a subtle twitching in any muscle group, this is a sign that you’re past the point of dehydration and should increase your fluid intake before a full cramp sets in.
- Sodium replacement: As coconut water is naturally enriched with sodium, it makes for a great hydration choice, as sodium is just one of the electrolytes lost in sweat. Especially in hot environments, sodium has been shown to reduce cramping.
- Supplementation: Especially important if you are highly active or involved in a lot of strength training. Focus on increasing particular electrolytes lost in sweat, including calcium, magnesium and potassium. You can either take a supplement or preferably find them in particular food groups such as:
-Calcium: Dairy, seafood, lentils and whey protein
-Magnesium: Spinach, whole grains, dark chocolate
-Potassium: Sweet potatoes, banana, winter squash
- Increase your carbohydrate intake post exercise: The energy for muscle contraction is produced by carbohydrate or fatty acid metabolism. Straight after a workout focus on high-glycemic carbs, which spike your insulin levels and deliver the carbs straight to your muscles where needed.
You can even take a pure glucose powder mixed in water, followed by a protein shake. For your post-workout meal, make sure you include somewhere on your plate some slow-releasing complex carbs like sweet potato, brown rice or quinoa.
- Regular stretching: Found to be one of the most effective techniques in immediately relieving the pains of a muscle cramp due to physical exercise. A great habit to get into, as stretching lengthens the muscle fibers and prevents future injury from occurring.
Stretching is both a preventative measure and will also assist at the time when a painful cramp sets in. It’s important to also take care to warm your muscle groups up with light cardio, before diving directly into weight lifting.
Whichever exercise you choose to regularly engage in, it’s not just about the weight you can lift or the distance you can run. Rather, there’s a lot of components to take care of, and body conditioning is just one of them. In preparing your muscles through adequate intake of key electrolytes, stretching and proper hydration, you’re well on the way to making muscle cramps a thing of the past.