Muscle Cramps: What They Are + How To Prevent Them
Dana Eshelman, MS, RDN, METS I
As you move through the day, your peripheral nervous system triggers motor nerves which stimulate muscles contractions to initiate movement. This is happening all day long through our daily tasks.
Sometimes, the motor nerves are more sensitive and sometimes they misfire which creates a muscle cramp or spasm. They are an unpredictable, painful contraction and/or tightening of your muscles. These may happen when you are training, racing or after exercising. In any scenario, they are unwanted and can be painful.
What causes these contractions?
Overexertion of the muscle is the most-likely culprit of muscle cramps from happening. This is seen when the muscle tries to relax, but is begins to contract more than normal. Thus, the muscle cramp. Other exercise-related causes can be related to electrolyte imbalance and/or dehydration.
You may also have muscle cramps in the evening, which often happens with increasing age. However, these can also be related to the aforementioned reasons, especially in a heavy training block when micronutrient needs increase.
**Stay tuned for micronutrients for athletes this month!
How can you do to prevent these cramps from happening?
You have likely heard of supplementing with salt, using pickle juice or bone broth, and/or eating a banana or orange to keep these cramps at bay. There is a trend here -- hydration, electrolytes (sodium, potassium).
This is a critical component to ensure your body is supplied with the nutrients it needs to do work. When you are dehydrated, your body has to work harder to transport nutrients to working muscles. The easiest, most practical way to monitor your hydration is to look at your urine. You are aiming for a light lemonade color.
If you are training for an hour or longer and/or if it is hot/humid, be sure to consider an electrolyte for your fluid choice.
Sodium and potassium are the main electrolytes you hear about to replenish with exercise. Sodium is the primary electrolyte lost with sweating. Potassium and sodium work together to help the muscles contract and relax.
Magnesium and calcium are other electrolytes that are important to have in balance and can often be blamed for cramping. It is not supported that either of these are related to cramping; however, they are still important to include in your day to day nutrition!
** please be sure to speak with your physician if you have personal or family history of cardiovascular conditions, such as hypertension.
For those of you that exercise on a regular basis, it is A-OK to be liberal with your salt shaker. Especially if you are someone that chooses whole food most of the time. You do not need to increase sodium-rich foods, necessarily, as sodium-rich foods often have a low nutrition profile.
For you ultra-endurance athletes, heavy sweaters, those living in hot/humid climate, experiencing lethargy during sessions, and/or a chronic cramper, you may consider using a salt tablet or electrolyte drink. Be sure consume with adequate fluids to prevent frequent port-a-potty stops.
I also love making an electrolyte drink post-training! I have a couple on my instagram that you may enjoy!
Choose potassium rich foods in your day to day nutrition by including the following foods:
leafy greens (spinach, broccoli, beet greens)
dairy products - milk and yogurt
beans and legumes
potatoes (any variety)
dried fruit (raisins, apricots)
winter squash (acorn, butternut)
If changing your nutrition and hydration technique is not providing relief to your cramping, you may consult a coach, physical therapist and/or trainer to check in on your biomechanics, training, and stretching.
Your body is a complex system intertwined of multiple separate systems. Not one piece operates on its own, so you want to ensure you are doing all that you can to support your body for your BEST performance!