Exercise related muscle cramps or spasms all refer to the pain that happens when a muscle contracts and doesn’t release. The feeling can present all over your body. Think of how creaky your calves feel towards the end of a half marathon. Or how your legs have no lift in the last miles of a long race.
Exercise-induced muscle cramps usually hit suddenly and seemingly without warning. You may notice twinges in the affected muscle groups before a full-on cramp begins. The pain tends to be sharp, localized and in specific groups of muscles, like the calf or hamstring. Your muscle may also be hard and contracted under the skin.
The outdated theory heard by cramped and contorted runners was to eat salt, have a banana and hydrate. That’s because the long-held belief was that dehydration or low electrolytes were the cause of cramping. However, research done by the South African doctor Martin Schwellnus suggests another possible answer. What Schwellnus found was that there was no electrolyte differences between those who cramped and those who didn’t. Additionally, there were features of cramping—for example, the fact that many people relieve it through stretching—that couldn’t be explained by dehydration.
Schwellnus also hypothesized that cramps might be caused by misfiring of the neural signals that tell your muscles to contract. When fatigued, those signals become hyperactive and the muscle won’t relax.
While salt loss and dehydration can certainly cause problems and generalized cramping throughout the body, it hasn’t been shown to cause specialized exercise-induced cramping, such as one would experience in a calf.
One common factor is muscle fatigue, both from sustained activity and holding one position for an extended period of time. As we move our arms and legs, muscles contract and release to make the movement happen. As muscles lose the ability to contract and fire properly, they start to twinge and cramp.
Cramping tends to occur when runners experience exercise fatigue, push harder than usual or are beyond the scope of their fitness and training. While the exact reason may not be clear, there are some things you can do to lessen the incidence of cramping.
The good news with muscle cramps is that they only last for a couple of minutes. However, those minutes can feel like hours when a finish line is looming ahead. But with a bit of self-care, you’ll be on your way.
Once a cramp strikes, you really can only do one thing: “Take a deep breath, stop, and stretch,” says Chris Harnish, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Virginia Commonwealth University. Static stretching has been shown to stop cramps, because it inhibits muscle contraction. Then, start slow and build your speed up.
“If you back off early enough, you can usually prevent it,” says Dr. Gabe Mirkin. Once a cramp comes on, it can be debilitating and impossible to continue, then “the only choice is to back off.”
When muscle groups start to twinge, targeted massage and stretching may cue engaged muscles to relax and release.
Stop doing whatever exercise or move is causing the cramping, even for a quick break. The pause in activity gives muscles the chance to reset.
Hydrate if you’re thirsty. While dehydration isn’t necessarily the cause of acute cramping, it will help lessen the overall strain on your system.
Drink something acidic or salty, like pickle juice. Current tests are showing that the briny flavor may actually trick your brain into releasing cramping muscles. In studies, the engaged muscles actually release before the sodium has time to enter the blood stream.
Muscle cramps hurt. After experiencing them, you will want to make sure they don’t happen again. Not knowing exactly what causes cramps makes it a challenge to prevent them. However, there are some things you can do to reduce their occurrence.
Train specifically for your race. If your race has a significant amount of uphill or downhill, replicate it in training so your legs and body can adjust to the workload.
Pace yourself. Going out too hard, especially harder than you trained for, will cause your body to fatigue early, putting you at a higher risk for muscle cramps.
“When you are out of shape, and then engage in high intensity, prolonged exercise you would put yourself at risk for developing cramping,” says Schwellnus.
Hydrate and stay on top of electrolytes. While the lack of fluids or electrolytes do not necessarily cause cramps, keeping them in check will help your body feel and function efficiently.
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