“About a quarter-mile from the finish, I started to sprint. I could feel muscle twitches in my quads, and my quads were burning. I had to slow down as I felt the cramp coming on. Then wham! Like a sledgehammer to my leg, the cramp hit and I had to stop and rub it out. What could I have done to prevent that muscle cramp?”
This is a common question among athletes. Muscle cramps are involuntary, intensely painful muscle contractions that nearly every athlete has experienced at some point. Some people experience them often and simply seem to be prone to muscle cramps.
What Can You Do?
Cramps usually hit at the end of intense workouts or during endurance events because fatigued muscles are more likely to cramp. Novice athletes are more likely to have cramps as they fatigue more quickly than seasoned exercisers. If you carefully progress your workouts, you will avoid unnecessary cramps. Heat, and not being used to the heat, also increases the frequency of cramps. When the seasons change and summer arrives, ease into workouts in the heat.
Additionally, carefully plan your fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrate intake to help avoid or delay muscle cramps.
Are You Drinking Enough?
Studies on fluids and cramps have produced mixed results. Some studies find no associations, while other show that consuming fluids and electrolytes to avoid dehydration will prevent, or at least delay, muscle cramps. The benefits of avoiding dehydration are widespread, so even if it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that you won’t cramp, consuming adequate fluids during exercise will still improve performance.
How would dehydration cause muscle cramps? Fluids in the body are either inside the cell or outside of the cell. When we become dehydrated, the fluid outside of the cells decreases. Reductions in fluids cause nerve endings to be squished together, overexcited and spontaneously discharge. That spontaneous discharge is a muscle twitch, which can lead to a muscle cramp. By maintaining proper hydration, you can prevent dramatic shifts in fluids that contribute to abnormal muscle contractions.
To prevent dehydration, start by drinking fluids according to your thirst. Weigh yourself before and immediately after exercise, preferably without clothes. Any change in your weight is a change in fluid balance. Weight loss greater than 2 to 3 percent of your body weight increases your risk for muscle cramps. If drinking based on thirst prevents fluctuations in your weight during exercise, then you can rely on thirst to be your hydration guide. Otherwise, you need a hydration schedule to meet your fluid needs.
The Need for Salt
Fluids aren’t alone in the task of maintaining your body’s fluid balance. Electrolytes control the shift of fluids in and out of cells. The electrolyte of most concern during exercise is sodium. Found as sodium chloride in table salt. We lose more sodium in sweat than the other electrolytes. Both water and sodium are lost in sweat. Replacement of water without sodium can lead to dangerously low blood sodium levels, called hyponatremia. Hyponatremia will also occur if you are sweating a lot and simply losing a lot of sodium in sweat. This is most likely to occur during endurance exercise or with repeated sweating throughout the day. Muscle cramps may occur when the concentration of sodium in the blood decreases; cramps can progress to a serious medical emergency when hyponatremia is not treated.
To prevent hyponatremia and the muscle cramps it may cause, sodium should be consumed with fluids. This is particularly useful for cramp-prone individuals. High sodium sports drinks can delay muscle cramps in those who cramp often. Sodium may be consumed from salty foods (such as pretzels) or through sports products.
Don't Be Afraid of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrate depletion will also lead to muscle cramps. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel used during exercise. There is a finite amount of carbohydrate stored as glycogen in our muscles to provide the energy to exercise. Once that store of glycogen has been exhausted, we are at high risk for muscle cramps. The muscle requires carbohydrate (or energy) to contract; it also needs energy to relax. When there isn’t adequate fuel circulating yet we continue to exercise and contract our muscles, muscle relaxation is impaired, and the cramp occurs.
It takes about 60 to 90 minutes of exercise to deplete glycogen stores. Therefore, it is appropriate to consume carbohydrate during any activity that will last longer than 60 to 90 minutes. Even very intense exercise lasting only 45 minutes may deplete glycogen stores. Be sure to eat a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack prior to endurance or intense exercise. Plus, you will need to consume carbohydrates through food or sports products during longer duration exercise. Consuming carbohydrates appropriately is well-worth it to prevent a muscle cramp.
Follow these five steps to prevent muscle cramps:
- Train appropriately.
- Acclimate yourself to the environment.
- Consume the right amount of fluids for your body to prevent dehydration.
- Choose salty foods or sodium rich sports products before, during and after exercise.
- Prevent carbohydrate depletion by consuming carbohydrates before your workout and during your workout if it is longer than 60 to 90 minutes.
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