Most of us have experienced one at some point in our lives and know how annoying they can be! Some of us get them more often than others. To those whom have experienced a muscle cramp, you know how painful and debilitating it can be. When they occur during a race or game you can become sidelined and feel frustrated.
In the recent podcast
“Fast Talk, ep 26: Busting cramping’s electrolyte myth” by VeloNews, muscle cramping myths are debunked and current research on the subject is explored and summarized. Warning, what you may have believed your whole life regarding muscle cramping may be proven otherwise!
What is a muscle cramp?
It is a sudden, painful and involuntary contraction in one or more muscle groups. Muscle cramps are a common occurrence, but in many athletes they can be a race-ending issue. Muscle cramps can have several causes, but even with years of research we still do not have all the answers because researching them has proven somewhat difficult. But one thing is clear: what we have been told for almost a decade regarding why we get muscle cramps may have not have been accurate. I don’t know about you, but in my experiences as an athlete this new information makes much more sense than the commonly taught causes such as dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
What causes a muscle cramp?
So what is causing those pesky muscle cramps if it isn’t from an electrolyte imbalance or dehydration? Well, new research points to an altered neuromuscular control. A muscle is controlled by sensory receptors that communicate to the central nervous system. Muscles have two controllers; the muscle spindle with excitatory effects causing muscle contraction, and the Golgi tendon organ (GTO), which has inhibitory effects causing relaxation of a muscle. For a muscle to properly function there must be a balance between the muscle spindle and GTO.
What research is now pointing to is that muscle fatigue
is a main contributor in developing muscle cramps. Muscle fatigue, or even damage to a muscle, creates an imbalance in the receptors supplying the fatigued muscle, with too much excitation and not enough inhibition (relaxation) happening: AKA a cramp. If you stimulate a muscle that is completely fatigued, like the calves or hamstrings in athletes, the muscle spindles get overly stimulated due to fear of injury causing the muscle to get twitchy (early symptoms) with eventual full painful cramping. Additionally, when a muscle is fatigued the GTO is vastly reduced, therefore the muscle is just not able to relax properly.
So think about it: most people experience muscle cramping at the beginning of a season, during a race they didn’t train well enough for, during their first race (of a series), or during a more intense exercise than they are used to, such as running or biking up hills instead of a flat surface. These examples demonstrate that when a person is not necessarily in the shape they need to be to complete the activity their muscles get fatigued and subsequently cramp. If you are used to training on flat surfaces and you run a race that involves hills, your muscle are not only unaccustomed to running up hills, but you are running at a more intense level because you racing. This leads to muscle fatigue, which can result in muscle cramping.
Is muscle fatigue the only cause of muscle cramping?
No, of course not. Think of muscle cramping like a headache: a headache is a symptom of something problematic underlying in your body. You have to get to the root cause of your headache in order to stop them. Just like a muscle cramp- you find the cause of them and you are more likely to stop them.
Muscles can also cramp from secondary causes, such as taking asthma or Statin medications. These medications have a main side effect of muscle cramping. Other primary factors that may contribute to muscle cramping include: being male, older age, injury, fitness issues (not being fit), intensity issues, and over-training. In one research study, triathletes who tended to cramp more were found to “go harder” with more intensity during the race than other participants.
So how do you prevent muscle cramping?
Listen to your body and try to determine if there are patterns to discover the underlying cause. Also, try to make associations of when they seem to occur. Additionally, the following are strategies to try to prevent or minimize muscle cramps:
1. Minimize muscle fatigue.
AKA GET FITTER. This is the best strategy for preventing muscle cramps. A great type of exercise to implement is plyometric training to help increase your explosiveness, such as box jumps. Also, properly train for your sport or race! I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that someone hasn’t trained for his or her race and are just “winging it”. BAD idea! This is how injuries occur, and also puts you at more risk for developing painful muscle cramping because your muscles are more easily fatigued.
2. Stretch adequately.
Make sure you are holding your stretches for at least 45 seconds, or until you feel the stretched muscle “release”. Stretching helps activate the GTO, which relaxes the muscle. If you are having an active muscle cramp, don’t just push through it! Simply stop what you are doing and stretch the affected muscle, which will activate the GTO and help relax the muscle.
3. Address low back problems.
Spinal stenosis and low back weakness can cause problems in the legs such as cramping, pain, tingling and numbness. By the way, have you seen your chiropractor lately? Chiropractic care is very beneficial in athletes and those increasing their activity levels as it keeps your body balanced and worked at its best, helping to prevent injuries.
4. Drink pickle juice!
Researchers believe that the acetic acid in pickle juice, not the sodium, affects a neurotransmitter and can affect neuromuscular balance. However, be aware that pickle juice is not correcting your problem causing muscle cramps; it is merely helping reduce your acute muscle cramp pain. You do not have a “pickle juice deficiency” causing you to have cramping.
5. Train properly.
Make sure to properly taper before a race, giving your muscles some needed recovery time as you head into race day. Also make sure to incorporate rest and recovery days into your training program. Lastly, train as much as possible for the type and style of race or event, such as running hills if you know the event will have hills, and swimming if the event will have swimming. Training properly helps prevent muscle fatigue and prevents injury.
6. Fuel your body with proper nutrition.
If you are not sure what type and quantity of foods you should be eating, seek the advice of a nutritionist. Think of food as fuel for your body just as gas is fuel for your car. You want to put the proper type of fuel in your car to allow it to run efficiently, just like you want to eat the right type of foods to allow your body to work most efficiently.
7. Strength training.
Lift heavy things. Weak muscles fatigue more quickly, so increasing strength in muscles is a great way to delay fatigue from setting in.
8. Consult with your doctor regarding your medications.
Remember that secondary causes of muscle cramps can be caused from medication side effects, such as asthma or Statin medications. If you are getting frequent muscle cramps and are taking these medications, consult with your doctor to explore your best options.
PREVENT MUSCLE FATIGUE to prevent muscle cramping. There is no replacement for hard work and lots of effort. Sorry folks. Simply popping electrolyte tablets during a race will not replace months of hard training. That being said, there are several other causes of muscle cramps that need to be explored if you are doing the above stated things with no relief, so make sure to see your primary provider.