Preventing Muscle Cramps During Athletic Participation
Muscle cramps are involuntary, intensely painful muscle contractions that often affect the arms and/or legs of individuals participating in intense workouts or endurance events. The most common muscles involved are the calf muscles, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Many athletes experience muscle cramps at some point in their lives, but some people simply seem to be more prone to muscle cramps.
There are a couple of theories about the causes or triggers of muscle cramping. The two most commonly accepted theories include dehydration/electrolyte imbalances and fatigue/spinal reflex involvement. We know that individuals with fatigued muscles, individuals who increase their workout intensity too fast, and individuals participating in athletics in heat are more likely to experience cramps.
So what can people do to prevent or decrease the occurrence of muscle cramps?
1. Gradually increase training intensity. When starting an exercise regimen, make a plan to gradually progress your workout intensity. Basically, ramp up your workouts. Do not go from the couch to max intensity exercise.
2. Acclimate yourself to the environment. This is important when participating in warm environments. In warm environments try gradually increasing your exercise intensity over the course of several weeks.
3. Consume the right amount of fluids for your body to prevent dehydration. A way to monitor this is to weigh yourself before and after exercise. A loss of greater than 2-3% body weight puts you at risk of dehydration. Make sure to replace this loss with water or non-caffeinated sports drinks. A simple way of determining if you are becoming dehydrated is to check your urine color. If your urine color is not clear and is more of a yellow color, then you could use more fluids. Preventing dehydration takes planning and should include getting adequate fluids over the course of several days before competition of heavy exercise. Avoid energy drinks, especially ones that contain caffeine and can act as a diuretic and lead to dehydration.
4. Choose salty foods or sodium rich sports products before, during and after exercise. Some individuals’ sweat may contain a higher concentration of sodium (the salty/grainy portion of sweat that you can feel). It is important for these individuals to increase their sodium intake. This can be done by supplementing pretzels, Roman noodles, and soup into your diet. Eating nutrient rich foods that include other electrolytes including potassium, calcium, and magnesium may also be beneficial.
5. Consume carbohydrates before your workout and during your workout if it is longer than 60-90 minutes. Carbohydrates provide the energy that muscles need to contract and relax.
Dustin Eslinger, MA, ATC
Certified Athletic Trainer
Physical Therapy Consultants, Inc.