How to avoid cramps
When muscles cramp during exercise, it can wreck even the best competition or training plans.
If you've never experienced the excruciating and debilitating pain of a muscle spasm, consider yourself lucky! If you do, the good news is that you can avoid cramps.
When a muscle cramp occurs during exercise, it can ruin even the best competition or training plans. And post-workout cramps are no less traumatic, especially when they occur in the middle of the night. It is therefore extremely useful for all athletes to minimize the risk of muscle cramps with a good nutritional strategy.
What are muscle cramps?
A muscle spasm occurs when a muscle suddenly shortens violently and uncontrollably, becoming stuck in painful spasticity. A cramp occurs when a muscle or even some muscle fibers contract involuntarily (ie without you consciously wanting to). If the spasm is severe and persistent, it becomes a cramp. So, a muscle spasm is defined as an involuntary and violent muscle contraction that does not relax. This leads to a visible or palpable tightening of the affected muscle. Muscle spasms can affect any skeletal muscle in the body, but most commonly they occur in muscles or muscle groups that span two joints. In addition to these areas, cramps can also affect the hands, abdominal muscles, muscles around the chest, feet, and toes. Muscle cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to (in severe cases) 15 minutes or more. A muscle spasm in a specific area can also recur several times before finally disappearing. In severe cases, a muscle spasm can even lead to post-spasm muscle soreness, similar to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
Although it's a very common condition that affects almost everyone at some point in life, the exact causes of cramps remain a mystery (making their prevention difficult, as we'll see a little later). What we do know is that spasms occur when the normal mechanisms that control muscle contraction and relaxation are temporarily disrupted. These control mechanisms involve electrical stimulation of muscle fibers (motor unit firing) and subsequent deactivation (relaxation). There are a number of physiological requirements for efficient muscle contraction and relaxation. If any of these conditions are not met, muscle cramps become more likely. These prerequisites include:
- Adequate hydration and an adequate and sufficient level of electrolyte minerals (both together are needed for the ignition and relaxation of the motor units);
- Well-trained muscles that are both supple and adequately conditioned for the exercise at hand (muscle cramps are much more likely to occur in muscles not used to intense exercise);
- Adequate rest and rest; we know that muscles are much more likely to cramp when they are fatigued.
Genetics also play a role (some people are simply more prone to muscle spasms than others) and age (older people's muscles are more prone to spasms than younger people's). Certain diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver are also associated with an increased incidence of muscle spasms, the risk of spasms can also be increased by injuries where certain muscles spasm to protect the injured area. However, most experts agree that "true cramps" - which are the ones we usually associate with vigorous exercise, fatigue, and dehydration/electrolyte imbalances, etc. - are caused by over-arousal.
Who Can Get Muscle Cramps?
Everyone, regardless of age, gender or fitness level. Cramps can occur not only when exercising, but also when sitting, walking, or even while sleeping. Sometimes even the slightest movement that shortens a muscle can trigger a spasm. However, in otherwise healthy people, muscle cramps are most common in endurance athletes, such as marathon runners and triathletes, and in people who engage in strenuous physical activity with no prior experience or basic fitness. In short, the fitter and better trained you are for your competition, the lower the risk of muscle cramps.
Cramps are most likely to occur toward the end of intense or prolonged exertion, or about 4-6 hours later, suggesting that muscular fatigue (particularly unaccustomed fatigue) is an important factor. The obvious conclusion is that the risk of cramps can be significantly reduced with improved fitness and conditioning. An important question, however, is what other strategies can reduce the risk of cramps and, in particular, whether improved diet and hydration can help.
Despite the lack of clear evidence, most scientific authorities agree that any nutritional strategy to prevent cramps should target three key areas:
- Maintaining adequate hydration - because all electrical signaling activity in muscles occurs in an aqueous environment (water) and even small deficiencies in hydration can result in impaired electrical signaling and an increased risk of cramps;
- Adequate intake of electrolyte minerals - sodium and potassium, because they are involved in the transmission of electrical signals to/from muscles, and calcium and magnesium, which are important for muscle fiber contraction and relaxation;
- Replenishing energy in the form of carbohydrates - because even a small drop in stored muscle carbohydrates (glycogen - your body's main fuel for exercise) can lead to increased fatigue, which in turn increases the risk of muscle cramps.
Reduce the risk of muscle cramps
Strategies for stretching and relaxing muscles are proven ways to reduce the risk of cramps and treat cramps when they do occur (more on this later). However, when it comes to improved nutritional strategies, the scientific evidence on what actually reduces the risk of cramps is far from conclusive, largely because there is very little data from published studies. One reason for the lack of data is the unpredictability of muscle spasms. Because it is difficult to determine when a cramp occurs, it is almost impossible to gather a group of athletes to conduct pre, during, and post cramp testing. There are ethical reasons too: muscle spasms are painful and debilitating, and it would be hard to justify studies intentionally inducing severe spasms just to collect data! To add to the confusion, the studies that have been conducted have often produced mixed results.
This nutritional strategy also includes eating right. Of course, staying hydrated during and after exercise is just as important as eating a high-carb diet with plenty of high-carb foods like bread, grains, rice, corn, pasta, potatoes, beans, peas, and lentils, as well as starchy fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, bananas, pears, etc This type of unprocessed diet is high in potassium, and since many foods such as cereal, bread, cheese, as well as beans, tuna, sauces, pickles, etc. contain added salt (sodium), maintaining adequate sodium intake shouldn't be a problem either.
Some of the best sources of calcium include milk, cheese and yogurt, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, and canned fish with bones like sardines. Magnesium is a somewhat forgotten mineral that is often not optimally supplied in the western diet. In addition, research suggests that suboptimal magnesium intake can impair athletic performance in general. Good sources of magnesium include unrefined (non-white) whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, all nuts and seeds (especially sesame), beans, peas, and lentils (especially chickpeas), and all leafy green vegetables.
use sports drinks
The basics of nutrition are important, but depending on the activity and environment, maintaining optimal hydration, electrolyte and muscle glycogen balance may require support in the form of specially formulated sports drinks.
In hot and humid weather, sweat losses can be significant - even if the duration and intensity of exercise is relatively low. In such situations, replacing fluid and electrolytes is paramount. In cooler, less humid conditions and prolonged exercise duration that results in significant muscle glycogen depletion (ie, more than an hour to an hour and a half), carbohydrate replacement becomes important, although fluid and electrolyte replacement is still important. They are two different systems and both must be mastered.
As previously mentioned, there is no guarantee that you will not experience cramps, but by following the fluid and energy exchange guidelines that accompany these products, you can reduce the likelihood of fluid, electrolyte, and carbohydrate deficiencies linked by several scientific institutions to an increased risk of muscle cramps. Researchers have found that a sports drink with 6% carbohydrates and electrolytes during long-duration activity can help delay the onset of muscle cramps, but not prevent them completely. Also, a review article on hydration among elite tennis players playing multiple rounds in hot and humid conditions concluded that fluid, electrolyte and carbohydrate replacement is a valuable nutritional strategy.
Calcium and Magnesium Research
When it comes to controlling muscle contraction and relaxation, calcium and magnesium are two important minerals that work synergistically to maintain normal electrical potentials and coordinate responses to contraction and relaxation in muscles. In the muscle cells, an increased calcium concentration triggers the contraction of the muscle fibers, while an increased intracellular magnesium concentration counteracts this effect and leads to relaxation. Because of their function in muscles, much research has been done on the role of calcium/magnesium in muscle spasms.
Scientists have long known that low magnesium status is associated with an increased incidence of muscle cramps in pregnant women, and that magnesium supplementation helps alleviate this condition. In addition, magnesium supplementation has been shown to help with nighttime muscle cramps (usually in the legs). There is even evidence that suboptimal magnesium intake may be linked to generalized muscle spasms and tension-type headaches.
Despite these findings, evidence that magnesium (or calcium) supplementation can reduce the risk of exercise-related muscle cramps is patchy. Some studies have reported altered levels of magnesium in the blood of people who have exercise-related cramps. Nevertheless, suboptimal magnesium intake is widespread in the western diet and is unfavorable for athletic performance. Given the solid evidence supporting magnesium supplementation as a therapy for other forms of cramps, people prone to cramps should make sure their diets contain adequate magnesium. A dietary supplement may also be worth considering, especially since magnesium supplements are both cheap and non-toxic.
Almost everyone agrees that a regular stretching program that targets muscles prone to cramping can significantly reduce the frequency of exercise-induced muscle cramps and stop cramps once they start. Passive stretches held for 15-30 seconds at a time seem to be effective. The mechanism is unclear, but a regular stretching program is known to lengthen muscle fibers and positively affect spinal nerve reflex activity. Regular massage can also be beneficial as it promotes overall muscle relaxation and helps speed up the breakdown of metabolic waste products from muscle cells.
Summary of the main points
So what is the best overall plan for preventing cramps? There is no easy answer to this question, but by following the recommendations below you can certainly minimize the risk of cramps:
- Gradually build up the training intensity. Remember that unaccustomed fatigue plays a big part in muscle spasms;
- Stretch regularly and especially those muscles that are used in your strenuous workouts;
- Eat a high-carbohydrate diet, drink plenty of fluids, and make sure you eat plenty of foods rich in calcium and magnesium;
- Consume electrolyte drinks during longer workouts and/or recovery;
- Try a massage to relax your muscles, especially after hard workouts.